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Why Criticism Hurts

Two females exchanging conversation - one giving feedback
Receiving criticism and negative feedback is never nice

No one ever liked being criticised - even if it's under the umbrella of 'constructive criticism.'

On the whole, humans want to feel good about ourselves and seek love and approval. If we hear or recieve negative feedback about ourselves it can put us in a bad mood, send us into a spiral and we can obsess about it for days. Even if we know that the feedback is false or shared by someone that plays no significant role in our lives.

In my past life, I was constantly under scrutiny as a teacher. As a perfectionist who cared a great deal about my job, my team and children I taught, I would do absolutely everything I could feasibly do to make sure things were as perfect as perfect could go.

But when you work in an environment with others, particularly when children are involved, you can't control everything and at times things wouldn't go to plan. We would get regularly get 'even better if' feedback (teacher talk for the things you did wrong or needed to do better) - most of the time I would kick myself for making the mistake, add it to my bank of 'won't be doing that again' and move on.

However, there were times when certain comments would really stick. And guess what? It was always the feedback that was invalid and actually UNTRUE.

I would stew on it for days, lose sleep and replay the events again and again. I knew I shouldn't let it bother me... but it still did.

These complaints were few and fair between and were actually outweighted by the long list of positive comments and feedback I recieved. So why did that one negative comment - which was actually false - hurt so bad?

Cogs turning in brain above woman's head - anxiety because criticism causes overthinking and overwhelm
Woman overthinking an overwhelmed

The fact is, criticism sticks.

Believe it or not there is a part of our brain that is still the same brain that we had when we were living in caves and running away from Saber Tooth Tigers - the primitive brain. This brain is extremely good at learning from bad experiences but it's not so good at learning from good experiences.

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.

—Rick Hanson

The mention of 'Teflon & Velcro' is referring to the brain's negativity bias - an evolutionary throwback that means our brains are hardwired to remember negative experiences and quickly forget positive experiences. It's one of the reasons why humans have survived this long and you are sitting here now reading this post.

To the brain bad things are usually more potent than good things. During stressful events our fight or flight response is triggered and stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released. This is maintained by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which is involved in regulating hormones.

When you experience something nice, like an acknowledgement, award or compliment, you get a release of oxytocin, which gives you a pleasurable feeling. But your brain doesn’t always store this memory away because it’s considered the 'norm.'

But you hold on to that critical comment, because the brain has learnt to focus on novelty, difference and ‘threat’ for survival reasons.

When we receive negative feedback, our emotional, limbic brain brain is activated and this bypasses our rational thinking brain. In particular there are two regions of the brain that work pretty hard: the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex and they can keep the brain from doing much else. If you are a highly sensitive person then these reactions will be deeply wired into the brain, which is why even when you logically know that the criticism isn't true, it can be difficult to think of much else whilst the emotions are being processed.

In addition, when cortisol is released, it has a direct effect on our brain which makes us experience an actual physical reaction, it sensitises us and emphasises the memory of that event. Cortisol levels rise systemically and remain elevated for several hours compared to oxytocin, which is removed from the blood stream in about five minutes.

So why do I care what others thinks?

Female left out of a crowd - humans are social beings and being left out affects our emotional wellbeing
Feeling left out

As human beings, we rely on the feedback of other people. This is because we have a deep, rooted motivation to preserve our social standing. We wouldn’t want to be ‘that’ person in the tribe who rocks the boat. Our primitive caveman brain is all about survival - so if it gets an inkling that someone isn't happy with you then it 'thinks' your position within the tribe is compromised. It fears that you could be cast out from the group and a lone caveman is unlikely to survive for long.

So what can you do?

Get good sleep! While we sleep, amazing processes get to work, transforming that emotional memory to a narrative memory - one which no longer holds any emotional hold over you. It’s why you don’t hold onto that rude remark that that nasty girl in year 9 said to you or you're not longer shaken by that angry driver who flipped you the finger. Your brain no longer perceives these moments as a threat so it’s filed that memory away.

Be mindful that you're not training your brain to perceive criticism and disapproval that isn't actually meant in that way.

Danger sign above  sneakers - we can cause anxiety because we prime our brain to take criticism personally
Danger! Our brains can look for criticism

If you lack in confidence and you put yourself out there or do something differently, then you may well have primed yourself to look for any signs of disapproval or criticism.

When you are primed to look for something then you’re more likely to find it (consider when you think you’re coming down with something, you might start to perceive every feeling at the start of a headache, a tickly cough or aches and pains).

This is all known as confirmation bias - we fully focus on the things that support what we’re looking for, but ignore the things that don’t match up to it.


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