Absorbing Criticism, or Looking for a Happy Place Between Confidence and Self-Doubt

Many years ago, a navy chief warrant officer said to me, “Walker, all it takes to erase a thousand ‘attaboys’ is one ‘Aw, shit.’” What he was telling me in his gruff, salty way was that no matter how much good someone does, a single poor performance can wipe it all away, at least in the eyes of the entity with the highest stake in the job, that person also known as The Boss.

As you might’ve guessed, at the time of this discussion, my CWO was in the process of pointing out a relevant “Aw, shit” moment to me. Yes, it stuck with me for a while, but I got over it before long. I was nineteen years old, after all, and if I remember correctly, he was criticizing me for failing at a task I didn’t think I was good at doing in the first place, something to do with a diesel engine, probably. No big deal, all things considered.

Fast forward a few years, though, and a new realization hit. What my CWO hadn’t said was that in some special cases, that kind of critical statement can also linger on in the mind of the recipient, hanging around like that old college roommate who came to stay with you last year for “a couple of weeks.” It’s especially bad when you’re criticized for something you believe you’re good at, and you feel your performance has been misunderstood or, even worse, misrepresented.

Not everyone operates this way, though. Interesting studies have been done on something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias that fools people into thinking they’re more competent than they actually are. Also, as the Peter Principle postulates, eventually, every position in an institution will one day be occupied by a magnificently unqualified someone. I don’t know about you, but I may have worked for that organization before.

It makes sense, too. We’ve all seen that guy, the one who shows up late for meetings, disrespects the boss, and drives everyone else nuts with his incompetence. He’s the same dude who gets the sweet promotions, the ones that thrust him into those better-paying jobs he doesn’t seem to know how to do. Or that woman who walks up on stage and belts out a song in a voice that sounds like a clan of banshees being evicted from their bog. What these folks lack in competence they make up for in attitude. Or delusion. Or narcissism. Or all of the above.

So if a positive attitude is everything, how can we self-doubting souls tap into that goldmine? Maybe there’s a synaptic toggle switch somewhere that can make all these mental gymnastics moot. Flip that bad boy and presto, the only things I think about are the compliments. Those few complaints? They’re in the wind, baby. Now, it’s all smooth sailing and radiant grins. Time to write a How-to-Be-Successful book and go on tour.

Okay, none of that is ever going to happen. As I’ve grown older, in fact, I’ve come to believe that this uncertainty is an inevitable way of life for introspective people. From a rational standpoint, of course we understand that not everything we do is going to succeed. Irrationally, however, we focus almost solely on criticism. Is it the way we’re wired? Is it a result of our upbringing? Who can say?

As with most things in life, the solution is finding a way to make this mindset work for ourselves. Platitudes don’t work. Imaginary bootstraps aside, not everyone is built the same way, and no two people have walked the same life path, two facts that folks who toss out these kinds of motivational slogans often miss.

We can’t allow negative comments to lead to paralysis, either, not if we want to ever accomplish anything beyond eating microwave dinners and watching reality television shows. Sometimes, just knowing it will pass can make a world of difference. We may feel bad today, but if we understand that a few days will allow it to fade a bit, this can make it easier to move forward. And if it makes you feel any better, the researchers behind the Dunning-Kruger Effect also found that the most competent folks are usually the ones who constantly doubt their own efficacy.

Through the years, I’ve managed to get better at moving past criticism, and if I can improve, the sky’s the limit. I’m a work in progress, of course, but I can confidently predict that I’ll master the ability on the day it’s no longer relevant to my life. Okay, if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll happen the day before.