No, I Don’t Want To Learn How To Love Criticism, Thanks

30 Sep

Tara Mohr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about women and criticism. The article is called “Learning to Love Criticism,” but it could probably more accurately be titled “Haters Gonna Hate,” because that’s the type of approach that she advocates. She starts out promisingly enough, citing a recent study done on workplace performance reviews that contains the following fascinating (and appalling, and, if you’re a woman, entirely familiar) statistics: “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

Yet in the next paragraph, after admitting that women in the workplace walk an “impossible tightrope” in trying to balance competence and niceness, the best advice she can come up with for women in this situation is little better than “learn to deal.” And while I get that none of us are likely to see a monumental change in how women are treated in our lifetime (though god knows I pray for a bloodless feminist coup every night before I go to sleep), it’s still frustrating and angering to be told that, instead of trying to affect any kind of change, women should just suck it up and learn how to better live in a man’s world. I don’t want to be better at playing by men’s rules; I want to change the rules so that they’re fair for everyone.

Women, apparently, just need to learn to be less sensitive, even when the criticism that they receive is personal and heavily gendered. Mohr writes that, “Many women are aware of this problem. “I know I need a thicker skin, but I have no idea how to get it,” one woman, a consultant to small businesses, said to me.

I’ve been told that I need to “grow a thicker skin” so many times that I’ve lost count; I’m willing to bet that the same is true for many other women. It’s the same stuff we tell little kids who are being teased or made fun of – “just ignore them, and they’ll leave you alone.” Stop getting upset. Stop reacting. Stop being an easy target. It’s the kind of pat advice that sounds helpful in theory, but doesn’t really work in practice. Once anyone – another kid, a coworker, a boss – knows how to push your buttons, they know how to push your buttons and that’s that. Even if you stop reacting to one thing, they’ll figure out another way to get your goat. At least, that’s been my experience.

Not only that, but, after thinking about this pretty long and hard, I’ve realize that I don’t want a thicker skin. It’s not my skin that’s the problem. It’s never been my skin that’s the problem. I don’t want to thicken, solidify or otherwise change my skin.

Instead, I want to figure how to rely on myself, how to rely on my instincts, and how to trust in the fact that I am a smart, capable person who is worthy of respect.

It might sound as if I’m splitting hairs, but I can’t help that “thick skin” and self-esteem are two very different things. The former is all about ignoring or disregarding the negative stuff that people say about you; the latter is feeling solid enough in yourself and your abilities that you don’t need to rely on other people’s feedback, be it positive or negative, in order to figure out how to navigate your life. And maybe I want to have thin skin, if that means an ability to feel things more deeply. Maybe having thin skin has its positive sides, like a heightened ability for compassion and a greater awareness of the impact that I might have on other people. Maybe empathy is one of the results of never having developed a thicker skin.

And you know what? I don’t want to learn to love criticism. If the criticism is valid – if, say, someone is calling me out for doing something hurtful or problematic –  then that criticism should feel uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, the criticism is some kind of personal attack or comes from someone who doesn’t have the same values or beliefs that I do, then why on earth should I love it? I want sound criticism to make me feel bad, and I want to use that bad feeling to force myself to continue to grow and learn. I don’t ever want to be stuck in an unbending, call-out proof shell of haters gonna hate. Because sometimes the haters are right, as much as we might not want to admit it.

I also don’t particularly want to learn how to keep a heartless poker face when dealing with people saying shit that’s cleverly designed to find every chink in my armour. First of all because that’s fucking exhausting and sad-making and doesn’t seem to be very sustainable. Second of all because I’m tired of teaching angry little boys on the internet that the more they throw shit at women, the quieter and more patient those women will become. Silence and acquiescence is what those trolls want – it’s exactly what they’re trying to frighten women into doing. And I’m tired of giving them what they want, even if that does temporarily make my life easier.

At the end of the day, it’s all very well and good to give women tips on how to function within the current framework of society; it’s another thing altogether to assume that this framework will never change. It’s never going to stop being a man’s game if women keep playing by men’s rules, and if our only form of resistance is to learn to live with how things are, well, this revolution isn’t going to get very far.

