You’re Doing It Wrong: Criticism Fatigue and Peer Work

Part 1. Criticism is Risky

Criticism fatigue (a term I’ve appropriated from the idea of compassion fatigue) is one of my vulnerabilities. As a peer worker I’m partly a ‘service user’ and partly a ‘service provider’. I have to deal with criticism in both roles, but the latter role brings special challenges that I’d never expected or considered before I took it on. Criticism fatigue is where I feel overloaded and want to respond to criticism in ways that are destructive. I might attack back a person I feel is attacking me, or feel so discouraged that I withdraw and stop doing what I’m trying to do or close the resources I’m offering. I might look for support among my peers in ways that re-enforce an ‘us and them’ dynamic, tightening our ranks or even having others step in to harass or rally against the person criticising. I might turn on myself with self-loathing. I might simply turn off my hearing and stop listening to ‘the haters’, taking in only feedback which is encouraging and positive. All of these ways of responding are risky and destructive. They contribute to worker burn-out, ‘class wars’ between different groups in the mental health sector (volunteers vs paid staff, management vs front line staff, consumers vs service providers etc etc), and the slow, gradual restructuring of services to reduce the incidence of complaints through a variety of ways that significantly decrease the value and increase the likelihood of harm created by the service. The risks of risk averse services have been well documented and elaborated upon by people such as Mary O’Hagan.

A number of things make me at higher risk for criticism fatigue. One is the idea that the service that has the fewest complaints is the one that is running best. This is a bit counter-intuitive, so bear with me. It seems so obvious that if you are choosing between two say, mental health support groups to fund, and you learn that Group A has about 30 formal and 60 informal complaints in a year, and Group B has 2 formal and 4 informal complaints in a year, then it seems pretty clear that Group B is by far the better run, more useful and safe service. And that might be true! But sometimes the stats are misleading.

Group B may have shaped its service to prevent engagement with those most likely to struggle with authority, structure, and diversity – some of the most challenging areas of group engagement. It refuses to allow people with diagnoses such as BPD into the group. It limits membership to those with strict ideological similarities. It places significant obstacles to join that preference long term service users who are familiar with the nature of such resources and tend to be more institutionalised – ie. highly medicated, passive, compliant. (eg. setting is socially degrading – attending meetings via collection in a van with the words ‘mentally ill’ on the side, needing permission or referral from carers or treating doctors to join the group, the group is only advertised in highly restrictive environments such as inpatient units etc)

Group B is run in a highly authoritarian or charismatic manner so members self-select rapidly and those who are not comfortable with this style of leadership leave or are asked to leave. There are elements of Stockholm syndrome or trauma bonding within the group, with an emphasis on how fortunate the group members are to be involved and how grateful they should be. Group B has a complaints process that is intimidating, difficult to find or access, or penalises the complainant. (eg one local homelessness service had a two strikes and you’re out on your ear policy, and explained to any consumers who wished to make a complaint that a staff members word would always be taken over theirs because staff were so valuable and difficult to secure, while consumers were desperate for a place – so any complaint they might make would automatically result in a black mark against them) Group B maintains its superb record through a kind of subterfuge, not by offering a better service but by being selective about the membership and making the complaints process fraught.

There’s a context of course, which is that Group B has been created in a culture of funding instability, high levels of criticism and conflict about what resources are needed, how they should be run, and where money should be spent, and the belief that staff are experts who can make people’s lives better rather than mediators who help people access resources. Media is another part of the context – negative media attention can be unexpected, unfair, and highly destructive. Criticism can cost people their reputation, their jobs, their funding, even entire organisations can die on the back of it – sometimes totally unfairly.

