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  • Writer's pictureAmber

Don't take it personally

'Hey, don't take it personally.'

There's a moment of quiet; I sniff and nod. Of course. It's not personal - how could it be?

The number of times that phrase has been said to me or by me are many. I am a person who feels things quite deeply and quickly too, and while my heart may not be exactly on my sleeve, it's still beating very near the surface.

In the early years of my career I wrestled with this constantly. I used to feel so defeated when I couldn't suppress my upset at being criticised, especially in a work environment. It was bad enough to be on the receiving end of negative comments but to feel my face going red and my eyes welling up in spite of my best efforts to maintain composure? I was humiliated.

The last thing I needed as a young woman in business was for my older, more experienced, largely male colleagues to think I was overly emotional. Isn't that what women are frequently accused of? Not having 'a handle' on it?

Well guess what. I have become much better at 'handling' my emotions. I am far more detached emotionally from my work than I used to be, and by and large that is a good thing. I can receive genuine, valuable feedback, negative or otherwise, in a constructive way, and I can learn from it. I am willing to admit my mistakes, but I also don't assume all mistakes are my fault.

I can now spot a mile off when someone is acting or reacting out of their own frustrations, which may have nothing to do with me or my work whatsoever. I am able to discern the broader complexities of the situation rather than jump to the 'this is my fault and it hurts' default that I seemed to be running in my early twenties.

But I have wondered over the years, why did I take it so personally when my work was criticised or something I had done fell short of what was expected? I knew that I wasn't always going to be perfect, but in some ways I clearly expected myself to be. I also tended to assume, when my work was rejected because the goalposts had been changed, for example, that it was somehow still my fault.

I understood the logical need for feedback to help improve performance - how come my default was to take it personally when it was business?

This is a mystery I am still unwrapping, but I have a few observations.

1. Criticism is a normal and healthy part of life. I'll willingly say it: I'm open to being criticised. But there are good and bad kinds of criticism, and there are right and wrong people and ways to deliver it. Criticism should come from a place of wanting to support improvement; it should not pull someone down.

2. Sometimes, it is personal. 'Don't take it personally' is a great line for someone to come out with after delivering untoward or personal critique. It compounds the sense of hurt or guilt that the recipient may already be feeling, because it turns the blame back on them. 'I don't mean it personally, obviously' it says; 'why would you think that?' It can trap us into thinking we're the problem, when in fact what's been said to us may have been out of line.

3. In a work environment, we don't always have the opportunity to handle criticism in the way that we might with our friends or family. It might be more difficult to create an appropriate scenario in which to discuss or challenge it. And it might be more tempting to resort to badmouthing whoever's criticised us rather than taking it up with them.

I'd say that these days, most of the time, I don't take it personally. On the occasions that I do, sometimes the person giving criticism has it wrong, and I have to push back. But sometimes it's me who's in the wrong, and I have to swallow my pride. Either way I'm building some emotional muscle, and that can't be a bad thing.

That's my two cents on the subject - what are yours?

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