July 8, 2020

How Not to Lose Your Shit Over a Negative Comment

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Isn't it strange how one negative comment has the potential to ruin your whole day?

In some cases, your entire week.

In my early days as a freelance content writer, I'd pick up gigs via an online marketplace. It was a quick and easy way to find clients, although the pay wasn't the best. 

At the end of each project I'd rush to read the feedback. Had I done a good enough job? Would I get five gold stars, a glowing review and repeat business? 

For the most part, I did.

One day I'm scrolling through my client review section, lapping up the comments of satisfied buyers. I'm feeling pretty good about myself. 

And then, I stumble upon the second to last entry. I drew a sharp gasp. This comment was the last thing I wanted to see. It read:

She did an OK job, but her writing style isn't professional enough for my audience.

I slumped back in my chair, and sank my head into my hands. In that moment, that single negative comment crushed me. I wasn't a good enough writer. I was an incompetent. A fraudster. An impostor.

The warm glow of the positive reviews I'd read seconds earlier were now meaningless sprinkles of vapour. 

This one comment stuck out like a sore thumb. Potential clients would see it and not pick me for their projects (or so I thought at the time). Needless to say my confidence took a 200-foot dive that day, and didn't resurface for a good few days after that.

I didn't get any further assignments from that client, no surprises there. We weren't a good fit. But why did I get so bent out of shape over her comment? 

And why had I cancelled out the other, more positive reviews I'd received. Ignoring the 99% good, to focus on the 1% bad. That makes no sense. 

Or does it?

My Negativity Bias Was Showing

It lives in all of us.

It's our natural tendency to invest more time, energy and attention to negative life events and circumstances, over positive ones. 

That's to say, psychologically we're wired to focus on negativity. 

I know, as a glass-half-full optimist, this realisation doesn't sit well with me either.

But research shows that humans, even infants as young as 3 months old focus for longer on negative stimuli, than positive.

Our worst case scenarios linger with greater intensity than cheery outcomes, as seen in everyday life. 

Think about it. We dwell on accidents, errors, and financial losses, more than we dwell on the good times. 

We experience the pain of losing a client far longer than the joy of winning a new one. We find it easier to relate to someone having a bad day, than someone having a good day. We learn more from our mistakes, than our successes.

This bias towards negativity is why an author can publish a New York Times bestseller, receive 500+ awesome reviews, yet fixate on the 10 or so reviewers who left negative comments.

And why a talented designer with an outstanding portfolio feels dreadful when a client tells them the final design (the one they've poured hours into), just isn't cutting it.

In both cases, we forget about all the good stuff we've achieved, and focus on the one tiny speck of negativity. 

We're quick to spot the negative, but slow to focus on the good.

Why Do We Lean Towards the Negative?

Let's jump back a few million years or so.

You wake up on a Sunday morning, stretch, then look over at your spear. You won't be needing that this morning, you say to yourself. It looks like it's going to be a great day. So you grab your cloak and off you pop down to the Savannah to rustle up some berries for breakfast. 

On your travels you spot a mountain lion sitting peacefully on top of a rock. The lion looks magnificent, with it's golden shiny fur and regal poise.

You assume the 'friendly' lion has already eaten, and is therefore not a threat. The lion takes one look at you, and sees it's first meal of the day.

Our ancestors lived in savage times. 

They needed to develop wits of steel if they were ever to survive predators with big teeth or poisonous venom. So, 99% of the time, they ran around viewing everything as a potential menace.

Skipping along with rose-tinted glasses in those days could get one's ass killed.

We don't have the same dangers today, obviously, but we've kept the same instincts. We err on the side of negativity because that's what keeps us (read: our egos) safe.

The brighter you shine, the more you'll attract those who want to dim your light. 

You'll draw in supporters by the dozen, and a few haters too.

Criticism can come from either of those camps, but negative feedback isn't always a bad thing. The trick is distinguishing the constructive from the hurtful. 

Is what they're saying for the good, or for the demise? 