Other things increase my risk for criticism fatigue too. Most service providers are trained staff who have been educated with ideas that make them vulnerable to creating resources like Group B – firstly that high levels of regulation and restriction are ‘natural’ and best practice for ‘vulnerable populations’, second that recovery or assistance is about putting the needy people in contact with the ‘experts’ who’s job it is to improve their lot in life in some way, third that complaints mean you are doing something wrong (or that the person making the complaint is wrong) and that the least complaints possible is the best outcome. So staff are cast in a parental role of responsibility that is inclined to over-control, infantilise, institutionalise, take too much responsibility for outcomes, and have a frightened and defensive response to criticism. The more I take responsibility for things I can’t possibly control, like someone else’s recovery or experiences, the more I try to be perfect and infallible, and the more I try to control things I simply can’t control the higher risk I am for criticism fatigue.

Peer workers come from a different background, may or may not be trained, and use their personal life and history in their work in ways that are often very different to other staff. There’s an extra history around criticism, at least for me, that impacts my vulnerability. As a ‘consumer’ or ‘carer’ I did and do plenty of criticising of the mental health system, and so I should. As the most powerless and impacted people within that system I deserve to have a voice and speak out about abuses of power, poor practices that are doing people harm, and advocate for better. I’ve very rarely experienced having criticism received well. Despite considerable effort to criticise in constructive, non-threatening ways, using the language of the people I’m trying to speak to, making sure there is significant acknowledgement of successes and efforts to do well, almost all of my experiences of making a complaint have been futile or even destructive to me in some way.  This is a history that compounds, making it less likely that I will criticise in the future, and less likely that when I do, I will do so in a respectful, unbiased, appropriate way – because I carry all the previous experiences with me and they radically impact my emotions, clarity, confidence, and expectations of success.

As a consumer, I’m also very accustomed to being criticised, fairly constantly, sometimes in quite subtle ways and sometimes very overt. As a consumer I face comments from staff such as being ‘too low functioning’ for a service, ‘too combative’ when I stand up for myself, ‘not committed enough to recovery’ when I’m struggling, ‘not compliant’ when I disagree, and so on. Much of this kind of criticism dis-empowers and belittles me in some way: makes me doubt myself, costs me credibility, and makes it harder for me to see myself and be seen by others as an equal adult who has a right to an opinion about my care.

As a carer my experiences of criticism were more randomly intense and contradictory, I found that I would often be criticised for being over-involved and under-involved with the ‘sick person’, by the same staff member, within the same conversation! Frustrated staff vented in ways that made no sense, and as a carer I was either totally ignored, or a convenient person to dump those frustrations on.

When I transitioned into peer work (or consumer consulting, or volunteering, and so on) I recall vividly each of the first times I was myself criticised for my ‘services’. Going from passionate consumer to a service provision role, I was naive. On some vague level I hadn’t thought through very much, I thought that my fire for good services, my willingness to listen, and my strong sense of identification as one of the ‘sick people’ not one of the ‘experts’ would all mean that I wouldn’t be criticised because I wouldn’t do anything that anyone would be upset about. Clearly, I hadn’t worked a lot in retail or with the public at that stage! I would use my power and my role to empower and be an advocate for fellow consumers who would be appreciative and thrive. Looking back, I sounded exactly like the most optimistic of any new staff member in the mental health/disability/community services sector, and I was in for the same disillusionment process.

Criticism when it came from other consumers was a huge shock. At times it was delivered in the most distressing ways. I was told I embodied words that cut deep, totally contrary to all my values and hopes, things that stayed with me and resonated inside me, playing over and over in my mind at night. Insensitive, dangerous, thoughtless, patronising.

Sometimes more aggressive. Bitch. Stupid. Fat. Psychopathic. Sadist. C*nt.

Often coming out of left field – from totally unexpected situations and people. Taking me completely by surprise. Having totally misread a person or situation, or having someone keep their feeling very hidden until a big blow-up.

Sometimes without any basis whatsoever – coming from delusions or psychosis that I’ve somehow been linked into without any involvement on my part.

Sometimes specific to my experiences, borne out of and riding on cultural stigma and fear about my identity – eg. as a same-sex-attracted woman, or someone who can experience memory loss when stressed.

