Hugging Olive

By Gabrielle. Image snapped by Ben Blair.

How sensitive are you to criticism? I suppose no one loves to receive criticism, but it does seem like some people can handle it better than others. I know I feel my body brace when I’m about to hear or read something about myself that’s critical. And I think the weaker my relationship is with someone, the easier it is for me to hear criticism from them — meaning, a comment from an anonymous stranger on the internet is easier for me to handle than if Ben Blair decided to criticize me.

I was thinking about this as I flew home from Atlanta yesterday. While I was there, Laurie Smithwick was my roommate, and we stayed up late talking, talking, talking (the best part of these types of get togethers!). She told me about a couple, friends of her parents, who are both writers. The wife knew she was super sensitive to criticism of her writing, even construction criticism from her husband — a fellow writer who very much wanted her to succeed.

But she discovered a trick. She found that if her husband prefaced any suggestions or edits or critiques with, “I’m no expert, but…”, that she could receive the words more easily. Of course, as a writer himself, he is an expert, but using the phrase “I’m no expert” really seemed to help.

I thought it was a genius tactic! Simple and worth a try. When I’m feeling especially sensitive, or can see that one of my kids is, I hope I’ll remember to use it (or request it of the person critiquing me).

I’ve also heard sensitivity issues can align with personality test profiles (like Meyers-Briggs). I’ve been tested before, but I never seem to remember the results. Hah!

How about you? Do you know your personality classification? Do you consider yourself sensitive? Do have particularly sensitive children? Would this trick work for anyone in your life? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — Yesterday, Olive embarked on a 2-week trip to France with a group from her school. Very exciting! It happened last minute. Another student dropped out on Thursday, and since Olive’s passport was ready to go, they offered the spot to her. Amazing! I was in Atlanta when this happened, so Ben Blair took care of all the errands and getting her prepped. He’s a champ.

I arrived at the SFO airport on Sunday morning from Atlanta, then Ben and Olive met me there and we got to hang out for a couple of hours before her school group checked in. We had a leisurely breakfast, and I trimmed Olive’s bangs in the airport bathroom. : ) The photo at top is me hugging her goodbye. We miss her like crazy already.

34 thoughts on “Criticism”

  1. Cassandra Elaine

    Okay. I want to me sensitive (ha) here because people are so different in their sensitivity to criticism and for some people rolling with it just comes naturally. BUT. I was never particularly sensitive until I had children. That first baby was born and an unfamiliar wave of “I’m being judged” swept over me that lasted for a long time.

    During my now five years of parenting I’ve given a lot of thought to why. Here’s what I think. I know that for me, personally, a lot of my sensitivity stems from what I consider unhealthy pride. I want people to like me, I want them to see me doing well. The problem is that I’m not always likable, I don’t always do well. That’s okay. It’s okay for people to see that. It’s also genuinely okay for them to say to themselves “gee, I’m glad I don’t have that problem.” Yeah. As I see it I should probably be thinking more about what I can do for those other people, for my kids, for the world; instead of thinking about myself so much. Kind of holier than thou but I truly believe this. I find I’m most sensitive when I’m most focused on myself.

  2. Hi Gabrielle,

    Glad you made it back safely from Atlanta and in time to wish Olive goodbye (what a lucky girl!). Travel is the best everything.

    I wasn’t sure exactly how to contact you regarding this sad news, but really wanted to share in hopes that you may pass along this link to other readers. Just a few weeks ago, our close family friends unexpectedly lost their friend Terry. Terry’s wife is now a single Mother of three small children…her story is one of tremendous courage and if you could share this, it would mean so much. I want his wife to feel an outpouring of love and support during this difficult, tragic time.

    Thank you much!


  3. I can be so so sensitive. And I’ve only realised that recently (I’m in my early twenties). Lately I’ve been discovering things about myself, and being upset that I’m ‘that’ person. The sensitive one. The one who doesn’t like plans to change. The one who starts arguments. I feel so silly- how did I not notice?? I genuinely thought (till a couple of years ago) that I was kind and flexible and pretty fine with criticism. I hate not knowing something, or not realising something, and this is just about the worst to realise! But I’m practising being kind, to myself and others, and putting things in place so that I can go with the flow more easily. And I’m doing better, now that winter is over and the sun is shining.

  4. I was just struck by your statement, “If Ben Blair decided to criticize me…” Not criticize, but _decided_ to criticize. It always IS a decision, isn’t it? I think we tend to forget that, using terms like “gut reaction” or “impulse” when we want to shoot off a critical comment, especially on the internet. And yet, it’s a decision we’re making. So like any good decision, we need to think about the possible consequences. (And this comes from someone who LOVES to give ‘constructive criticism’.) Sometimes your writing just resonates so perfectly, Gabby.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing serious and beautiful musings. Your space on the internet is such a joy to behold.

