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My vocal teacher has story after story – starting with her own – of how critics can be to a singer’s esteem, what termites are to a wooden home. A single criticism can devour the mind of self-confidence and easy expression. Singers or not, everyone I know has a story of criticisms planted in their minds and hatched there to be replayed over and over again, relentlessly and painfully eroding their courage and resolve. The criticisms run a vast gamut of topics: it’s your weight, hair, math skills, dancing, singing, shooting, your gait, artistry, speaking, managing…?
I offer four strategies to stop criticism from chewing you up:
- Know the human brain fixes upon criticism. Phyllis Watts, a psychologist says that with feedback our mind is part Teflon, part Velcro. Positive criticism hits the brain like food hits Teflon. It glances off. Negative criticism hits the brain like two straps of Velcro. Touched. Snagged. Stuck. We are hard-wired. Watts suggests some ancient humans said, “Ooooh, everyone loves me. Ohhh, life is good. Look at those beautiful puffy clouds, the flowers, all for me…And they got eaten!” They died off! So, we didn’t descend from their stock. We came from the line of humans who magnified risks and obsessed about them – so as not to freeze, starve, or be eaten. It’s normal to pay keen attention to criticisms of our behavior.
- Cognitively choose – as best you can – to right-size that criticism. Gently tell that fearful part of your mind: This is not going to kill me. This is not a fatal flaw. I’m not going to get eaten. Ask yourself, and your inner critic, which after all is trying to protect you, to be proportional: Is this “everyone” saying something bad about me? Is this going to be on the front page of the New York Times? Is this critic saying I’m doing “everything” wrong, or more likely is it one person, talking about one thing, that could be a little better?
- Thank your critic for sharing their perspective. They seem to think you have something to watch out for. Maybe they’re (at least a little) right. Maybe they’re (at least partly) trying to help. You don’t have to “admit” you did something terrible to respect their viewpoint. So thank them. This is a way to practice being big in the human evolutionary jungle, not small. This is neither running away (flight), nor over-reacting with defensiveness (fight). Instead, it’s what a great leader does: hears all points of view (which doesn’t mean she tries to satisfy all views). Practicing thanks for all feedback is a way to rewire our thinking through practice: I am not fearful. I can hear criticism for what it’s worth.
- Let the positives in. Here’s one way to practice, recommended by my former coach Cathy Raines. Objectively journal all positives for a week. Keep a pad near at hand, and write down things you did well. Write down compliments you’re given. Write what helped you grow, rather than shrink. This is not about boasting, or tricking yourself into positive thinking. It’s about being honest and proportional. Because our minds are like Teflon with the positives, writing helps us let them stick – we recall something, savor it by writing, and then at times re-read it. This practice compensates for our tendency to magnify the negative. And, of course, it puts constructive feedback into a richer perspective, so we can
Lead with our best self!