I’ve never met anyone who enjoys receiving criticism or negative feedback. But it’s something we all have to face from time to time. A few years ago, I met with a client who had a particularly hard time with it. Even discussing the criticisms, mild and constructive to my ears, in his recent performance review with me caused him to get his back up. Defensiveness was his reflexive response, and then he would shut down. Perhaps not surprisingly, the feedback focused on his difficulty receiving feedback. He aspired to be an executive but was passed over for promotions, and his superiors had made it clear that taking direction and communicating well with peers and senior management was necessary for advancement. I wondered why it was that this intelligent and highly motivated man was so defensive.

In our sessions I learned that while he was great at managing people and was known for getting things done, he felt out of place amongst his better-educated colleagues. When dealing with peers and higher-ups, his confidence was low and this affected his ability to think and speak well. He would become agitated and trip over his words, or close up. To me, it sounded like he was permanently in the red zone while at work, and criticism just pushed him further into it.

In the red zone

American psychologist Rick Hanson (not to be confused with the great Canadian philanthropist Rick Hansen) has an evocative way of understanding the way our brain functions. He suggests that it has three operating systems: the avoiding harms system, the approaching rewards system, and the attachment system. Each system regulates a core need—safety, satisfaction, or connection—and each system has two basic settings, green and red. When core needs are being met, we’re in the green. When they aren’t, we go red. 

Hanson says that when all systems are green, we’re in a responsive mode. When our needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection are met, we’re at ease, we’re open, and we respond to stressors well. Our body can divert energy to repair itself and recover from the day’s trials and tribulations. When any of our core needs aren’t being met, the brain’s systems go red and we end up in a reactive mode characterized by fear, dissatisfaction, or disconnection (sometimes all three!). We are more prone to approach situations and people with fear, to grasp after the things we feel we need, and to cling in our relationships.  

Being in the red zone sucks. Literally. It sucks up our resources. It makes us feel bad emotionally and physically. These negative feelings make us more likely to engage in unhealthy self-soothing like drinking too much booze, overeating (especially high-calorie comfort foods), binge-watching TV, going on expensive shopping sprees, or using drugs. And when we’re on red alert all the time, our system fills with stress chemicals; the long-term harmful effects of the cortisol and adrenaline are well known.

Being in the red should be a red flag

My client was displaying all kinds of signs of being in red. And his reactivity meant that it didn’t take much to push him more deeply into the red. He clearly didn’t feel safe at work. Of course he wasn’t in physical danger, but when we put a lot our selves into our jobs and things aren’t going well, criticism can feel like an attack on our selves, and even our lives. He experienced criticism and feedback not as commentary on his performance but as an evaluation of his very self. 

If you find yourself consistently in the reactive mode, clearly something is wrong with either the situation itself or with your relationship to it. Something needs to change. 

Evaluation and action

In some cases, it’s the situation that’s causing you to feel unsafe, dissatisfied, or disconnected. If you have to deal with bullies or abusive coworkers, the situation is unsafe. If you aren’t finding the job intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually rewarding, you will not be satisfied. If you feel unwanted or like an outsider, you will not feel connected. Something needs to change at work.

In other instances, it’s you that needs to change. You may need to evaluate your relationship to work and your colleagues. You may need to consider reducing your workload if possible. Perhaps, like my client, you need a confidence boost to feel truly at home in your job. Reevaluation of your career expectations and goals might be necessary. Or perhaps the stresses in your life outside of work are finding their way into the office. 

Either way, the sort of defensiveness and reactivity displayed by my client should be a red flag for you that tells you, “Uh oh, I’m in the red zone.” I’ve written another blog about defensiveness and strategies to deal with it, as well as the importance of recognizing “error messages”. But you may also need to evaluate your relationship to your work and your colleagues. You may need to find new, more healthy adaptations to it. Or you may need a change of circumstances. 

What helps you stay out of the red zone? I’d love for you to share and comment below.

Do you need help navigating the hard parts of your life and career? Click here to find out how to work with me. 


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