Mostly coming with assumptions that I had intended to hurt or even harm, that I was deliberately doing so, totally aware of it and even revelling in it. That I simply didn’t care and deserved to be punished for my indifference, or harmed in return to ‘wake me up’ to what I was doing.

Sometimes then, criticism coming over and over again from the same person, so that each interaction with them was harder to force myself into because I now knew that at some point it was coming. Feeling trapped in a relationship with someone who clearly hates things about me and what I do, or is transferring a stack of unfinished business onto me. As the service provider not feeling free to leave them the way they were to leave me. Feeling myself walking on eggshells and doomed to fail.

Sometimes physically scared. Having to call security, standing up to someone enraged and a lot bigger than I am. Encountering rage, contempt, revulsion, dehumanising, and total indifference to my own needs and vulnerabilities.

Sometimes not being seen as sincere even when I desperately was. Having a heartfelt apology rejected. Finding that there seemed to be nothing I could do to help the other person see that I was human too, had not intended to hurt them, and was trying to reconcile.

Sometimes not being given the chance to reconcile. Criticism followed by cut-off where I could not address misunderstandings or respond to accusations.

Sometimes being esteemed too greatly by hurting people for a little while could see only my strengths and the good, comfortable aspects of the resources I was involved in. When my feet of clay became visible, experiencing the dramatic flip to being totally devalued and despised. Learning to be as cautious of compliments as I was of criticism because they sometimes had a close relationship.

Sometimes losing my consumer status with other consumers. Feeling rejected by ‘my people’ who no longer saw me as ‘one of them’.

Finding that taking on any authority role at all meant that I picked up the tab for how everyone in authority had previously treated this person. Being tarred with the brush of those who came before me. Finding myself tempted by all the responses I had so hated in others –

  • denial
  • minimising & downplaying
  • distancing myself from ‘those others’ who had treated people badly
  • refusing to engage or take responsibility for the privileges of authority

Criticism fatigue puts me at risk of behaving in highly abusive or destructive ways.

As a peer worker, I was stunned by how something that would have felt monumental to me as a consumer felt so incidental to me as a worker. It was incredibly challenging to pay attention to this. I felt like I was walking back and forth between two windows, looking at totally different perspectives of the same view – through the consumer window it was a mountain, and through the worker window it was a molehill. I began to understand the distortions that come with having any kind of power – how difficult it is to give credibility to the perspective of the person who doesn’t have it.

Where having power over others was almost invisible to me while being highly visible to them, I was exquisitely attuned to those in power over me, and how little I had in the context of the hierarchy above me. Hyper-awareness of my own vulnerability and sense of powerlessness went hand in hand with a new blindness to the vulnerability of those in my ‘care’.

As I flinched from these experiences and started to struggle with criticism fatigue, an opposite process also kicked into gear – compassionate consumers who needed to make a criticism of some kind became afraid of hurting me and self censored. Dehumanised and lashed on the one hand, and caught in silenced and distorted relationships on the other, it was easy to see how quickly my world could polarise into my detractors and my supporters, those who savaged me, and those who never questioned me. Caught within that framework I would be set up for increasing cognitive distortions and corruption of my goals and values.

Criticism from above was also different as a peer worker, and often centred around being too like consumers, and needing to show that I was ‘one of them’ a real staff member. (even if an unpaid volunteer with almost none of the benefits of being a staff member) Criticism often dovetailed. For example, a complaint from a consumer in a resource I was running would often need to be dealt with at the same time as triggering a review process from those in authority over me who needed an explanation. This could be very stressful for a number of reasons, my own issues with authority figures and massive anxiety about these kinds of conversations, huge ideological gulfs between my approaches to criticism and those of the team leader/supervisor/manager wanting the problem resolved quickly, and often an adversarial approach to challenging situations – time pressed and overloaded management unable or unwilling to explore the complexities of situations and finding myself with two options only – either I am right, or the complainant is right. In those situations if I want my job or I want my resources to keep running, I had better make sure that at the end of that 20 minute review my boss thinks I am right.

