Considering Criticism, Impostor Syndrome, and Married-People Ethics

by Megan Dietz

1. I’m typically a pretty sane person myself, but I have one area in which I am a little crazy. I’m TERRIBLE at taking criticism, even constructive criticism, even constructive criticism I actually agree with. This has always been something I’ve struggled with, but now that I’ve been in the working world a few years, I’ve realized that this inability to sanely process constructive criticism could really hold me back.

To be clear, I outwardly respond well. I don’t argue, I ask for suggestions or advice as appropriate, and then I try my hardest to make changes (with varying degrees of success). But on the inside, I’m totally enraged, and the rest of the day is usually a wash. My internal reaction is often defensive — Why didn’t you tell me up front this was a priority to you? (Sane answer: Maybe they didn’t realize it was until now.) How am I supposed to do this to your standards when I was never trained in it? (Sane answer: Water under the bridge; request training now.)

How can I be more sane about this? Both for my career’s sake, since 99% of the criticism is constructive, well-intended, and potentially helpful, but also for my own sake, because talking myself down is exhausting.

It sounds like you’re handling the criticism you get pretty well, at least in external reality. You just need a little help figuring out a way to think about it that doesn’t make you want to die/turn green and burst out of your cute little work blazer, right?

Let me start by asking — have you ever had a job where you worked on a project all by yourself and delivered your deliverables and never heard a word back from anyone about your work? It’s horrible, like floating utterly alone in the blackness of space, sending out signals and having no idea whether or where they’re landing. So much worse than any but the most terrible team dynamics.

So let us be thankful at least that you are not unmoored in the solar system that is your workplace. You are doing good work and hearing back from people and adjusting your course, all of which is how it should be. You’re getting feedback, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s negative or positive or constructive — it’s actually all fantastic, because it increases the ass you are able to kick and therefore the impact and money you’re likely to make at work.

In fact, your colleagues’ feedback can teach you more awesomely useful information about your job than any other resource. Maybe recognizing that will help you be less bothered and eventually even grateful. Think back — has your boss ever saved you by discovering a mistake, or made you look better by refining your work? I bet she has, and I bet you’ve done the same for her, too. Honest feedback has real value; it’s the thing that makes a team a team.

It sounds like you are very interested in doing an excellent job, so you get annoyed when people waste your time and effort by not knowing what they want. And I agree — it is annoying and frustrating, and it’s no wonder people do horrible things to office equipment. But it’s also just part of the process of doing stuff. Action causes friction, and friction is uncomfortable.

From what I’ve seen in my career of almost 20 (gasp!) years, the people who get great work done are the ones who’ve learned to bear the discomfort of creation — to listen to all the criticism, integrate the valid bits, and not take any of it personally. Because, unless you work with true jerkburgers, it isn’t about you; it’s about the work. A simple byproduct of making things happen.

And remember that every single person whose job involves an element of creativity spends a good chunk of time making stuff so that other people can say, “That’s not what I want.” Most humans are far better at criticizing an existing piece of work than visualizing what they want from scratch. So that particular stressor is probably never going away.

The Jedi-level trick is to get through the iterations of “not this” more quickly, so you waste less time and feel more competent. Have you tried seeking feedback earlier in the process? Maybe do the first 10 or 20% of a project, and then ask for input from key people to make sure you’re on the right track. If you’re not, you can find that out and fix it without having wasted a bunch of time. If you are, you can fly through the rest of it.

Also, analyze which colleagues tend to offer which kind of input, and think through your project from their point of view. What kinds of questions are they likely to ask and what kinds of things are they likely to want? See if you can’t address their criticisms in your work before they even get the chance to make them. It is oddly satisfying.

One last idea — a stressful situation that you’re prepared for can feel a little less stressful. So maybe try setting up a formal time to receive feedback. Like, if you have a big task, be proactive and set up the post-mortem meeting to discuss how it went. Then it becomes the team going over things together rather than you getting schooled, and you can be ready for it instead of feeling pounced upon.

So … keep trying new tactics for making the process a little less painful, but also expect a certain amount of pain. Talking yourself down will get easier over time. Good luck!