Are the words uttered justifiable, or just the loose lipped shenanigans of a little weasel out to cause grief?

Not always easy to tell, as a 'well meaning' comment from someone online can smack of judgement and bad intent. Because...

When we get the sort of comments that form as tight knots in our stomachs, it's hard not to react. In that moment you want to say something bold and vengeful. 

But, if you can, take a pause and a breath. Several deep, long breaths. Responding to haters rarely plays out the way you want it to.

Save yourself the bother, and ask: 

Is this comment worthy of my time and energy?

My Three-Tier System for Assessing Criticism

Not all criticism is created equal, so when deciding what or who I pay attention to, I assess each instance like this:

The first tier: Is the remark coming from someone who wants to see you succeed? Is this person interested in the work you're doing? Do they point out genuine areas for improvement? Can you see how implementing the suggested change will benefit your product/audience/performance?

Worth paying attention to these people. Allow them to school you, as long as what they're suggesting has mass benefit.

The second tier: Is the commenter projecting their mistakes onto you? What part can you claim responsibility for?

In the case of the client who criticised my writing style for not being *ahem* 'professional enough', we both made mistakes.

A mistake on her part: for hiring me based on my profile and writing samples. My conversational tone and style was evident from the get-go. If she'd wanted a grammarian, to write stuffy 'professional sounding' articles void of everyday-speak, I wasn't her person. I'm an everyday-speak type of writer.

A mistake on my part: Not reiterating my reluctance to write stuffy 'professional sounding' articles. Clearly there was a failure in our communication and disconnect of values. I hadn't picked up on it, and for that reason I take full responsibility. 

Lesson learned.

The bottom of the barrel tier: Is the person responding in a way that discredits you or your accomplishments? Does this person always seem to have something or someone to complain about? What have they created and put out into the world lately? Nothing? Oh OK...

Most definitely a hater. Allow them to jog on (British slang for f*ck off).

As Theodore Roosevelt puts it:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

If they're not in the arena with you. Pouring their heart and soul into something they've created, yet criticise you for no reason but to belittle your attempts... witness their assholery, but don't allow it to suck you down to their depth.

No one likes negative feedback, no matter how well-meaning it is. Someone pointing out your flaws is going to cause pain, even if fleeting. 

For a moment you may question what it is you're even trying to do. Is it all worth it? Are you good enough?

And yes, it's tempting to sack off the rest of your day, grab a Ben & Jerry's, and binge-watch old episodes of Orphan Black.

But there's a better way to navigate the negative moments. 

It's called a praise file.

What's a Praise File? And Why Would You Want One?

A praise file is a little burst of positivity on tap. The anti pity party. 

The place where you keep track of the small and big wins you've experienced. Like that time you got a heartfelt thank you from someone. 

Or that day a client recommended you to three of their friends. Or the time you pushed yourself through a challenging goal or project. 

Or that... you get the picture.

Tim Ferris calls this the Jar of Awesome, but the reasoning behind this act of self-praise comes from the psychological concept of savouring.

Savouring is a tool that flips negativity bias on it's head. Instead of wallowing in upset, you wallow in joy, and appreciation for all the good things that happened throughout the day. 

It sounds self-indulgent, and it is. But it's the kind of self-indulgence you need when you're having a crappy moment. 

Give it a try. The next time something good happens write it in a notebook, or on your PC. 

Write about positive exchanges you've had with friends, family or clients; compliments you've received; achievements, whether personal or professional. Write that all down. No matter how insignificant you might think it may be.

Here's an example of what this could look like:

(click the image above or this link to download a blank praise file template) 

There'll always be someone out there who doesn't like your work. That's OK, what you're doing wasn't meant for them. 

Not that knowing that makes things easier. But the options are to (a) allow someone's negative comment to kick the crap out of you for days, or (b) remind yourself that you're awesome. And that someone, somewhere, thinks the same way too.

Build your reserve of the latter, and indulge in self-praise often. 

Consider it a simple act of self-care.

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