A few weeks ago, in the company of 5,000 other women, I heard Hillary Clinton offer advice I took to heart. She said, "Take criticism seriously, but not personally". For such a simple sentiment, it struck me as profound. In fact, it's not too much of a stretch to say that those six words knocked our collective socks off. The room grew rather still. I could tell that there were other recovering perfectionists, like myself, in the room for whom that struck home.
Clinton spoke as part of the Unique Lives and Experiences lecture series. It was warm and intimate despite the warehouse-like setting in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
I have personally always found it very hard to take criticism, and I know I'm not alone. In professional contexts I have found myself sitting across from a superior, trying to maintain my composure as I'm delivered a mixed bag of feedback -- some good, some bad.
Instead of receiving the negative feedback for what it really is -- a review of performance and notes for improvement -- I typically hear only the following: You are not good enough. Palms sweaty and heat rising up my neck, I often struggle to keep my cool.
In situations like these, I'm taking the negative feedback personally. Why is this a problem? It's problematic because when you're caught up in your own self-defeating thoughts, you're not able to hear what's actually being said. You're not present to receive the advice that will help you become better. This is at the heart of what Clinton was saying. Criticism -- legitimate criticism, that is, not the mean-spirited, hostile variety -- should be taken seriously, but not personally. That's how you get better.
Recent research published by Stacey Finkelstein at Columbia University and Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago supports what Clinton has gleaned from personal experience. They found that compared to rookies, more advanced and experienced individuals see the value in negative feedback as a tool for developing greater proficiency.
Negative feedback can be harder for rookies to take. Speaking from experience, I would argue that this goes for perfectionists, as well. If there is a personal expectation for perfection, anything less feels like a failure. When this occurs, even the most constructive negative feedback is misconstrued as a personal deficit, and the point is missed entirely.
But let's get out of our heads for a moment and zoom out to reality. We are not expected to be perfect at work or in life. We are expected to do a good job and to improve as we gain more experience. That's where feedback -- good and bad -- comes in. It's a tool for growth. So the next time you receive some negative feedback, join me in taking a deep breath, tuning in, and learning how to be even better.
Originally published at Aspire.