1940s vintage female telephone operator BELL SYSTEMS advertisement illustration by John Falter

20 Responses to “No, I Don’t Want To Learn How To Love Criticism, Thanks”

  1. Lori Carlson September 30, 2014 at 2:27 am #

    Well said and I completely agree with you. I don’t want thick skin either. I enjoy feeling empathy for others. It is part of my nature. I also don’t want to play by man’s rules; my rules suit me just fine. You’ve done a wonderful job with this piece!

  2. Terri September 30, 2014 at 3:19 am #

    “If the criticism is valid – if, say, someone is calling me out for doing something hurtful or problematic – then that criticism should feel uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, the criticism is some kind of personal attack or comes from someone who doesn’t have the same values or beliefs that I do, then why on earth should I love it? I want sound criticism to make me feel bad, and I want to use that bad feeling to force myself to continue to grow and learn. I don’t ever want to be stuck in an unbending, call-out proof shell of haters gonna hate. Because sometimes the haters are right, as much as we might not want to admit it.” Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. This is what we should be teaching our children, both our daughters and our sons. Thanks for a great post!

  3. MarinaSofia September 30, 2014 at 7:33 am #

    Exactly! It’s that whole ‘lean in’ mentality: how about we make it OK for both men and women to not have to lean in all the time, to lean out and care equally for family and other interests, not just careers? I loved your comment about the thicker skin (and I’m with you on the bloodless feminist coup, except that coups usually don’t have a reputation for ending well… warring factions, disagreements, further coups etc.)

  4. tinyorc September 30, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Yup. Also, “grow a thicker skin” inevitably means “don’t react, don’t complain, stop causing “drama”, sit down, suck it up, be quiet” – especially when directed at women.

    So anecdote:
    Last week, I got into a long debate with a male co-worker about Emma Watson’s UN address. Throughout the discussion, this guy kept telling me I was “too harsh” and also dissecting my reactions to the things he was saying in real-time (“I can see you’re annoyed by this” etc.) Conversely, he also kept telling me that he really admired my “passion” for this subject. This constant scrutiny kept throwing me off my footing – not because I can’t take criticism, but because it was totally irrelevant to the conversation at hand and the points I was making. Like, why are you focused on my facial expression instead of listening to my words? It’s not productive, it’s not pertinent and it’s not moving the debate forward.

    Eventually – after the fourth time he’d taken me to task for my “harshness” – I told him that I am extremely comfortable with other people perceiving me and my views as harsh, and that “harsh” is not, in and of itself, a valid criticism of any of my arguments. That kind of brought him up short for a while.

    Sometimes I wonder if the perception of women as overly-emotional is a confirmation bias thing – men think women are the emotional sex because they’re accustomed to evaluating us on our tone and demeanour instead of the substance of what we’re saying.

    • Uncouth Youth September 30, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

      “Sometimes I wonder if the perception of women as overly-emotional is a confirmation bias thing – men think women are the emotional sex because they’re accustomed to evaluating us on our tone and demeanour instead of the substance of what we’re saying.”

      ^Nailed it. Brilliant.^

      Also, excellent post in general!

  5. Wendy Johnson September 30, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    Women’s empathy is needed in our world for sure. And I have read this study, and others like it, we are expected to overachieve and then accept harsh reviews in the name of doing better. However, I question our ability as women, to work together. Last year I joined an all-female team leading a women’s leadership development program – notice a theme? I have never encountered the kind of sub rosa manipulations, back stabbing, direct harsh criticism, and overall struggle for whose on top in my life. After a lifetime of working in a “man’s world”, I’d rather get a tough review and suck it up than work with women who are far more brutal. I am working to change this within my own organization, and fortunately I am in a position to do so, but we have to look at our own culture of women being women’s own worse enemy. As a boomer, I am looking at the future and hoping for change.

  6. Michelle at The Green Study September 30, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    This message of “learn to love criticism” sounds like a translation of “take responsibility for more of society’s gender ineptitude”. That is to say, instead of taking these reviewers to task for criticizing women based on personality instead of competence, let’s make women bear the burden of the behavior of someone else. How is this message any different from don’t dress a certain way or don’t be so sensitive or don’t forget to smile? And that “lean in” stuff is just another creepy way to create Stepford employees – you know – men, but not.

