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'Managing Criticism So You Don't Fall Into Imposter Syndrome' from Women's Leadership Author, Speaker and Consultant Selena Rezvani

Managing Criticism So You Don't Fall Into Imposter Syndrome

[ Tuesday, Nov 1, 2011 ]
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Nine months into traveling around the country, promoting the ideas in my book to different audiences of women, I found myself on top of the world the other day.

I had a particularly high-pressure presentation to give, to a large, extremely established crowd.  My points of contact had a very clear picture of what they wanted, and I wanted very much to deliver. I researched details about the client and felt pretty well prepared.

The presentation kicked off and it seemed things were clicking in place. Participants looked awake (!), even curious and engaged. Heads were nodding and people were answering my questions and sharing comments left and right.

The session continued this way. Rare occurrence that it was, when it ended, I really felt I had hit my mark. A line of people came up to talk after the presentation, certainly a positive signal in the speaking world. Those in line offered very kind feedback and comments. Then the very last person said something along the lines of "I enjoyed your talk but this is what I didn't hear, you should think about adding it." I took it all in, left for the airport and basked in a wonderful high.

Waiting to board my plane, I happened to look online and ran in to a negative review of my book.

Voila...the wind in my sails was gone. I steeped myself in the words of that review, marinating in the feedback until I was certain I'd let the world down. To make the snowball bigger, I harkened back to the single comment I'd heard at my presentation noting how next time I should remember to include the stated "critical information."

Feeling like an imposter, I pondered what I'm doing writing books and giving presentations in the first place. Sounds like an exaggeration, but let me personally assure you, it wasn't...

There will be those moments for all of us when we've worked hard to earn a 99% approval rating, and we'll still wonder about that darn 1%, combing it through our minds until we've severely exhausted the initial point made. The analogy that comes to mind is a dog with fleas, you itch and itch, uncomfortable and unable to focus on anything else!

I've been thinking about what helped me turn a corner later that night and wanted to share it here. I hope it helps you de-flea your own critical situation and go from defensive to thoughtful and resilient:

  • Give it Real Consideration: Think about what the criticism is telling you. Ask yourself which part of the criticism, in particular, stings, and be honest with yourself about why. Consider if there's even one tiny shard of truth there that you can ponder, learn from, and incorporate next time.
  • Consider the Source: Once you've established the "what," consider the "who."  Who is the information coming from? Is it an industry peer, a boss, a friend, an enemy, a stranger? Take into account their bent on the world: perhaps the person is often right, particularly skeptical, or reliably pessimistic. Based on their leanings, calibrate how much you internalize the feedback. If you don't know the person, consider that they could be coming from anywhere with their comment. They may or may not be offering you something constructive.
  • Weave in Some Levity: Perhaps because it's the very last thing you want to do, go ahead and have a sense of humor about whatever criticism has been leveled at you. This is not for the sake of laughing off or minimizing the feedback, but it's to give you some balance and perspective. See something funny or lighthearted in the situation and "the sting" can be greatly reduced.
  • Get Some Distance: I'd encourage you to dissociate for a bit in order to see the big picture. Pretend you're a bystander watching the feedback being delivered and take it all in at arm's length. Staying neutral and "third-party" can help you hear the criticism more comfortably and lower your defensiveness. Get some space, sleep on it, and you will find it hasn't fundamentally damaged you.

The toughest part of taking in feedback is staying somewhere in the grey area. Each of us has to balance genuine openness to feedback with backbone and self assurance. For most of us, it's not a question of if you'll hear something that rubs you the wrong way, it's when. Here's to keeping our cool. And please let me know what you've found helpful!