Imagine yourself working on a project for countless hours, expending every ounce of effort, sweating over the details. Then, picture the satisfaction of seeing the finished product before yourself. An outcome of relentless discipline. This can be anything from an essay at school or a report at work, to a tricky blog post. The next step, of course, is releasing it for the scrutiny of others: your teacher, boss at work, the online world.
In most circumstances, hard work results in positive feedback. You get your expected grade, or praise from your boss. You satisfy your customers’ demands. The correlation between effort and achievement could not seem stronger. But sometimes, the feedback falls short of what you expect. Your teacher identifies flaws in your judgement and reasoning, your boss scolds you for sloppy formatting and missing out a nuanced, yet crucial fact. Maybe you receive your first hate comment as a content creator.
Tears pool in your eyes and a sickness curdles in your chest in response to that thing most of us have a funny relationship with. Criticism. At times, even if painfully aware of fixable flaws in ourselves and our work and on the lookout for honest feedback, our mood plummets on autopilot when someone else identifies these things. Certain people take it better than others. Others retreat and wallow in a cave if a friend suggests their shoes and jacket don’t go together as well as intended. Whatever you relate to more, few of us would describe receiving criticism as a pleasant experience.
Before we go any further, let’s discuss what criticism fundamentally is, and the form is takes.
Also known as ‘hate’ in internet lingo. These comments can be outright nasty, grounded in false assumptions and unnecessary: for example, people scrutinising your appearance or calling you a ‘crappy writer’ without justification. Because truth is, not everyone wants to spread boundless positivity and enforce the self-esteem of others. Perhaps, the ‘attacker’ frames an element of truth in malicious terms – their manner overshadows potentially useful comments. Many people struggle to differentiate between the two, and carry the emotional impact of such criticism for a long time.
This, for the most part, is what we experience on a regular basis. At work and school, in friendships and therapy. The other person highlights where we’ve gone wrong and suggests improvements in a calm, practical manner. Perhaps, they soften the impact by prefacing their critique with an appraisal, and then say what needs to be said. Their intentions are positive. For instance: teachers who understand how to push students to higher grades without destroying their confidence. Friends offering ‘tough love’ during hard times. The most constructive criticism contains potential solutions to the issue it recognises.
The difference between constructive and destructive criticism can be manner. For example, imagine two friends, A and B, discussing why you struggle to reach your goals. Friend A praises the clarity of your vision and work ethic, but suggests you try to do too many things at once and procrastinate on the hardest ones. Friend B jumps straight to the deep end, denouncing your laziness, lack of focus and sluggishness. They both want to support your personal growth, but their manner evokes a different response. Listening to friend A, you feel good about your existing accomplishments, and an urge to aim higher. Friend B’s comments, on the other hand, appear highly personal. You walk away insulted and derive nothing of value.
Most of us understand the value of honest feedback. If we stagnate in any area of our lives, if our progress fades, enlisting an objective viewpoint and advise from others can help you push through any barriers. In an ideal world, all of us would like to receive criticism with neutrality and learn the lesson being taught. Are the comments useless or hateful? Brush them aside. We know the sensible thing to do. So, why do many of us struggle with such remarks, even if they help us become better versions of ourselves?
The hard work factor
Told from birth that hard work equals success, we deliver the effort and expect brilliant results. But whoever gives feedback – teachers, your online audience, colleagues – see the final outcome, not the hours you put in and comment in light of their knowledge. You see your hard work, or the entire concept of working hard for achievement (i.e., ‘what’s the point?), as undermined. Furthermore, when we seek criticism, by implication we look to change something in the future. But, already having spent hours on the existing outcome, you may be reluctant to make further adjustments.
People like to feel good about themselves. We think we must hone countless positive characteristics and be close to perfect in everything we do to succeed. Of course, few of us think we’re flawless. But as this article on PsychologyToday discusses, there’s something innate about how our minds and bodies react when we someone ‘attacks’ our .
Poor confidence and self-esteem
Leading on from the above, many of us are our own worst critic. Suffering from poor self-esteem, we seek external reassurance and want others to highlight our positive qualities. In the absence of such praise, our confidence plummets in a vicious cycle.
I’ll illustrate with a personal example. I’m rarely happy with my writing. It’s a tricky thing, getting words on paper. I can spend hours polishing my work, whether that’s a blog post or an essay, and still cringe at the outcome. Critiquing myself in the harshest of ways? Completely fine. In fact, the odd occasion of praising my own work feels uncomfortable. But someone else highlighting the exact same flaw takes a far greater toll.
