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Confidence crisis: how criticism sticks and praise is forgotten

Last week I received some negative criticism at work. This week I received some positive feedback from the same person. So, one should cancel out the other, right? No. So why is it that bad comments stick with us far longer than nice comments?

The person who criticised me and then later praised me is known for being like two sides of the same coin in personality. If she’s having a bad day, nothing will please her. If she’s having a good day, everything is like water off a duck’s back. Bad ideas or poor performance would be met with a good-humoured ribbing on good days, whereas on an off-day so much as ask her to clarify something and it’s like you’ve asked for the world.

On the whole, she has more good days than bad.

I don’t expect anyone – especially someone in a high-stress profession like she is – to be happy 100% of the time. As someone who has suffered crippling depression, I know only too well that feeling of wanting everyone to just leave you alone sometimes, which is hard if you’re in a ‘people’ job or a manager. The problem with this is not only does it affect the mood of the workplace on the given day, but it also, for people like me, affects confidence.

When I say ‘people like me’, who do I mean? Sensitive – probably overly-so – people who take a lot of pride in doing anything they do well but who have a lack of self-confidence. They may also be introverts, like I am.

I carry around a lot of guilt. I know it’s unhealthy to do so and believe me, I’d love to be rid of it but that’s much easier said than done. I still feel guilty for the time I said ‘boys are silly’ to a kid who was bullying a small child when I was 13 even though he was mean first. I feel guilty for the time I slapped my little sister because she wouldn’t share her dolls with me. I feel guilty for quitting midwifery when there’s a national shortage and everyone tells me what a “wonderful job that must be; so fulfilling”. If I do something morally wrong or against the general consensus of what is ‘good’, I feel as though I have failed.

So when the colleague I mentioned earlier made a snide comment that implied I was throwing my weight around (very hard to do when you’re an introvert in an admin job!), I instantly felt mortified, miserable and paranoid. Maybe she was right – Maybe I did more than they expected (or wanted) based on what my predecessor did? Even though I put extra time in every day and never miss a deadline, maybe I’m lazy and could do more?

The comment took two paths through my brain – a logical one and an illogical one. Sadly, the illogical one is usually the one that wins the race to my eternal memory. Anyone who’s been depressed or involved in healthcare will likely have heard of CBT or ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’. It’s the buzz term in mental health and helps a lot of people cope with depression, anxiety, OCD, etc. Unfortunately, I’ve never found it to work for me. The basic idea is to squash negative thoughts and analyse the situation more objectively rather than subjectively. For example: “She said that because she was having a bad day and misinterpreted what you had written” rather than “She knows you’re a failure and you’re far too full of yourself. You need to hide away and be more humble”. I can think both options but the one that sticks is the latter.

Three days later, after a weekend of me fretting, I received very nice praise from her about the exact same piece I had written (and then re-written following her earlier comment). The word ‘brilliant’ was used to describe my work. She smiled and asked me if I was a frustrated journalist. Another colleague, who is higher up the ladder than me, also complimented the piece and said it was an ‘excellent idea’ and ‘just don’t leave us for a career in journalism!!’. This praise made me smile even though it was exaggerated.

So, back to my earlier question of does one slice of praise cancel out one piece of criticism? It should but, for me, it doesn’t. I’m still hung up on that earlier comment and concerned I may come across as being too big for my boots. I work in a lovely team where I received thanks and praise on a daily basis from colleagues on my level and the next two levels up, and I genuinely look forward to going to work for the first time in many, many years and yet, I won’t ever feel as comfortable as I once did around this one individual for a comment she made in passing whilst in a bad mood.

Self-confidence – or a lack thereof – is a delicate balance: Too much and one is unbearable to be around and someone with too little is tiring to be around. I’m somewhat Jekyll and Hyde – I’m always told I don’t come across as shy or uncertain, which I attribute to my ability to articulate as well as a desire to make others feel comfortable. But this means the internal ‘me’ is forever hidden and perhaps people aren’t aware of how easily that ‘me’ is knocked off balance.

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