    1. Yes! This! My mom is super critical and yet always says something like, “I can’t help it!” (My response of, “Yes. Yes you can” is not always met with welcome feelings.)

      Agree with everything you said.

  5. I’m definitely sensitive (and there’s a lot of Myer-Briggs talk in our house, as my husband and I are both INFJs, go figure, as they’re one of the rarest types) both to criticism and also to other people’s strengths and shortcomings. I’ve learned to not give unsolicited advice, which is helpful, but when I am in a situation where criticism is required, (like a writing class), I often tried to buffer the criticism with something that I honestly admired about the work, both at the beginning and end of my statement. I think that helps!

  6. Here is link for a recent radio program with authors of a study and a new book on feedback/criticism that ran in late March: They claim that we should focus instead on how we receive feedback, rather than on how we dole it out. Interesting interview.

    And it’s funny that some people hear “I’m no expert, but” and feel better, while I feel quite the opposite!

  7. My mom and I worked out a trick when I was younger where I would show her something I had written and she would begin any comments by saying either 1) This has potential or 2) I think you need to go a different way. Something about that initial statement would help me to process anything else without freaking out at the constructive.

  8. Danielle Lindberg

    I just love this photo of you and your daughter. There is something so sweet about it…the sun on her face…so cute. Even as a grown woman I still remember how my mom used to smell when I would hug her as a kid. Sweet memories.

  9. Gabrielle: Just a note to thank you for the truly wonderful content that you take time to create for us. Seeing the photo of you and Olive and reading your note about Olive’s trip moved me in just the right way today. Thank you, thank you, and keep up the amazing work. Sending you and yours lots and lots of love.

  10. Echoing the sentiments of others here: I adore the photo you used in this post. Looking at it reminds me of my own hopes for the relationship between myself and my boys as they get older (and also brings to mind some wonderful hugs I got from my mom as I left on my own adventures).

    I always knew I was sensitive when I was younger, but don’t think I recognized a lot of what that meant for my personality until I got older. I don’t mind being the person who cries when watching something sad, touching, or sentimental. I do mind when I realize that I’m also the person whose stomach drops as soon as I feel like someone might not like me, may be judging a choice I’ve made, or have a less-than-stellar opinion of some aspect of myself or my life. These days I’m working on weeding out the opinions that really matter to me, so that I can work on my response to those, while trying my very best to let go of the ones that don’t.

  11. Sara Domguia

    This comes at a perfect time for me. My 12-year old babysitter used my laptop last Saturday, without asking, and left her facebook page open. I stumbled upon it this morning and have been shocked by the language she uses and the sexy shots she’s sharing for the world. I’ve decided to address it with her tonight and really want it to be a positive experience. I think she trusts me and will take what I say positively, if I do it right. Does anyone have suggestions for my specific situation? I’ll be so grateful.

    1. If I were you, I’d say something like this…

      Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something. This morning when I opened my laptop I saw your facebook page, and there were some things that were concerning to me. I care about you and know you are a great kid and are responsible, so I was surprised to see such rash language and sexy pictures. I want you to know that even though a lot of people curse and talk about sex to seem more mature and knowledgeable about the world, talking that way gives the impression to others that you have a limited vocabulary and that you don’t have more worthy interesting topics to discuss. Speaking with power and to persuade doesn’t need harsh language and lude references, but poignant words that pack a punch. The pictures are disconcerting to me because they portray you in a way that you think your main value is in your body and its alluring looks, rather then your mind and actions that contribute to the world. I also want you to know that pictures can spread like wildfire amongst phones and computers, and a private picture or message to just a friend or to facebook can be distributed to people you wouldn’t want to see the picture, and there’s no way of getting it back or deleted once it’s out there. I strongly encourage you to search yourself and think about what your intentions are when you post with crude language or sexy shots and think about who you are trying to impress and ponder whether that person is worth your effort if that’s what impresses them, rather then the great qualities I know you have.

      1. So helpful, Jacki. The speech I’d prepared in my head was far more winding and cerebral than I think would have been helpful for her. I didn’t end up seeing her last night but will talk with her soon. I remember criticism from people outside my family being devastating as a young girl and I’m aware of the great deal of delicacy that is required. Your last sentence seems to convey the right amount of emphasis and sensitivity. Thanks!

  12. Why did I tear up about you trimming Olive’s bangs in the airport bathroom? Thanks so much for sharing the beautiful parts of motherhood!

  13. mom in mendon

    As a writing teacher my job was to critique, but even expecting that of me, no student welcomed a host of corrections. It taxed me, but I tried to find things on every essay to praise. “Clever analogy.” “Excellent vocabulary here.”