2. I’m a 29-year-old Ph.D. student finishing up my degree in a social science field. A few years ago, I audited a social psychology class on a lark, and the professor explained something she called the Impostor Effect: the feeling that you’ve tricked everyone else into thinking you’re smarter than you are, and you don’t really belong there. She said that a lot of Ph.D. students feel this at first, but then gradually realize they do in fact belong.

I’ve never gotten over this. I have made it through a program that’s notorious for failing people out, and people seem to like my research, and from the outside it looks like everything is going pretty well. But I still feel like I’ve only tricked people into thinking that I’m a lot smarter than I am, and at a certain point everyone is going to get wise to me. As a result, I’m reluctant to ask for help on my work or ask people to explain themselves, because I don’t want to “tip my hand” as a secretly not-so-smart person. But then, not being able to ask clarifying questions only worsens the feeling that I’m not smart enough to be here. And whenever I experience setbacks with my research (which I acknowledge are inevitable for everyone), my first thought is always “This is it. The gig is up, and people are finally going to realize that you’re not nearly as smart as they thought.” I am in all other respects a laid-back and positive person, except when it comes to my work.

Other than the crippling self-doubt, I really, really love what I do. So what do you think? Should I risk letting people know I’m not as smart as they thought (and potentially lose the ability to get a job doing what I really want to do)? Or do I keep it on lock, and try to convince myself that everyone else is putting up a front of knowing everything and that I’m not any more of an impostor than anybody else?

I don’t think you have to do either of those! You just need to understand: What makes you feel like an impostor is that you are far enough into your field to see how deep and wide it is, and also to see how close you still are to the beginner end.

And you must also understand that everyone feels like this when they are learning — however far you get down the field, there will still always be a huge, distant horizon in front of you, and what feels like a shockingly small amount of knowledge and experience behind.

So this feeling that you have, why don’t you stop calling it “feeling like an impostor” and instead call it “the humble feeling that goes along with realizing that I will always be kind of a dummy.” Because that’s what it is.

There may be some small element of pretending to be smarter than you really are from time to time, but wouldn’t you have to be pretty smart at least to trick everyone into thinking you’re super smart? And maybe they don’t think you’re that smart anyway, or maybe you’re way smarter? And have you noticed how your brain liquifies and leaks out your ears when you think about this? There’s no way to know any of it!

These are the wrong questions to focus on. However smart you are is however smart you are, and it’s honestly not that important. Far more important than what you know right now is how much you are capable of learning. Which requires enthusiasm and perceptiveness and vision and deep thinking and humility.

Because you don’t know everything — you never will. And pretending otherwise will only keep you from your real goal, which I’m guessing is not merely to look approximately as smart as you think people think you are, but to contemplate and research and contribute. To literally widen the circle of human understanding! It is exciting that you get to do this!

So don’t try to hide your ignorance so that others will be impressed by you. That will only make you stupider and more insecure over time, as the gap between what you know and what you pretend to know grows.

Instead, you should endeavor to be curious above all else. Ask all your questions, and then make something neat from the answers. And over time, as you cultivate this orientation to your work, you’ll start to see that the slightly-out-of-your-depth feeling is nothing to be worried about. In fact, it’s good, because it means that something new is about to happen.

You love what you’re doing, so just keep doing it! Don’t worry so much about keeping score.

3. I’m a 26-year-old, living alone in an amazing city. One of my good friends from an old job is a 40-year-old married man. We were work “spouses” for a while, and started hanging out outside of work: at concerts, for drinks, via phone, via email, yada yada. Anyway, the connection is strong, flirtatious, and has undercurrents of, well, sexual tension.

I’m all for playing the game of: Yeah, I’m attracted to you and you are to me, but you’re married so let’s still hang out and just be friends. However, he only calls me to hang out when his wife is out of town — which immediately sets up this precedent of, “Well, my wife wouldn’t like this, so let’s do it ‘in secret.’” We recently hung out at his house (wife = away), and things got a little too close for comfort (no transgressions, but let’s just say if we had kissed, it would’ve been natural) before I left and went home.

