No one likes being criticized. Yet criticism is a necessary evil for growth and self-improvement. We can learn to lay down our defenses and take criticism on the chin. By doing this we allow criticism to carve us into the future version of ourselves that we aspire to be.
When we learn to handle criticism, we gain the tools to mitigate some of its penetrating effects. Some criticism is valid and necessary; other criticism isn’t. How we discern between these categories is a skill set in itself.
This article will outline what criticism is and why learning how to handle it is advantageous. We will also discuss five tips to help you take criticism well.
What is criticism?
The Collins dictionary defines criticism as “the action of expressing disapproval of something or someone. A criticism is a statement that expresses disapproval.”
I suspect we’ve all been in personal or professional relationships where we felt constantly criticized. It’s not a nice feeling. But similarly, to grow and develop, we need to learn to take criticism.
We’ve all heard the term “constructive criticism” I firmly believe that criticism must be constructive to be received well.
By this, it must be necessary and provide suggestions or direction for improvement. Also, we can ease the jaggedness of how criticism lands by sandwiching it with positives.
Let’s look at an example of constructive criticism. Instead of simply telling a subordinate that their report is too lengthy and full of irrelevant fluff, constructive criticism will elaborate upon this criticism and give guidance on how to cut the length and what information is surplus to requirements.
Feedback is synonymous with criticism; this article distinguishes between future-oriented feedback, which is directive, and past-oriented, which is evaluative. According to the study, evaluative feedback sticks with us more readily than directive feedback. Perhaps this is because we can visualize the subject of the evaluation, but we can’t picture something that isn’t in existence yet.
The benefits of being able to handle criticism
We all need to be able to take criticism from our boss, partner, friends, or family. If we harbor an inability to take criticism, it could cost us our job and devastate personal relationships.
As a writer, I’m now reasonably used to receiving criticism from editors. And this is an essential part of my journey. I wouldn’t have honed my skills and improved my art without this criticism.
In a nutshell, most criticism allows us to better ourselves. People who can’t handle criticism will be slow to improve and wonder why they aren’t advancing in life.
Emmy winner Bradley Whitford, suggested we react to criticism in three stages. Our initial reaction is “F*** you!” then it goes inward, “I suck,” before it evolves into something useful, “How can I do better?”
I have summarised Whitford’s three stages into the three Ds of criticism.
It’s normal to feel defensive, then go through periods of feeling deflated before we can light the spark and galvanize our energy into improvement. Awareness of these stages may encourage us to spend less time feeling defensive and deflated and help fast-track us to the determined stage.
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5 ways to take criticism well
Let’s look at ways you can learn to take criticism well. It’s important to note that you don’t need to take on board everything that everyone chucks at you. Discerning what criticism to internalize and what to bat away is all part of the process.
Here are 5 tips for how you can learn to take criticism well.
1. Is the criticism valid?
For your well-being, only take onboard valid criticism. Ask yourself if any reasonable person would agree that the person criticizing you is making a fair point. If the criticism is valid, then it’s time to swallow your pride and listen.
An apology if it is merited is an excellent place to start, along with acknowledging and accepting the feedback as valid.
For many people, giving criticism isn’t particularly easy. When someone is generous enough to risk offending us, honor them by listening.
2. Learn to give criticism
Sometimes criticizing others becomes a giant game of tit-for-tat. This sort of blame game is no fun for anyone and can ruin relationships.
When we are on the receiving end of criticism, we understand firsthand how difficult it can be to hear. If we learn how to dish out criticism in a kind, compassionate and constructive manner, we prepare ourselves for also accepting criticism.
We don’t want to react to criticism, which is a knee-jerk reaction. We want to respond to it, which is a more constructive and considered approach.
Sometimes if you don’t know how you feel about the criticism you receive, all you need to say in response is, “Thank you for your feedback; I’ll take it on board.” You don’t need to agree or disagree with it immediately. Give yourself time to think it through.
3. Discern your source
Who is criticizing you?
Who’s criticism do you think carries more weight? The domestic abuser resisting arrest who is shouting obscenities at me and tells me I’m “scum of the earth” and am useless at my job, or my line manager who tells me I’m useless at my job? It’s a no-brainer—the source of your criticism matters.
If you feel victimized and are unduly the target of regular criticism from a particular person, you have several options.
- Ask that person if there is a reason for the constant criticism.
- Put up a boundary and outwardly ask them to cease their constant criticism.
- Ignore it, although this tactic doesn’t bring solutions.
A while back, I had plans to go to the cinema with my then-boyfriend. I was sorting out my dogs and told him I would be ready in two minutes. He looked at me and said, “Are you going like that? Are you not going to do your hair?”
Honestly, this enraged me. This guy had never complimented my appearance, so he had not earned the right to criticize it either.
Being over-critical is a sign of jealousy and insecurity. When someone you are supposed to be close with criticizes you more than they compliment you, it’s time to reassess!
4. Make your ask clear
I was thrilled after designing my website for my small business. Excitedly, I sent the link to my brother, asking him to check it out. I expected him to praise my efforts and remark on how sleek and professional it looked. Instead, he told me about a typo. Was the criticism valid? Yes. Had he done anything wrong? Not really, but my spirits were dashed.
The lesson I learned from this is I should have been more prescriptive in my message to my brother; I should have been clearer with my ask. He thought I was asking him to go through the site to proofread it. When in reality I wasn’t seeking feedback at that stage.
In a similar vein, my partner has a bad habit of just giving me negative feedback. He doesn’t know how to sandwich criticism between positive comments.
If I want his opinion on something, I now know to specifically ask for the good and the bad. This way, I feel less attacked.
5. It’s not personal
It’s so easy to hear criticism and get stuck in the “I suck” stage - the one I labeled as the deflated stage. It feels very personal, and if we aren’t careful, we can get trapped in building a narrative that tells us the world is against us.
Remember, quality criticism is never personal. It’s not about who you are as a person. Another person would likely receive the same criticism. So puff up that chest, stand tall, and jump into the determined phase quicker than you can say, “Why is everyone criticizing me.”
Be careful, though. I must note a caveat to the above. While I don’t want to contradict myself, it would be remiss of me not to mention that there may be times when it is personal.
As a child, I received punishment and criticism for behaviors that were overlooked when replicated by my twin sister. In these sorts of situations, communication is essential in establishing if the criticism is personal. Consider speaking with HR or a therapist or seeking an objective perspective from another third party.
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Criticism is part of life. If you seek personal growth, you must be able to take criticism and implement the takeaway message it carries. Remember - more focus on a determination to improve and less time stagnating in phases of defensiveness and deflation.
Don’t forget our five tips for how to take criticism well.
- Is the criticism valid?
- Learn to give criticism.
- Discern your source.
- Make your ask clear.
- It’s not personal.
Do you have any suggestions for how to handle criticism? What has worked best for you in the past? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!