Therefore, perhaps, many of us struggle with criticism because it seems to reaffirm whatever ‘failures’ we’ve already attributed to ourselves.
We view certain truths as negative, and would quickly denounce them in other people. Recognising the same shortfalls in ourselves sucks. They can be minor, like oversaturating your Instagram photos when you think subtle, faded colours look much better. Or, there are the bigger, fundamental issues that you have to address sooner or later. Issues that contradict your core values. Someone points them out, and the world turns upside down as you can no longer hide from uncomfortable facts concerning you and/or your work.
Similarly to the ‘hard work’ factor, hearing negative feedback on something with a deeper importance to you is much harder than casual, bypassing comments on your outfit or how you’ve parked your car. Imagine, for example, giving online advice on an issue that used to be central in your life, just to receive a comment denouncing it as unhelpful and dishonest. Or, writing an essay on your favourite topic and getting a bad grade.
Taking the criticism personally
Destructive criticism can certainly feel direct and personal. Some people succeed in ignoring unhelpful and hostile words, but detaching from something that hits our insecurities is far easier said than done.
On a more subtle level, we may extrapolate assumptions from constructive feedback. A friend questions a decision you’ve made? They must think you’re a thoughtless person. A teacher sends you back to make improvements to your essay? You have no chance of success in their class. We fall into ‘they said this, so they must be implying this’ thinking. Or we attach critique to our personal characteristics: panicking, deciding the other person hates us, and finding a multitude of reasons for why that may be. It’s a vicious cycle, to say the least.
Are you, for whatever reason, inclined to see the other person’s views as invalid? Do you dislike them on a personal level? Do they have sufficient ‘expertise’ in a given area? We tend to be more receptive to the opinion of people we trust, admire and look up to, doubting and disagreeing with those who don’t tick one or all of these boxes.
To understand how criticism can be handled with grace and the positive side of it in mind, we must look at the two types – constructive and destructive – separately.
Ways to handle destructive criticism
Question the extent to which it’s destructive
Different people have different communication styles. Factors such as personality and culture and even the person’s mood affect this. In Russia (my birth country), it’s not unusual to frame useful feedback in personal comments and adjectives such as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘horrendous’. In the UK, where people tend to preface criticism with compliments and softening words, it may pass off as plain rudeness.
Difficult as it may be, try to separate the tone from the feedback. Is the person, underneath their confrontational manner, saying something useful? When someone yells at us, our initial response is shrinking away. But think: what can you extract from their comments to do better next time? See the criticism in a different light – at the end of the day, they’re saying what needs to be said in the most frank and honest manner. And it may not be as harsh as it seems, when you take into account the factors mentioned above.
Don’t get angry or argue back
Even if you don’t agree. Listen carefully. Acknowledge what the person said and, once the initial wave of emotions retreats, give yourself time to reflect on the criticism. Arguing is unlikely to change the person’s mind and will instead generate avoidable friction in your relationship.
Keep intention in mind
In some cases, the destructive criticiser doesn’t want to hurt us. As a matter of fact, direct, blunt feedback is many people’s ways of trying to help, even if they unintentionally overstep the boundary between helpful and rude.
Here’s another personal example. In year 8, two of my friends phoned me up to tell me I’m a horrid singer, thereby crushing my plans of entering Britain’s Got Talent. At the time, it stung. My dreams of being the next Christina Aguilera fell through the floor. But, they saved me from nationwide humiliation! And if my teachers hadn’t torn apart my essays throughout my two years of the IB, I would have made the same mistakes in the final exams and underachieved simple from being unaware of them.
From now on, analyse why people are telling you something. Keeping in mind that your emotional response may not correspond with their intentions, look at whether the central message is true with a calm, receptive mind.
Start a dialogue, not an argument. Ask the person to clarify their remarks and provide examples. ‘You’re a bad writer’ says nothing valuable. However, encouraging them to be more specific on what improvements you can make turns destructive criticism into structured feedback.
Letting it go is a wise course of action in some circumstances. When someone calls you an idiot for no reason or attacks something that can’t, or doesn’t need to be changed (like your appearance), you can push the comment aside without looking much further into it.
As a general rule, apply this when the criticism targets you as a person – i.e., not your performance and actions – or is impossible to implement.