    Even before that, while teaching junior high in Los Angeles, we had to evaluate and send home student reports every five weeks. Determined to praise every student in one class, I wrote that the two loud, unruly boys with the messy work habits were “high-spirited.”

  14. When I was a little girl, I was so, so sensitive to criticism. I used to cry at the smallest remark about my work!

    As I grew I learned that often, criticism is not always mean but in many cases can be a good way to become better at whatever I am learning/practicing/etc. (Assuming the person is kind about it. The moment someone uses an unkind or uses a judgmental t0ne, the sensitive INFJ in me wants to tear up like I did when I was a girl!)

    For me, I have found as both the critiqued and the critic that delivering criticism kindly often involves letting the other person work it out with you. Instead of saying, “here’s what you did wrong and you need to fix it now,” it often works better to point them in the right direction. “I noticed this about this, and I think it could be improved. Do you have any ideas?”

  15. Hah – “I’m no expert…” sounds flip to me — a warning that a backhanded compliment or barb is coming. Just like “with all due respect,” an intro that is almost never intended (or said) with respect. Maybe starting like “I’m not sure I know everything about [SUBJECT MATTER], but it makes me think of….[INSERT CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM].” Maybe a “how about” or “what about” or “did you consider an approach like…” can soften the blow. This is important for those who do a lot of editing of the work of others (so the criticism is taken well and suggestions are implemented), or even just for families (avoiding nagging, reinforcing positive behavior).

  16. As much as I long for an honest critique (of my “work” my behavior and even my morality) it is REALLY difficult for me to hear criticism. I also have a difficult time providing criticism (made managing a team challenging at times). I used to employ the “sandwich” approach, which I found effective, and certainly made it easier for me. I would mention something positive, point out something that could be improved, and then close with another compliment. I try to use this method with my children. I don’t know if it really does soften the bad news but it seems kinder to me! That aside, I really wish I could thicken my skin when it comes to taking criticism as I think those who can take it and implement it benefit!

  17. I am a very sensitive person, but through out the years I have learned how to deal with it. As you have said… yes, we are always more sensitive if the criticism comes from the loved one. Usually, a thing that hurts the worst is some old wound buried inside. And the loved ones are the ones who know us the best and yes, it matters how we are perceived by someone we care about.
    The best thing is to give ourselves a break and be compassionate to ourselves and just say it is OK. Only then we can be truly compassionate to the one that criticize us. I am not sure if this makes sense…

  18. As a child I was very sensitive to criticism. I was a brain, but not very intuitive, so often made clumsy social gaffs. And, my family was very quick to point out my social ineptness. My mother had a wonderful way of giving criticism that was so very negative, and I never felt good enough for her. I would often burst into tears if anyone told me that my work was not good enough.

    I was also very competitive (internally), which resulted in unhealthy self-criticism. It was so bad that even after I received my doctorate and graduated at the top of the class, I had nightmares about my degree being taken away because I wasn’t good enough or hadn’t really earned my degree. About 10 years ago I hosted Thanksgiving for my family. My sisters attended with their children and pointed out repeatedly my lack thereof – it stressed me so much that I actually broke into hives!

    At some point during my adulthood – perhaps after I had my first child – I decided I had enough with self-criticism and caring about the criticism of others. I think if my husband ever chose to criticize, it would be for a good reason and I would listen. But, I simply don’t care about others’ opinions nearly as much as I did – thank goodness! I even realize that some of my sister’s (and mother’s) comments reflected more on their choices in life, rather than my own. So, I learned to put those aside and focus on what I think is right and true.

    However, now that my son is 6 years old I see the same sort of personality cropping up. He’s so self-critical and sensitive to comments. And, he’s also socially awkward (like I was). So, I focus on how hard he works and what a good friend he is. I tell him I don’t care what grade he gets as long as he is working hard and doing his best. And, I repeatedly notice when he is kind to his little sister and sensitive to other people’s feelings. I think it’s better that he have a positive image of himself as a person, big brain, awkwardness and all. :)

  19. My husband and I have been writing together and he came up with a post idea that I loved. When I woke up the next morning to read what he’d written, I was utterly crestfallen. It had come out so much, well, meaner than I had thought. I then wrote my side, he felt pretty lousy too.

    “But I wasn’t finished,” he said.

    “But I thought I wrote from the angle you wanted,” I said in reply.

    We talked it through and, in the end, by working together, came away with something that really made sense and helped us move ahead.

  20. I’m uber-sensitive. I tell people I can take the criticism, but it always gets me. The second I hear it, my voice starts to quiver and I start fighting back the tears. I’m an INFP, so go figure. Lately, I’ve gotten better at taking criticism. I just have to remind myself that it’s just another person’s viewpoint, and it can only help me become better.

