It's not just me

"Above all other stresses, it's the feeling of being personally criticized that appears to take the greatest toll on our bodies, and on our ability to think clearly.  In a meta-analysis of 208 stress-related studies, the researchers Margaret Kemeny and Sally Dickerson found that the highest rises in cortisol levels--the most extreme fight-or-flight responses--are prompted by 'threats to one's social self, or threat to one's social acceptance, esteem, and status.'  An impersonal stressor such as an endlessly ringing alarm is obviously annoying, but it prompts a far less pernicious stress response.  When people are subjected to an uncontrollable alarm, their cortisol levels rise but return to a baseline level within forty minutes.  By contrast, a threat to their self-esteem prompts cortisol levels to remain elevated for more than an hour.  That helps explain why even the most 'constructive' criticism so rarely has much impact on us and is often counterproductiveTo really take in and process critical feedback, it must be delivered by someone who makes us feel safe and who we truly believe has our best interests at heart.  We're far less likely to feel inspired by someone who says 'Here's what's wrong with what you did' that we are by a more forward-looking 'Here's what works so far, and here's what I think you need to do to take this to the next level.'"

--Tony Schwartz, with Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live (New York: Free Press, 2010), chapter 11.


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