It is common to see a patient in therapy who is struggling with negative comments from a boss, coworker, or partner, and I’m often asked for the appropriate response.
In one situation, a husband may tell his wife, “I’m working out today, don’t you think you should too?” In another situation, a boss may tell an employee, “You should smile more. The world isn’t ending.”
It can be difficult to respond to those kinds of statements. Simply put, they rarely allow for a winning answer.
I found myself in a similar situation many years ago, when I was having dinner with someone we’ll call “Joe.” As we were talking, the conversation turned to my job and the joy I get when I help different people understand and overcome their various struggles.
After I was finished explaining mental health therapy to Joe, he looked at me and said, “That’s good that you don’t care that you will never make any money.”
I was upset that Joe’s only take away from the conversation was that I’m okay with not making a lot of money. Before I knew it, I became defensive and said, “Well, I can make money, but did you hear how I have people come to me for help?”
Joe replied, “Oh yeah, I wasn’t saying that. I just meant you will never be rich doing this. Don’t be sensitive.”
I, like most people would, answered a negative statement with a negative response.
Feedback and criticism are often used together, and the purpose of those conversations becomes both confusing and unhelpful.
Many supervisors provide “feedback” to their employees as a way to change someone’s behavior, but the problem is that the receiver of the advice is rarely receptive, and the behavior does not change. Feedback should be given when a behavior can be changed, such as showing up on time for work.
Criticism, on the other hand, is often expressed on the things we cannot change, such as when someone says, “You should smile more.” You cannot change your personality or facial expressions as quickly as others believe you should.
Before responding to criticism, we should ask ourselves a few questions: What are the intentions of what is being said? Is this information useful? Can it help me become a better person?
Going back to my story, I should have ignored the comment about money and realized the person I was speaking to was more interested in his own life goals, not how much money I make. I should have known that this person was projecting onto me something that he was struggling with.
When someone says something to you that seems critical, simply sift through the unhelpful comments and focus on the things that are within your control. A statement like, “You should smile more,” can then be interpreted as, “I can try to be more aware of how serious I may look when I’m thinking about something. I can make sure I am more engaged with the person in that moment.”
Feedback and criticism aren’t necessarily bad things — but our responses to them can make all the difference in the world.
Ben Larisey is a clinical social worker at Southeast Community Health Systems who has worked in the field for seven years. He also runs a private practice in the evenings and on weekends, Larisey Mental Health, which provides individual, family, child and trauma therapy to those in the Baton Rouge and surrounding areas. For anyone who has specific questions they’d like Ben to answer in a future column, email them to email@example.com.