    P.S I love that you trimmed Olive’s hair in the SFO bathroom!

  21. For me, the shift took place when I changed my outlook on life. I realized that my goal in life is not to feel comfortable (or finished); my goal is to feel challenged. With that paradigm shift, I now welcome critical feedback, because I want to get better. Ok, sometimes I struggle, but I am way better than I used to be. Since I have changed my focus, what I have noticed is how many people are uncomfortable giving honest critical feedback. And sometimes I get frustrated when people won’t tell me what they really think.

    Of course, sometimes people are just plain nasty.

  22. About criticism, I never liked it. What I really appreciated when we lived in the US is that kids are not criticized, it’s always positive (vs France). For adults, it’s different but cultural environment doesn’t make it too harsh…I think it’s really important to see the positive and then suggest some changes or sugar-coat criticism…my husband always says we are not living on “bisounours planet” (the care bears) but I think it’s really important to feel good, encouraged and supported.

    I simply love the picture of you and your daughter hugging :)
    I have a same-age daughter and we do hugs a lot, esp. when she is leaving for long field trips or scout camps. I wish her a great time in France ! Where is she staying ? Paris I guess !! Thanks a lot for sharing, very sweet picture.
    PS Just found your blog on pinterest. Like it very much ;-)

  23. The first night of a writing workshop, our instructor told us, “You are not your writing.” Those words wedged an ability for me to take a small step back from what I do and take one giant step forward to who I am.

  24. I have found that asking questions and showing a genuine interest in the person and his work is the best way to give feedback. When I review writing, for instance, I start by asking, “What’s the assignment?” “Who is reading this?” and further into the process, “This is how this sounds to me, is that what you meant to say?” Very often, I find that people criticize others when they don’t know the whole story. Asking questions, finding out the background, makes the criticism more constructive and easier to take. Also, remembering that we don’t know everything is important when we are tempted to make judgements about other peoples lives.

  25. When I went to grad school, I experienced some of the most grueling criticism I’ve ever experienced (and sometimes the criticism was executed in a way that was just mean). I’ve always been sensitive, so yes, I cried a lot. However, looking back at those years, I realize that those professors gave me a tremendous gift. The best advice I ever received was not to take criticism completely at face value. For example, say you wrote a paper and you received a lot of comments all about one paragraph. Yet the concerns were all different, or maybe even executed poorly. Do you ignore the comments? No. Instead take it as that paragraph isn’t quite “right.” It can be made better. It didn’t jive with several of your readers, even if they couldn’t quite verbalize “why.” Everyone and everything can be made better.

    I also think it’s useful to realize that even really famous people–scientists, writers, etc–have gone through periods with lots of rejection. They persevered. “Thick skin” is important even –or especially– for the most successful among us.

  26. To me, there is so much difference between “criticism” and “speaking the truth in love”. (I like to use the word “feedback”. When I taught school it sounded kinder.) Sometimes these get mixed up, but I don’t usually have trouble telling the difference between feedback that is about ME and how someone wants to help me and feedback that is about THEM, their issues, and their baggage.

    I was single until I was almost 40 and people constantly said, “Aren’t your worried you are going to get married?” or “Aren’t you being too picky?” to which I often replied: “I love my life. Please don’t deflect your insecurities on to me.” SO rude of me – I know! But it was so true.

    Understandably, some very valid feedback I have received is that I need a stronger filter. I often envy those people who think of the comeback much later. I always think of it in the moment and often blurt it out! It’s made me very good at apologizing.

  27. I have a hard time with criticism and I realized it was because I always do my best or try to respond the best I know how. So its like I actually put myself out there and it wasn’t enough. The times I take criticism well are the times I know there was not much effort on my part.

  28. What a sweet photo, with a lot of emotion. I am an INFJ and very sensitive. I think intention is a huge part of criticism. If someone genuinely gives a criticism, it has the potential to be really helpful if the receiver has an open heart and mind. But if someone is mean-spirited or rude, no thank you. I always tell my kids, “if you take your ego out of it, it’s just information.” Information that may help you do whatever you’re doing better or another way. My daughters dance ballet and receive corrections from their teachers often. We view these corrections as helpful to them becoming better dancers. Makes me think of the word discipline and how it has a negative connotation, but translates “to teach”. As a mom, I also want to help my kids fulfill their potential. Realistically, there is criticism. I ask them, as well, how I can be a better mom. Always room to grow and improve everyday. ; )
    Completely different subject! I read and very much enjoyed the books, Global Mom and The Fault in Our Stars per your blog recommendation. Would love to see you start a book group! : )

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