So I’ve found myself tap-dancing, trying to show that I haven’t done something horribly wrong where I should be reprimanded, that my resource is valuable to many and shouldn’t be closed, and at the same time trying to advocate for a consumer who is making complaints about me – because unbeknown to them they are being branded a ‘serial complainer’ and the organisation is considering banning them from all resources on the basis that they are wasting a lot of time and tying up resources that could be better used on other, easier to deal with people. Where I’m trying to show that a compassionate and engaged response to a person in terrible pain with a horrible history of having power over them abused IS one of the functions of a good resource and organisation, not a waste of time. Trying to operate with integrity under these conditions has been extremely straining.

As a service provider, I also get criticism from those outside of my resources. I once had a psychiatrist at a social gathering tell me they would be forbidding any of their clients from accessing my resources because they believed that they, and I, were dangerous. I’ve had this blog listed as an example of a dangerous and ignorant person perpetuating the myth that DID exists. Yesterday I received an email telling me I am eyesore on the face of the multiplicity community, that my approach is harmful and gross and hurting people with DID, and that it’s clear I don’t care. It would be easy for me to immediately conclude that I have spectacularly failed my aim of safely resourcing people in need and should shut down what I’m doing, but actually this is quite normal in mental health. (that doesn’t mean I get to ignore it either – but to take it on uncritically is also naive) One psychiatrist rails against the inpatient unit of another psychiatrist. Whole committees argue intensely about the definitions of disorders and what counts as real. Working for a little while in the eating disorders sector was like jumping into a shark tank of furious hostility about what defines an eating disorder and which approach was best. People’s lives, futures, families, incomes, professional reputations, jobs, and funding are at stake. It’s an intense arena for criticism, which is often lobbed like bombs across enemy lines. It’s easy to feel under attack from all quarters.

And people think peer workers burn out because we’re juggling a job and a mental health problem!

Criticism can of course be warranted and useful and even experienced as helpful! I’m using the term broadly here, encompassing complaints, corrections, and even abuse. Their unifying feature is how uncomfortable they can be and the way we are likely to perceive all of them, on some level, as a threat. We work hard in our lives to prevent, avoid, or protect ourselves from threats. Experiencing criticism as a threat is, to my mind, the highest risk for me to move into criticism fatigue. And the difficulty is, this is not always an inaccurate perception – some forms of criticism, and criticism in some contexts is a threat – abusive, costly, and unfair. All these experiences also accumulate and inform our response to criticism which tends over time to become more avoidant, defensive, or aggressive. Even gentle, respectful, and totally warranted criticism can easily be highly threatening, because it challenges my perception of myself (and others perceptions of me) as a good person and my resources as valuable and helpful.

So, this is the context and these are the risks. When I wake up to hostile Facebook messages or group turmoil and I simply want to lash out or run away, how else can I approach criticism? What reduces my risk of criticism fatigue? For me, the first step has been to explore what criticism is and go beyond my sense of being under threat. Which is a topic for my next post: Criticism fatigue part 2: Criticism is essential


3 thoughts on “You’re Doing It Wrong: Criticism Fatigue and Peer Work

  1. here is an image that keeps coming to my mind about your piece of writing here, Sarah. You know, those transparencies, I think they used to be called, for an overhead projector: you can create complex diagrams by laying several on top of each other. You have created one, and I would like to see it complemented, coloured, juxtaposed or whatever with two others I can see at the moment:
    – what levels/aspects of support are possible, practicable and practised?
    – what roles are the people playing who provide it?

    And then I’d like to move them around and shift and see what happens, That would probably be easier with people as actors on a stage than with transparencies on an overhead. But I guess you get what I am trying to work out, feel inspired to… xx


    • I hear you, this started as a simple post to help process feelings and get my head straight after walking up to a burst of criticism and just feeling so tired of it… Then it got bigger and linked to lots of other ideas. 🙂 xx

      Liked by 1 person

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