Here’s my crazy: Since we’re not transgressing physically, and I’m doing my best to play the friend game, can we still hang out? Or, because he’s setting up this basis of “My wife’s out so let’s hang,” and ostensibly our hangouts are kept secret from her, should I stop hanging out with him? I feel like I’M doing my best at playing the friend game and I want HIM to play along TOO, but he’s not, and now I’m all like, OMG, am I a psychological adulteress?!? Am I ethically in the wrong, even though we’re not kissing or hooking up or anything physical?

Ugh. Thanks.

I co-sign your Ugh. This situation has no winners, and I think the best thing to do is step back from this dude. Before I get into the particulars, though, I want to talk about this oft-asked question, “Am I ethically in the wrong?”

Asking the question in this way is curious to me, because it positions Ethics as this Thing that is outside of us. Like there’s a pre-ordained right answer to every ethical question, and your responses sort you into the Good Egg or Bad Egg pile.

But living an ethical life is not about being sorted after the fact. It’s about you, in the privacy of your own mind and heart, making decisions about what kind of person you want to be, then going forth into the world trying really hard to be that. Or, I guess some people don’t decide anything and just go with the default setting, which is do whatever and try to justify it later … but this doesn’t work for me and it sounds like it doesn’t work for you, either.

Really, the only way for anyone to sort this kind of thing out is this: Have a good long think, figure out what is and isn’t okay according to the standards you want to live your life by, and do your best to abide by those decisions.

So, LW, what do you think — do you want to a person who gets super close to hooking up with a married dude, or not? You get to decide! And your emotions can be a good guide here, so pay attention to them: If you feel iffy or shitty about something you did or are contemplating doing, it’s generally because some part of you recognizes that it’s an iffy or shitty thing to do.

No one can deny that it’s pleasant to enjoy the company of a nice married man who finds you attractive, enchanting, and young … but it’s dangerous, too. You almost kissed the other night, right? And you both feel weird but strangely titillated, playing closer and closer to the line as time goes on, wondering what’s going to happen. Which we all know is THE classic recipe for something happening.

Are you 100% totally crystal clear that you don’t want that? I’m not sure you are, so think on it a minute. Imagine in great detail what it would be like to wake up the next morning after a sweet and hot hookup with this handsome guy who happens to have pledged the rest of his life to loving another woman exclusively. Is that a morning you want in your memory?

Another test for you: Can you talk to him about how this is wigging you out? Can you share with him that it feels fishy and that you’d breathe easier if your meetings didn’t seem so secretive? Because you don’t have anything to hide, and sure it’s fun to flirt, haha, but NOTHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN?

If you can talk to him and resolve things to the full satisfaction of your conscience — sounds like that would mean with his wife’s knowledge and blessing — then, yes, you can hang out with him.

But if you can’t bring it up because you are embarrassed, or it feels too personal, or if he’s weirded out by the conversation, then you guys aren’t really friends … You’re just people who want to do it playing a shadowy game of oh-no-we’re-totally-not-gonna-do-it that quite often ends with doing it. In which case, no, you can’t hang out with him. At least not anywhere that’s conducive to line crossing. Group outings to pubs? Okay. One-on-one scotch tastings late at night in his house when his wife is out of town? What?! No!!

I know it’s hard to shut it down with someone you’re attracted to, and it feels unfair, especially when it seems like it shouldn’t be your job. But fairness is not the big issue here, and I’m honestly not even all that concerned with this dude or his wife. The real danger is you fucking things up for you.

And THIS is why it’s so important to have your ethics come from inside rather than outside. Because the goal is not to “be a good person” in some abstract sense — it’s to avoid getting into situations that break your heart and dampen your spirit and make you feel awful about yourself.

And this is already happening, even though you haven’t, as you put it, actually transgressed. Right now, it’s like there’s this big oily dark puddle in your mind, and you have to wade through it every time you think about this dude, and it only gets grosser as things between you become murkier.

But it doesn’t have to be this way — you can throw some sunlight on it just by developing a clear sense of what you feel is and isn’t acceptable for you to do. Then you can step back, or have whatever boundary-setting conversation seems appropriate.

One last thing: Draw your lines soon, because it’ll be a lot easier now than it will be after something has happened between you. A thousand times easier. You don’t even know.

Previously: Bad Boyfriends.

Megan Dietz wrote a book called ‘Be Less Crazy About Your Body’ that some people say is cool. She also blogs here. Ask Megan anything.