  7. K. Elizabeth Danahy September 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    “You need thicker skin” – what was said to me when I was being verbally abused.
    Emotions, including hurt feelings, aren’t always a bad thing. They’re instinctive and can tell you a heck of a lot about a situation and yourself.

  8. Karrin September 30, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

    Awesome post! You keep my spirits up.

  9. georgefinnegan October 1, 2014 at 1:32 am #

    I used to be an absolute bastard at work (I had the job of bringing environmental rules into a foundry). There were man-wars going on all the time and I was in the middle of them. Damn near killed me. It wasn’t productive; it wasn’t a model for long-term viability. I had to change how I did things in order to really achieve what I needed to do. After I did a few years of Zen meditation, there are far fewer conflicts. I show appreciation for the people I work with and much more gets done. They actually come to me for advice. In my experience, thick skin didn’t help – it blinded me to a more productive way of doing things. What we need are bosses who don’t support stereotypes and who really want to get the most out of their people by taking advantage of their strengths, rather than trying to change them to fit molds.

  10. Penna Pieri October 1, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    Thanks for this post. I’m always finding myself having to defend why I get heated over some topics. In the middle of which I’m always questioning why the hell have I interrupted my explanation to explain my tone. Sigh!

  11. cartoline October 1, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    Don’t have thick skin myself. I’m 30 and haven’t developed it so far, so I doubt that that will happen any time soon, or ever I guess.:-) It would be easier not to let so many things get to me… but then, it all depends on a day, sometimes I handle it with ease, sometimes I take it more personally and my face shows everything. Can’t hide any emotion. Anyhow, I totally agree when you say that thin/thick skin is not the same as self-esteem. I have so many friends without the ‘thick skin’ and it’s so good to have these people around because they can really feel and emphasize. They don’t fall apart easily; they are fighters but ones with lots of emotions on their hands. Enjoyed reading your thoughts.:)

  12. Andi October 1, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    Hear, Hear! Being a female in a male dominated field I so relate to your post. I say instead of me getting thick skin others should moisturizer and make theirs a bit more pliable. Well said. One day women may work together and make progress, one day. I can dream.

  13. irishup October 2, 2014 at 1:29 am #

    “Instead, I want to figure how to rely on myself, how to rely on my instincts, and how to trust in the fact that I am a smart, capable person who is worthy of respect”

    I love this. It’s made me realize that the advice to suck it up,is functions to achieve a lot of nasty goals. It’s a gaslighting technique, meant to convince you that “this is the treatment you deserve.” It’s meant to groom you to be inured to being exploited and devalued. It is essentially, the technique of an abuser.

  14. uglyprettypeople October 2, 2014 at 4:30 am #

    I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award! (I’m not really sure what it is, but I was nominated and I just followed directions!)
    http://uglyprettypeople.wordpress.com/

  15. Melissa J White October 7, 2014 at 4:27 am #

    You are so right about so many things; I read your posts so fast, I get an ice-cream headache. Thank you, thank you.

  16. Fred_the_Dog October 19, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    My department head has me write my own review. I brag about my successes and disclose my failings; since no one in my department really understands what I do, only I would know, so I am overly honest about my performance, both good and bad.

    When I am done, he reviews it, then discusses it with me. After that, he writes a glowing official report that contains my brags but not my self-criticism. Honestly, it makes it that much easier to improve those parts of my performance that need it.

    ____

    While this likely wouldn’t work for everyone or every job situation, you might find it helpful to write your own job performance review in advance of your official review.

    Include your brags and your failings, and make a plan for improvement. Then, when you have your performance review with your boss, you have some ammunition if you think s/he is being unfair or overlooking your successes. Plus you have thought out some ways in advance to improve your performance which might mitigate criticism by presenting a plan on your own terms. If you know the criticism is fairly deserved, you are less likely to be hurt by it and more likely to begin your improvements even before your review.

  17. Sheila October 29, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    interesting. even just recently I (i’m female) have received criticism that i was too blunt, aggressive, strident. I wonder if i were male if it would still be viewed that way.

  18. foxxyt November 27, 2015 at 7:07 am #

    Reblogged this on vividlyfoxxy.

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