How to Handle Criticism

I've never been a big fan of criticism; even when it's accurate or well-intended, it's all too easy to trigger emotional memories of times when painful criticism was leveled at me as a defense by other people who were avoiding dealing with their own issues. I had a critical mother who often used the phrase “If your mother can't tell you, who can?” to justify perfectionist and often just plain hurtful criticism. My early experiences with her started a pattern of being overly defensive and not taking criticism at all well.

Criticism says more about them than it does about us.

Criticism says more about them than it does about us.

So now rather than reacting emotionally to criticism, I try to respond as constructively to it as I can. For example, there was recently some criticism of The Confident Man Project in a thread on the social anxiety support forums, so I'll use this to illustrate how to respond to criticism.

Notice Your Emotional Reaction

We're all emotional creatures deep down. When we get criticised, our first reaction is an emotional one. Acting on this raw emotion may or may not be the most useful thing to do depending on the circumstances. For instance there may be times when unwarranted criticism makes us angry, and our anger motivates us to stand up for ourselves where we otherwise may let someone else's agenda walk all over us.

Often as adults we react to criticism with defensiveness because we're just playing out an insecurity from childhood. Criticism is not a physical threat, and the possibility that the person criticising us may withdraw their love and support no longer threatens our survival the way a parent abandoning a child does. So most often as adults our emotional reaction to criticism is overblown and it's worth recognising this before we respond.

This is particularly important when it comes to interacting with women, who often put men to the test without even realizing they're doing it. These tests can appear as criticism if we don't recognize them for what they are: just a test. If we react as a hurt, wounded boy, we fail the test and she's likely to lose interest in us. If we recognise that it's just a test and respond playfully, we can end up flirting with her instead which is a much more enjoyable outcome.

Consider If The Criticism Is Warranted

Have a look at the motives of the person offering you criticism. Do they have an agenda of their own? Are they using criticism of you as a way of avoiding their own issues? Is there some value in their criticism? Is it helpful, or are they being defensive? Or are there elements of both?

In the example, the cure for social anxiety is to learn better social skills, expand your comfort zone gradually over time, and build your self-confidence. Emotional healing therapies can also help. You can't cure it by hanging around on an internet forum; sitting behind a computer is inherently introverting and will gradually reduce your social skills over time. You might learn some great tips on a forum or on a site like this one, but it's the action you take in the real world interacting face-to-face with other people that will ultimately help you overcome social anxiety. That's why my online confidence building course has you practise taking action in the real world every single week for a whole year.

It will always be easier to sit back on a forum and say “It looks like they are just trying to sell ebooks” than to take the risk of expanding your comfort zone to tackle social anxiety and build confidence. Problem is, in 12 months time they'll still be posting forum messages hoping for a magic cure that never comes.

Lift Your Game

Even a person being defensive or pushing their own agenda may have some valuable insights to share. The more well-intentioned and compassionately delivered the feedback, the more likely it is that there is something valuable there for us to learn. We don't often get honest feedback about how we're occurring to other people in the real world, so there is some truth in the idea that a true friend is the one who is willing to make themselves uncomfortable to give you feedback that you need to hear. This is one of the ways we learn and grow. My mother was partly right.

When I first joined Toastmasters, I was very uncomfortable about receiving constructive criticism in the evaluation of a speech I'd given. I just wanted to be encouraged and told how well I'd done; I didn't want to hear about things I'd done wrong! This was just my insecurity and perfectionism talking. I was also very self-conscious about offering constructive criticism to other people when I evaluated their speeches. Again, I didn't want to get it wrong or to hurt their feelings. Over time, I've grown to become more comfortable giving and getting feedback, because I know it's essential to my personal growth.

Although the confidence building program in Confident Man attacks many of the underlying causes of social anxiety and has many activities for getting over it, I have to admit that I didn't have an article on this site addressing the problem directly. So in response to the criticism, I lifted my game and wrote an article specifically to help men struggling with social anxiety.

Focus On The People Who Want What You're Offering

There will always be some people who immediately like you, want to hang out with you, want what you're offering, and totally “get” you. And there will also be people who don't. This is one of the lessons about life to understand as we learn to fully accept ourselves warts and all. Trying to make everyone like us is a recipe for unhappiness that undermines our self-confidence, which is why Step 1 in Confident Man is to stop seeking approval from other people. If you're always looking to other people for approval, especially people who are critical of you, you're hosed.

It was easy for me to get caught emotionally by the poster who said “the advice seems pretty facile” without having even put it into practise, or the one who said my story about the woman at the party “sounds fake”, while ignoring supportive comments like the guy who said “This site is a miracle”, the guy that said the story was “hilarious”, or the one that questioned “have you tried any of the techniques/lessons on the website?” without getting a reply. I had to choose who I wanted to listen to, and who I chose made a big difference to how I felt about the criticism.

So focus on the people who want what you have to offer. Don't get caught up with the nay-sayers who don't like what you have to say, claim it won't work, or criticise simply because they're avoiding dealing with their own baggage. Deal with your emotional baggage so that you can be free to offer your gifts to the world and let the world respond as it may. This is the recipe for a richly fulfilling, meaningful life.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.
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3 Responses to How to Handle Criticism

  1. luckdog says:

    Thank you, even though you are more focused on healing men, this is very good for women as well who have critical parents, your articles on criticism have helped me especially with how to phrase responding to criticism from parents like 'I feel sad when you criticize me'. Today I told my mom "It's never good enough for you" and she immediately changed her tune and said that what I was doing is fine. I think your phrases are better though than just random bursts of anger like I have been having at my parents. And whenever I use the word 'never' it's always a half truth or a lie anyway. Your phrases are more constructive and true. I will definitely be using them. I am grateful to you.

    • Thanks! I really relate to what you've said about your mother. I think often critical parents are oblivious to the damage they're causing, until we start actually telling them how we feel about their behavior. I'm glad you found the article helpful.

  2. Parisa says:

    Thank you for awesome post, I can use a couple of those tips in my life.

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