How To Take Criticism When You're A Perfectionist

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Confession time: I am a perfectionist, and I am out of practice at knowing how to take criticism. Yep, accepting criticism is an ability that you learn; if you're part of a structured arrangement where you regularly receive criticisms and see how they improve your work, it becomes a lot easier not to see them as an end-of-the-world, I-am-totally-incompetent threat. But if you drop out of practice, bad things can happen. Things like thinking that receiving a few notes on how to improve a project means that you're hopeless at this particular task and should never have attempted it; resenting and actively avoiding doing the edits; and beating yourself up about why you couldn't get it sparkling and perfect the first time.

Perfectionism is actually viewed in psychology as a manifestation of an anxiety disorder, where controlling everything through excellence becomes a way of keeping chaos at bay. Psychology Today offers a test to help you discover the degree of your perfectionist tendencies if you're uncertain whether it's a part of your personality; but it's generally agreed among experts that it's not a healthy attribute, and that the good it does in pushing you towards your goals is undone by the destructive self-punishment it creates when perfection isn't achieved.

If you're a perfectionist facing down some criticism at work or for a personal project, take a deep breath. You're not terrible at everything and this will not kill you. Here's how to take it.

1. Know That Your Entire Worth Is Not Dependent On This Task

This is not everything. Even if this piece of work were the thing that determined your entire course for the rest of your life, it still wouldn't be a determinant of your worth as a person; you are much more than this one thing that you have done that somebody else is critiquing. There are many parts of value to your existence that do not reside in the success of it, or whether the critic likes it, or what they want to change.

Perfectionists can have an irrational all-or-nothing approach to critical responses, which they often take to mean that they themselves aren't worthy. Recognize that this is irrational, notice it, and consciously do your best to separate the task at hand from your value as a person. Make a list about how awesome you are at other things if necessary.

2. Don't Universalize Or Catastrophize

Perfectionism can spawn a terrible response to criticism, which is to immediately imagine that — because this attempt wasn't accepted wholly on its first go-round — the entire effort is worthless, you suck at it, and it would be to everybody's advantage if you threw in this entire malarkey and ran away to darkest Madagascar. That kind of thinking is called catastrophizing: a response that's entirely out of proportion to the given evidence. The reality is that, as many perfectionists discover to their constant pain, perfection in all things is not realistic. That doesn't mean anybody should stop trying to do things, though.

3. Try To View Achievement As Incremental

There's a reason that many writers, for instance, take comfort in the (terrible) first drafts written by their heroes. Seeing the gradual, decidedly imperfect path that led to a shining, brilliant final piece of work make it clear that instant perfection is a lie. This can apply to any endeavor, not just creative ones. If you're putting effort into something — from a sales pitch at the office to movie suggestions for a night out with friends — it's much healthier to try and position critiques of your ideas as part of the journey towards excellence, even if they feel like complete knock-backs.

One of the biggest challenges of any profession with a creative component is coming to see that the draft process as incremental, creeping towards goodness, rather than a demonstration that you can't do anything right.

4. Make Space For The Praise

There's a famous part in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere assures Julia Roberts that she is a "very bright, very special woman", and she responds, "The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?" The perfectionist brain will respond to this; for it, praise is nothing, an expected and unnoticed aspect, while criticism becomes everything.

This is an unhealthy ratio and diminishes the real balance of any critique; you can't fully understand the message if you don't get what it is that your critiquers like about your work, alongside what they'd like you to change. Catch your brain if you hear it dismissing or diminishing praise (e.g. "they're just doing it to be nice" or "they don't really mean it"); try to sit with every instance of praise you get, and give it at least part of the value you give to the criticism.

5. Recognize Defensiveness And Deflection

The perfectionist response to criticism doesn't end after the first moment of reading or responding; it's also in the process of refinement afterwards. If you find yourself wanting to argue back against the criticisms (even if you think they're valid), angrily making the critic into a monster in your mind, deliberately putting off revising your work because it makes you feel depressed and anxious, or putting the blame for the "bad bits" onto someone or something else, your perfectionism is working to make things difficult. The revision process may well be unpleasant for a perfectionist, but it's also not the big deal that a perfectionist brain will make it out to be.

6. Take Each Critique Point By Point

Breathe. If you're faced with a sheet of red marks, it can make you panic and condemn yourself (this is an example the classic perfection-or-nothing trap, which many of us believe but which is not accurate). But try to push against that urge. Each element doesn't have to add up to a "you are bad at this" whole. Just take it point by point, listening to each criticism individually, instead of trying to weave them into a larger condemnation of you or your work.

And know that you may well be bad at taking criticism right now; but you can get better. Even veterans at the old taking-criticism business find parsing out each concern tricky. But this is a good trick to help defuse the automatic self-censure reaction.

7. Banish The "F" Word

Receiving criticism does not mean that your project is a failure. You are not a failure. Failure needs to be banished from the vocabulary of the perfectionist person; it's an absolute that's often imposed on situations that don't merit such an extreme reaction. Using that "f" word to describe what has happened in a select piece of work or project is not going to be accurate or helpful; if you catch yourself using it, notice that. Don't beat yourself up about it, just gently try to use more positive terms, like "progress."

Phrasing matters, and no, you don't have to be perfect at taking criticism; you can get upset and react poorly if you like. Just try to focus on making a better thing if you can; that's what matters in the end.

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