7 ways to handle criticism
How to respond more positively to negative feedback. By Angela Barrett.
It can really hurt when someone finds fault with you or your performance. Whether it’s a friend letting you know your new hair colour doesn’t suit you or your supervisor sending your project back for reworking, it’s important to remember that criticism is not necessarily an attack on you.
“Constructive criticism can be a pathway to growth and improvement,” says Sydney psychologist Elizabeth Neal.
Some of us are super-sensitive to criticism and can quickly dissolve into tears, anger or feelings of inadequacy. And while these reactions are fairly common, none of them are very productive. So how can we learn to handle criticism in a positive way? Use a simple response to acknowledge you have heard their opinion. Try, ‘Thank you for the feedback. I’ll take that on board,’ or ‘Okay, I’ll consider that.’
If you have an emotional, heart-thumping reaction to what’s been said, your brain has gone into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Don’t respond while you’re in this primed state.
“Take a few minutes out, feel your feet on the ground, and breathe slowly and deeply until you feel more calm,” says wellness coach Trish Everett. “When you breathe in a relaxed way, your heart rate and stress response will come down so you can re-engage your rational brain before you respond.”
Whether the criticism is constructive or just rude, don’t take it as a personal affront. “It’s particularly important in a professional setting to be able to receive criticism or feedback about your work without taking it personally,” says Neal.
Create some distance between you and the issue by looking at the criticism from an objective standpoint. Look at the context and who’s delivering the criticism. Is it coming from a senior person at work? If so, is it simply legitimate feedback about your performance? Is it predictable negativity from a nit-picker? If this is the case, it’s probably less about you not being good enough and more about them feeling inadequate, jealous or envious and dealing with this by trying to bring you down. Critical comments can activate a deeply-held negative belief we have about ourselves, like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not wanted’. By becoming familiar with the inner story you have about yourself, you’ll know that when you’re triggered by a critical comment, you might be overreacting because it’s activated your painful core belief. “Your reaction to criticism depends on how sensitive that particular issue is for you,” says Serena Bailey, a life coach specialising in boundary setting. Put aside your reaction to look at what you can learn from this situation. “Even if it’s pushed your buttons, be brave and ask yourself if there’s anything in what they’re saying that you can take on board,” suggests mindset coach Alyce Pilgrim.
“Then, look at your reaction to see what this situation might be pushing you to learn. Ask yourself, ‘If this situation is happening to serve as an opportunity for my learning and growth, what would that learning be?’ Perhaps it’s telling you that you need to develop resilience or calmness in the face of others’ drama, or to learn to stand up for yourself or take responsibility for the behaviours you have that invite criticism from others.” If you’re really sensitive and any sort of criticism – constructive or not – pushes your buttons, renaming it ‘feedback’ can help. This process is known in counselling as reframing and puts a different slant on something, enabling you to see it in a more positive light.
“The word criticism can have negative connotations, so by viewing it as feedback you change your perception of it immediately,” says Bailey. “This allows you take a step back from it emotionally which gives you more ability to choose how you respond.” Have a conversation with the person who has criticised you. “It’s important to address it with curiosity, not accusation,” says Bailey. “Try to get to the bottom of their criticism by having an adult conversation with them about it – one that’s respectful to you both,” she says.
“Focus on what’s going on for you rather than laying blame, and state what you need. Say, ‘I’m feeling confused about what the issue might be here and would love it if we could talk more about it so I can better understand where you’re coming from.’” If you’re regularly brought down by criticism, consider working on your self-esteem and boundaries with the help of a counsellor or psychologist.
In the meantime, consider reducing the amount of contact you have with someone who regularly criticises you so you have more control over the visit or interaction.
“If it’s someone you can’t avoid, try being more matter-of-fact with them, or withdraw your need for their friendship or approval,” suggests Neal.