The trouble with feedback: – Responding well to criticism

I have a Masters degree in Fine Art. This means I spent a lot of time having fellow students and lecturers telling me why they did – or didn’t – like my work. In six years of study I never got used to this. Criticism is a difficult thing for many of us to handle. It doesn’t even have to be negative criticism – even constructive feedback can result in anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case.

Autistic people often receive a lot of very negative, blaming criticism and judgement. Even small children can experience this. It can come from variety of places – schoolyard bullies, family and other adults focussing on our apparent failings, even when they are not failings at all but just something which looks  bit different like stimming. In fact, the undercurrent which so many people have in their thinking which views autistic people as broken or deficient can result in a lot of very unpleasant criticism as we grow up and throughout our lives. Sometimes criticism is given in front of an audience (such as in the classroom). This can compound the stress significantly! We may become incredibly keen to please others and win approval almost as if to address the pervasive criticism we may have had for years.  Any kind of negative response may mentally catapult us back to times when we received harsh criticism simply for being ourselves.

We are often criticised for being sensitive about criticism!  

We can become very anxious in situations where we know we will receive criticism – performance discussions in the workplace are a key example of this. Our sense off objectivity about our performance can be limited, especially if a manger doesn’t give much feedback. While many neurotypical employees interpret no feedback as being a good thing, autistic people may benefit from a bit more reassurance along the way. If this hasn’t happened, the performance  discussion can be terrifying. It can also be terrifying foR some people who have received positive feedback from their manager.  Being in a situation  where the entire purpose is to to provide criticism of one sort or another can pose a huge challenge for autistic people. 

Facing criticism is one of those perfect storm of anxiety situations as fast as I see it. It can bring back sometimes traumatic memories, it is anxiety-provoking and can lead to catastrophising. it is made far more stressful by things like perfectionism and fear of failure and it can heighten sensitivities around appearing ‘different’ and being judged and criticised for that. Often a huge worry around receiving criticism is  how the person receiving it will respond. Will it trigger a person  to say or do something they regret? If it is at work, how will the relationship with their manager be if the discussion goes badly? I always get transported back to art school and being up the front of a lecture theatre full of my peers and teachers and being hounded about my latest project – which I was presenting. iZ received quite harsh criticism. I was absolutely devastated. Like many others, I do not experience criticism as being about something external to me asn feel like others are attacking me. I felt like everyone in that room hated me and thought I was a complete loser. I now know that wasn’t the case but it was a pretty unpleasant experience and one which has followed me for the past 14 years since it happened!

Some things to consider around this include:

  • Constructive feedback can actually be a really useful thing. It can help you to improve your understanding or performance and to change your thinking about a topic in a positive way.
  • The moment when constructive criticism occurs tends to feel very  raw and unpleasant for everyone and particularly autistic people. But in time it often sort of mellows out to a point where it can be useful.
  • There is vast difference between constructive criticism and negative or attacking criticism. It can be difficult to tell one from the other. As a rule of thumb, constructive  feedback is not personal. It is about what you do not who you are. This is a good way of ascertaining if it is helpful or not helpful feedback. Unhelpful feedback is usually personal critical of you and your character and other attributes (e.g. appearance etc).
  • To help determine what is constructive feedback and what isn’t. I tend to go off the relationship wth the person giving the feedback. If I experience them as aggressive or a bully I will be wary of their comments but if it is someone that I have a respectful relationship with I will be more open to criticism from them. It can help to view constructive criticism as a gift, helping you to do your work (or whatever else)  better.
  • Because anxiety around receiving criticism is anxiety, things which helps address your anxiety and self-doubt are likely to help you manage receiving criticism better. As with most things I find sense of pride in who you are can help address feelings of inadequacy which can drive issues around receiving criticism.
  • The response you have to constructive criticism and to attacking, negative  criticism should be very different. Even of constructive  criticism is hard to take on board, if it comes from a place of support and wishing to engage you to do things differently, that is something to be positive about,. I often thank people who have stretched me through their constructive feedback. If someone is attacking you then you would be better off defending and protecting  yourself as much as possible and if you need to set boundaries with the person doing attacking then work to do that.
  • Many people – autistic ands allistic – have similar concerns around experiencing  criticism. You are far from alone and it is completely understandable to feel that way. 

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5 thoughts on “The trouble with feedback: – Responding well to criticism

  1. Wonderful article! I’ve often said that my twins seem emotionally fragile. My husband and I don’t correct them the same way we corrected our older boys at that this age.

    Of course they’re not even 5 years old, but it takes a lot of trust and positive feedback to give them any negative feedback. Thank you for explaining the art of feedback so eloquently. It’s very helpful.

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  2. The damage criticism can do…. I was torn apart by an art teacher at school who thought it a good idea to critique all I had done (and not one positive thing said) and it destroyed my confidence and ability. 25+ years later and I am still struggling to pick up a paintbrush because in my head that teacher is telling me I’m not good and never will be. How many have had a love for something ruined by someones comments. I don’t know if autistic people take criticism harder than non-autistic people, all I know is what it has done to me, not just the example above but countless other times.

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  3. That is so awful. The influence an adult can have over a child’s sense fo self-worth is immense and that teacher just abused their position. I do find tat autistic people can be a lot more susceptible to harsh criticism, possibly due to us feeling – and often being – socially isolated so it has a greater impact on our confidence.

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