A Guide on How to Handle Criticism
From mean-spirited jabs to “constructive feedback,” criticism can take many forms, but one thing is for sure, it stings. I once prepared a congregational survey for a topic important to the church. I was proud of the survey and excited about its results. However, when I presented it to the church board, one council member swatted it away by saying, “It felt a bit self-serving to me.” I was embarrassed, and his words stung, not because his way of calling me out was uncouth but because he hit on the truth. It turns out that the survey was self-serving, even though I hadn’t intended for it to be.
Criticism triggers emotional responses and plays into our worst fears about not being good enough. Our “fight or flight” reactions kick in. Because most people are not well-trained on how to offer constructive criticism, how they offer their critiques makes us defensive, making it harder to see the truth in what they are saying.
When we approach it in the right way, criticism can be a powerful tool for growth and change. In this article, we’ll look at ineffective ways to handle criticism and discuss how to swap them out for stronger, more religiously-consistent ones.
Here are some of the worst ways of responding to criticism
- Taking a defensive stance: It’s hard to evaluate the truth when we impulsively argue, make excuses, or blame others.
- Attacking the critic: Letting anger take control to the point we lash out escalates the situation and prevents us from examining the validity of their point.
- Shutting down or withdrawing: Ignoring criticism or shutting down emotionally can prevent growth and development.
Any one of these responses or coping techniques is unproductive and may harm relationships. Recognize when you are reacting instead of taking in and analyzing their viewpoint.
Breathe and Reframe the Criticism
You can respond to criticism in whatever form it takes by having the right attitude and adopting a positive outlook. First, breathe. Do a breathing exercise to gain control of your reactions. Something as simple as being conscious of your breath for three deep inhales and exhales can give you time to consciously choose how to deal with the situation. Then, step back and reframe it from a threatening attack into an opportunity for growth and improvement. Focus on how you can use the criticism to grow and avoid getting stuck in a fixed mindset that sees criticism as a personal failure.
Best-selling author and social scientist Brene Brown speaks eloquently about the need to summon the courage to embrace our vulnerability by accepting that we are not perfect. We can only be open to new growth when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Consequently, we can always use help in seeing things we might miss about our attitudes and behaviors.
The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed reproof gain understanding.” — Proverbs 15:31-32:
Listen more closely to those you respect
If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their own lives, but will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those of us trying to dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Strategies for Dealing with Criticism
After you’ve given up the gut-reaction defensive posture and stepped back a little, you can find a strategy to deal with criticism. Here are some practical tips for how to deal with criticism.
- Seek to understand: When faced with criticism, seek to understand the other person’s perspective. Ask clarifying questions in a non-confrontational manner. After the initial critique, ask them to say more about what they observed. Listen actively and approach it with curiosity. Do they see a pattern, or was it a one-time occurrence? Make sure you can see the situation clearly from his or her perspective.
- Practice self-reflection: Take some time to reflect on the criticism you have received. Consider whether there is any truth to it and what you can learn from it. Next, ask yourself, “What is this criticism trying to tell me?” This self-reflection will help you better understand the criticism and it’s validity. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding that led to the criticism. Sort out the points that are valid and focus on your growth and progress, and let go of what doesn’t serve you.
- Take responsibility: Where the criticism is valid, take responsibility for your actions and apologize if necessary. This will show the other person you are open to feedback and are willing to improve.
- Seek other perspectives: Is the person alone in his or her analysis, or do others notice the same things? Perhaps it is only under certain conditions or environments that bring out the behavior someone has noticed in you. Perhaps the person who is criticizing is not getting it quite right. Asking others about it may help you gain a deeper understanding of the issue and how it might affect you or others.
- Look for solutions: Criticism can be a valuable opportunity for growth and improvement. Look for solutions to your criticisms and use them to make positive changes in your life.
- Don’t take it personally: Above all, avoid negative self-talk and maintain a positive outlook. Remind yourself of your strengths and abilities, and focus on the progress you’ve made so far. It’s important to remember that the other person’s words and actions do not reflect your worth as a person. Distinguish between critique and shame. A critique is offered to help you improve. We delve into shame (which is always unhelpful) when we let ourselves believe that because I did something bad, I must be a bad person.
- Practice self-care: Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Surround yourself with people who love and support you, and engage in activities that bring you joy and peace.
Recognize the difference between constructive criticism and bullying.
Unquestionably, not all criticisms are valid. Sometimes it is meant to tear you down, arising from a sense of mean-spiritedness. Other times, a person will project onto you something they don’t like about themselves. Generally, it can be difficult to tell when criticism crosses the line into bullying, but some key indicators can help you identify it. Therefore, I’ve listed a few here:
- Bullying is intentional and intended to cause harm or threaten someone. Bullying is probably taking place if the behavior is regular and persistent.
- Power disparity: Bullying frequently involves a power disparity in which the bully has more influence or control over the target.
- Bullying is characterized by harmful behaviors that are directed at the victim. This can include exclusion, rumors, and verbal, physical, or emotional abuse.
- Fear and anxiety: If the person receiving criticism frequently feels fear, anxiety, or distress due to the behavior, they are probably the victim of bullying.
Bullying behavior needs to be addressed as soon as possible because it can have detrimental effects on mental health and increase the likelihood of abusive behaviors. If you believe you are being bullied, you should take precautions to safeguard yourself and seek support and assistance.
What to do if someone is overly critical?
Sometimes, without crossing the line into bullying, a person can be overly critical, nit-picking every little thing they see, thus taking offense at perceived slights on every occasion.
Discern the underlying issue. When someone becomes overly critical, the thing that is really bothering them lies underneath the criticisms they raise. This often happens when other needs, such as validation, affirmation, or respect, are unmet. Think of it as a geyser. Geysers erupt because of the heat and pressure under the earth’s crust. The pressure will find another outlet if you block a geyser with a giant boulder.
In the same way, when certain needs are not met, pressure builds within a person, and it has to come out somewhere. You may fix one issue, but unless the underlying need is met, it will erupt somewhere else. Try to get to the “root of the root” of what is really going on in the relationship.
- Establish boundaries: It’s critical to stand up for yourself and establish limits with the person who is being excessively critical. Make sure they understand how their actions impact you and that you demand respect.
- Release your anger and resentment: Keeping your anger and resentment toward someone critical can be toxic and only lead to more damage. Instead, make an effort to let go of those negative emotions and focus on finding peace and forgiving others.
- Remember, it’s not healthy to be around someone who is overly critical, and taking steps to protect your mental and emotional well-being is always a priority.
How to handle criticism as a Christian
Our faith teaches us to be humble enough to accept criticism and find ways to improve. We are all on a spiritual journey, and gaining feedback from others can help us.
- First, remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated when responding to your critics.
- Be slow to speak and eager to listen. Spend more time listening than defending. Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.
Know this, my beloved brothers and sisters. Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James 1:19
- Pray and meditate. Breathe. Slow down. Seek a spiritual connection that can help you be open to truths–even when they are hard to hear.
- Be grateful. Even though you have imperfections, express gratitude for the gifts and graces you possess. This will help you keep things in perspective when criticism comes your way.
- Seek support from your church community. Engage with positive people who want the best for you and will validate the gifts you have.
Finally, remember, you are God’s beloved–just as you are.
A final word
In conclusion, criticism can be difficult to handle, but with the right attitude and perspective, it can become an opportunity for growth and improvement. By understanding the other person’s perspective, practicing self-reflection, taking responsibility, seeking other perspectives, and looking for solutions, we can turn criticism into a positive force in our lives. Remember to breathe and embrace vulnerability, and avoid taking criticism personally.