"They Said What About Me?"

I am psychotic.

At least that’s what my friends tell me. The thing is, while I do admit to having my fair share of “idiosyncrasies”, I think my reactions to most things are pretty normal and probably very similar to yours. Take criticism, for example.

Last week, I was sent a copy of the audience evaluations from a conference I recently spoke at. There were four options the attendees had to choose from when filling out their form, and of the 532 who decided to voice their opinion, 97% gave a rating of “excellent”, 2% a rating of “good”, 4 people thought I was “fair” and 2 people marked down “poor.”  OK, so here is where the psychosis comes in. Of the more than 1,100 people who were in that room to hear me speak, 532 took the time to formally critique my performance. Of those reviewers, 99% enjoyed it, 4 others thought “ehh” and 2 hated it.  Now which of those numbers do you think I obsess over?

My friends, and those who see me agonize over the 6 lonely souls who probably wished they had spent the hour sipping margaritas next to the pool instead of wasting their time in a convention center ballroom listening to me, think I’m crazy and wonder why I lack perspective. I have been diagnosed by my amateur therapist friends as possibly being a) a narcissist who is shocked that not everyone would think I was fantastic, b) completely insecure, wishing that everyone would like me, and c) a perfectionist who thinks “If I only fixed that one part of the speech, the results would be different.”  They think I’m out of my mind for worrying about the 1% who didn’t like me, while I think it is perfectly normal and what most of us do. What they don’t know is I have biology and 100,000 years of human evolution supporting my point of view.

For most of our history on this planet, humans have been a fairly vulnerable species. We have never been the biggest, fastest, strongest or most imposing creature and we never had any special attributes that provided us extra protection. We couldn’t fly away, or burrow ourselves into the ground in the face of danger, and we couldn’t spray any poisonous serum into the eyes of our attackers.  All we ever had was each other.  The communities we formed have been our protection and what kept us safe. So being isolated from our human communities has always put us at risk. For most of our existence, it was our physical survival that was in danger when we became separated from the group.  Today, that anxiety is more emotional.

From a psychological standpoint, the reason we all hate criticism is our fear of exclusion or loss of connection with others. We are hard wired to see this as a very bad and very dangerous thing. When our ancient ancestors were isolated or ostracized from their group, the likelihood that they could survive on their own was pretty slim.  So our brains learned to avoid this potential outcome at all costs.  It adopted a painful emotion called loneliness to remind us that this is not a place you want to be. Our brain believes that it is our social connections that keep us alive.

When we receive criticism, our psyche sees it as a threat. It alerts us to the fact that we may be losing our membership within a selected group.  Negative feedback generates feelings of abandonment, exclusion, isolation and fear which is precisely why we all focus so much more attention on it than anything positive said about us.  Positive comments don’t put us at risk.  Negatives ones do.  At least that is what our brains are programmed to believe. It is why worrying about the few negative reviews we receive in the course of our life does not make us narcissistic, insecure, or psychotic.  It just means were human.

So if you are like me and worry about the 1% who aren't you biggest fans, rest assured that you are perfectly normal. And who knows, maybe some of that negative feedback you receive from the people in both your professional and personal lives is actually right. In that case, ignoring it could very well put you at risk.