How to Handle Destructive Criticism: The Stop, Look, Listen Method

Now that we’ve talked about how to take constructive criticism, we should probably look at the flipside: the kind of criticism that tears you down instead of builds you up. It can come from a boss, a teacher, a friend, significant other or even yourself. Since the good kind of criticism can sting almost as the badly as the bad kind, telling the difference between the two can be tricky. But destructive criticism often says more about the critique-r than the critique-e. It’s a distinction I had to learn the hard way.

Several years ago I had a toxic boss, only I didn’t know it at the time. Hector, we’ll call him, had a very impressive résumé and a stack of award show books where he’d highlighted each mention of his name in green. I know this because he sent that stack home with me to study. It was clear he saw his arrival in Alabama as some kind of mission trip, Creative Directors without Borders. But I love really creative people, I love tough bosses and I was excited and nervous to work for him. That lasted about two months before I realized something was terribly wrong.

Hector didn’t believe in undershirts or breath mints. He wasn’t much taller than my 5 feet 2 inches but what he lacked in stature he made up for in volume. And when he was hectoring his employees, he only had two settings: shouting and screaming. I was on the business end of many of his tantrums, when he would stamp his tiny feet and tear at his hair like an evil little Rumpelstiltskin. The only way to cope with those outbursts was to fix my face with a neutral expression and say nothing until his rage burned itself out. I’d tried every other tack: logic, groveling, anger. Complaining to HR. Sucking up like a Dyson Elite. The only thing that “worked” was to go dead behind the eyes, wearing a curious little half smile so my resting bitch face wouldn’t be perceived as defiance. Basically I spent six months sporting the pained but pleasant face you wear when you’re hoping your boyfriend didn’t hear what you just did in the bathroom.

BTW, if you’re in a toxic relationship – whether personal or professional – you will know it by these signs: The rules are always changing, so there is never a right answer or behavior. Criticism is personal, not about your work or actions, but about your character. It’s derogatory. And often passive aggressive. The other person is never wrong. You always are. Encounters with that person often leave you depressed, exhausted, anxious and miserable.

I’d like to tell you I finally stood up to Hector. That I engineered some rom-com worthy take-down that left him chastened and reformed. Instead, I collapsed like a dying star. And while I didn’t know it when I was carrying out the contents of my desk in a Banana Republic bag, I later realized that I learned some valuable lessons from the experience.

First, never decorate your office with more things than you could carry out in a Banana Republic bag.

But more importantly, how to Stop, Look and Listen when dealing with destructive criticism.

STOP internalizing the criticism

Hector had plenty to say about my work – mainly that it was sub par. But he didn’t stop there. He once called me stupid. He said I wasn’t a good writer. And instead of calling bullshit on the insults, I quietly conceded the points. I started making stupid mistakes. I could barely write a sentence without second-guessing every word. Instead I should have been more active than reactive – meaning I should have focused on my work or finding a new job instead of wallowing in my hurt feelings and insecurities or how unfair Hector was being.

LOOK at the motives behind the criticism.

Ever heard the expression “consider the source?” It’s a reminder to examine the motivations behind someone’s actions, and in the case of destructive criticism, those motives may have nothing to do with you. Hector often told me that women bring their baggage to work and cannot be trusted. Case in point: A woman who used to work for him accused him of discrimination “just to get a house. The company paid her off and she got her house.” Oh, and I reminded him of his wife, who was “crazy.” See what I mean about destructive criticism saying more about the critique-r than the critique-e? Hector had a problem with women. Simple as that. Oh, and older people too, which he proved by openly mocking a 50-something creative director for overstaying his welcome in our youth-driven industry. (They were the same age.) Tox-ic.

LISTEN to your instincts, not your insecurities.

When the criticism is destructive, your gut – both figuratively and literally – will send you into flight or flight mode. Because I internalized the criticism, I was paralyzed with fear. Not good. If you can’t trust your instincts, get some perspective, advice and maybe just commiseration from someone you trust – a parent, a mentor, your auntie or your therapist. Keep a journal of negative encounters including dates and a summary of everything that’s said. This can give you an overview of the situation to help you see things more clearly. In a professional situation, it might be necessary for conversations with HR.

Hector was fired not long after I was. My former co-workers and I still talk about his reign in the hushed, shaky tones of people who’ve survived a natural disaster. My career has thrived since working for him. And my ability to tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism is better than ever. Other than taking the occasional quiz about toxic bosses on his behalf, I don’t ever give Hector a second thought.

Though I do wonder if all those award books would fit in a Banana Republic bag.

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