Thursday 22 August 2019

Ask Allison: 'I take things too personally at work'

Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships

'In my working life, I am always catastrophising'
'In my working life, I am always catastrophising'

Allison Keating

Q I have a problem dealing with any form of criticism at work.

I don't mean to suggest that I'm bad at my job, or that I make an excessive amount of mistakes. I think I am fairly competent. However, a recent email from my boss where she praised a project I had worked on, but suggested that we might look at doing things differently the next time, had me feeling completely down for an entire weekend. Another time, a colleague was drafted in to work with me on a project I had been working on solely, and I felt this indicated that my manager didn't trust my abilities.

I don't think that the problem is with the job or with the company's management skills, but with me. In my personal life, I am confident, but in my working life, I am always catastrophising; taking everything personally, and trying to read between the lines of emails, looking for criticisms that probably are not even there. How can I separate work and my feelings?

Allison replies: First let's figure out how to practically deconstruct criticism in a way that builds rather than destroys, and learn how to identify and catch nasty internalising that ruined your weekend with the critique on a loud repetitive ruminative loop.

Our 'negativity bias' is an evolutionary instinct to make us (often painfully aware) of any threat to our survival and no, criticism from your boss won't kill you, but it can make you feel threatened 'oh no, this is it, I'm going to get demoted/fired etc.' This is really important to note as you are hardwired to react to any form of threat. The trick is to catch it.

This is not a neuro-science lesson, but use these facts to depersonalise that sense of why you are "always catastrophising; taking everything personally, and trying to read between the lines of emails, looking for criticisms that probably are not even there." You are doing it because your amygdala is in high alert to take notice of 'threats' real and perceived and you are primed to react.

'You are hardwired to react to any form of threat, the trick is to catch it before it spirals'
'You are hardwired to react to any form of threat, the trick is to catch it before it spirals'

Here's what happens to your brain on criticism; the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex kick into gear. What does that mean? Dr Martin Paulus explains that the amygdala identifies very clearly to your emotions 'this is important' and the medial prefrontal cortex regulates how you react to something emotionally charged such as criticism.

The goal is to learn how to claim back the headspace and energy it takes when you are processing how bad the criticism is making you feel and to direct that same energy into new ways of responding.

Some explorative questions for you to answer:

1. Are you a perfectionist?

2. How do you feel about mistakes specifically, for you personally?

3. Are you more generous with others when they make mistakes at work?

4. Do you feel comfortable in your role?

5. Do you experience impostor syndrome

even though you are performing well?

6. Do you prefer to work by yourself or within a team?

7. How do you find delegating?

8. Did something happen at work to knock your confidence?

9. What are the differences between 'you' at home, 'you' with your friends and 'you' at work?

10. Would your colleagues be surprised to know how this affects you?

11. What limiting beliefs do you hold about yourself?

11 ways to challenge criticism:

1. What did they actually say or write? Now write down what you thought they meant.

2. Sit with the gap between these two events.

3. Would these feeling 'facts' stand-up in court? This is merely a tactic to highlight your negative thought reel.

4. Can you separate 'you' from the criticism and reflect on the specific criticism or feedback?

5. Did you have any concerns before you handed the project in? Or was it too much work on your own for the other project.

6. Which part hurts the most and why?

7. Can you change what was suggested to you?

8. What feelings came up for you? Fear, embarrassment, fear of judgment, fear of mistakes?

10. Write them all out.

11. Can you accept yourself as you are right now and then make the suggested changes?

What would it be like to take 'you' out of this equation for a moment? Would you be more tolerant and or accepting if a colleague told you they got an email like this? What would your first words be? Would you try and reassure them, would you be kind and compassionate?

Another immensely important part to dealing with criticism is to identify the intention. Did your boss want to hurt your feelings or were they thinking about the project? What is their feedback style or personality like, are they good with people in general or could they have handled it better? Look for the learnings.

How are you going to build up your self-confidence? How are you going to become more courageous? What is needed is to continue to try, but to allow yourself room to make mistakes, to own them, and then to try again. Taking risks at work is so important.

With criticism, don't burn bridges, use it to build them.

If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at

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