During residency, I would find myself on the receiving end of intense criticism from resident colleagues and attendings. Some of this criticism was constructive, other times it was not, and sometimes these interactions left me in tears, doubting myself and my abilities as a physician.
Residency can feel like a dog-eat-dog world with a rigid hierarchy and archaic rituals, and we must learn to deal with overly critical colleagues with grace. I believe that, in the end, they are this way because they have profound care for their patients and they want young residents to become better doctors. That’s why it's important for residents to have thick skin, rely on their support systems, and remember that residency does not last forever.
We asked residents about their “coping mechanisms for interacting with overly critical attending physicians or co-residents." Here's what they had to say.
Embrace a growth mindset
Carla Saoud, MD: “View each interaction as an opportunity for growth and professional development. Embrace challenges as stepping stones toward becoming a better pathologist. Try not to take it personally and focus on the constructive feedback provided. Show genuine interest in understanding their perspective and seek clarification if needed.”
"Taking the time to truly listen can help alleviate misunderstandings."
— Carla Saoud, MD
Maintain your self-confidence
Tina Yang, DO: “I usually just tell my attendings and coworkers my thought process—either they respond well or ignore it. It varies between each attending, and that’s just a fact of life.”
"You can’t change the way people are; you can only try to find ways to support your thinking, and they have to choose whether to accept it."
— Tina Yang, DO
Focus on the core message
Vignesh Ramachandran, MD: “Try to separate the feedback from the delivery; focusing on the core message helps me use the criticism for professional development, regardless of how it was delivered. I strive to maintain open lines of communication, expressing my concerns respectfully and constructively if the criticism starts to impact my performance or well-being.
“Moreover, I remind myself that everyone, including myself, is here to learn and grow. This perspective shifts toward seeing criticism as an opportunity for improvement rather than a personal attack has been instrumental in managing such interactions.”
"Practicing self-care and mindfulness exercises outside of work helps me manage stress and maintain resilience in the face of criticism."
— Vignesh Ramachandran, MD
Esha Hansoti, MD: “Dealing with overly critical individuals can be emotionally draining. Prioritize self-care activities that help you relax, recharge, and maintain your overall well-being. Engage in hobbies, exercise, spend time with loved ones, or practice mindfulness techniques.”
"Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally will help you build resilience and better handle challenging interactions."
— Esha Hansoti, MD
Other coping strategies
Olivia Sutton, MD: “I try to have the skin of an elephant. I don't take anything personally; if anything, I act excessively open to their feedback. If they're very harsh, they'll often back down when they see I'm trying my best to be receptive.
Kelechi Acholonu, DO: “Most of the time, criticism is welcomed as it helps build a stronger employee, so I tend to see every comment as an opportunity, and to find ways to separate any mean-spirited aspect of the comment.”
Nikhila G, MD: “Not taking anything to heart, seeking constructive criticism and feedback, but having self confidence so that it doesn’t affect personal well-being when encountering difficult situations.”
Residency is a training curriculum that is put in place for you to grow and become an excellent physician. Learning requires criticism, and sometimes this criticism can become overly harsh, especially in an intense hospital environment with acutely sick patients, egos, and burned-out attendings.
Tensions are going to run high; therefore, it is important to remain open to learning lessons, try not to take things too personally, continue to ask questions, stay curious, and take care of yourself.
Every medical resident has a question to ask and a story to tell—a comical moment, a prickly patient encounter, or a hack for staying sane during residency. We survey medical trainees for their best questions and answers and bring them to you in this column. Engaging, enlightening, and entertaining—from resident to resident!