Recently, I was being interviewed, and the interviewer asked me this:
“Why do women have such a difficult time with criticism?”
There’s a hint of a blaming tone in the question, so first things first, let’s set that aside. But then, can we look with curiosity at why criticism – or the fear of criticism – seems to hold back so many brilliant women?
In the interview, I shared my usual responses about how women are distinctly affected by criticism:
1. Many women value and are deeply attuned to relational harmony and connection, so criticism feels particularly troubling to them. If your life is centered on positive connection and finding common ground with others, criticism hits you differently.
2. Women have been socialized – whether by family, peers, school, or the general culture – to not rock the boat. To be likable and always nice. Doing things that bring criticism is the opposite of that! It challenges our deeply ingrained conditioning. Being criticized also puts us in a tough spot because it’s difficult to stand up for one’s own ideas in the face of criticism, while also maintaining the respectful “nice girl” persona the whole time.
3. Third, research* suggests that women read facial expressions and negative body language with greater precision than men, which means at all times women are literally getting more information about how people are reacting to us. This can be a strategic advantage, but it can also distract us from persevering with a project or idea when others are uncomfortable, resistant, or just not fans.
In the interview, I gave those answers, but then I realized I felt like I hadn’t gotten to the heart of the matter yet.
There was something else there, something I don’t normally talk about, and I wanted to try. So I said this:
“On an even deeper level, my sense is that women cope with living in a highly patriarchal world by trying to find safety and legitimacy through their own competence, through doing everything right.
Criticism can feel like a gash in the middle of something very important we are building – something that will shelter us and keep us safe.”
I know that’s been true for me. Let competence and hard work and doing what the teacher says be my ticket in. Let it be my island of safety too.
I’m feeling my way through this idea. What is that thing we are doing? That I am doing?
It feels to me like always being in scurrying mode, always hiding a little like it’s duck and cover time, and hiding by studying super hard, working super hard, getting it right. Doing it right. Producing work of the highest quality. Yes, because we are smart and competent and we can but also: to be safe. To be on solid ground.
And my sense is that this behavior in me and in other women around me has something to do with trying to find refuge, legitimacy, that ticket in – in a world that has been shaped by a masculine perspective and values.
I want to know how this resonates for you, even if you, like me, don’t quite have a clean or crisp way of articulating what exactly is going on there yet.
Thank you for reading and being on this journey with me.
Love to you,