Never take it personally
This is the one trick you can apply across all types of destructive criticism. How the person chooses to structure and deliver their comments has a lot more to do with them than with you. As aforementioned, everything from their preferred communication style to mood comes into play. Assess if they are trying to be helpful. If not (most of the time, deliberate malice is obvious), ignore and move on. You can’t control other people, but you can keep your response to negativity in check.
Ways to handle constructive criticism
Adopt a growth mindset
Our mission throughout life is to learn, grow and mature. We set goals and expectations for ourselves. We want to make the most of the years we’re given on Earth, excelling at our purpose. But we need other people to help us along the way. As much as I recommend practicing self-evaluation, certain faults can only be spotted from a distance. Defining precisely what’s holding you back simplifies moving forward.
Think about it this way. Behind the people you look up to, the ones who exemplify what you want to achieve, whose values match your own, stands a line of critics who beg to differ when you insist this individual is perfect and flawless. Without doubt, your role models used what their critics said throughout the years to become the person they are today. They extracted all that’s true, all that is practical to refine enhance their defining characteristics.
Here, mindfulness comes into play. Accept that negative feedback hurts. Even if underlined by good intentions. At the same time, keep in mind how fundamental it is to growth: that you would rather bear the impact now than stay in the same place. Look at the reasons I listed at the start of this post, and evaluate why the words upset you. Are you in denial? Have you attached too much emotion to what you do? With this reason in mind, remember that thorough, balanced criticism from people you trust is a lesson, not an insult.
‘Progress, not perfection’
Ah, perfectionism. The unlikely enemy. A hurdle masked as an invaluable asset. Counterintuitively, our urge to be our best selves and and outperform each time heightens our sensitivity to criticism. Of course, ‘perfection’, one of the most subjective concepts, may not exist at all. But how can you achieve what you consider to be your best without removing shortfalls? As the all time favourite cliché recommends, replace perfect with progress. Focus on incrementally bettering your work and yourself in your entirety. After admitting that perfection is unattainable and mistakes are an integral part of any process, you’ll start welcoming criticism as an opportunity for improvement.
Don’t identify yourself with criticism
Easier said than done, for sure. We often attach ourselves to our work and measure our self-worth in terms of tangible outcomes. Calling yourself a ‘photographer’, you want your photography to impress. Dedicating years of your life to a university course, you want to live up to the decision and surpass all expectations.
To stop associating yourself with criticism, learn to it criticism as constrained in time, space and circumstance. Gain as much objectivity as possible. Don’t make further assumptions or search for implied meaning. Take on board what the person says and nothing else. This, of course, takes practice because we are prone to jumping to conclusions. Many of my friends, upon receiving a bad grade, think ‘this is it!’, their teacher must think they’re talentless and incapable of performing any better. Doing so, they forget a key fact. That grade concerns the one single essay to which it applies, accompanied by feedback to help them do better next time. Aka, it doesn’t reflect their current aptitude, let alone potential, as a whole.
Apply this lesson in any area of your life. We’re allowed to make mistakes. We won’t always practice what we preach. Hence, we need the helping hand of people who want to keep us on track.
Don’t identify the criticism with the other person
If you refuse to take someone’s comments seriously because you dislike them or see their credibility as questionable, use a similar principle as the above and draw your attention to the content, not the source. A good technique is re-writing the feedback a few hours later and/or putting it into your own words. This way, you won’t miss out on useful insights due to your biases. And who knows, your opinion of the person may change as a whole!
Bad at accepting negative feedback, we may be even worse at taking it on board. A tactical error, I should think. As long as it seems constructive, valid and reasonable, implement criticism as much as possible. Noticing your life and performance improve as a result will brighten your overall view of it. In other words, let’s say you achieve one of your goals after implementing feedback. The next time someone implies you change your approach or take a different road, you’ll recall the positive experience with using criticism to your advantage, therefore receiving the comment with gratitude.
No matter what we try, people undermining our efforts and expressing disagreement will be hard to swallow. Criticism being a matter of opinion doesn’t help: you can always agree to disagree with every negative comment you receive. But doing so risks stagnation and denial in the long run. The best option is learning to differentiate constructive from destructive, and shaping your response accordingly. No one escapes judgement and less-than-ideal feedback, but we must take the necessary steps to see it as fuel for growth – even if you disagree with the comments, after all, the process of taking criticism reinforces our mental resilience and strengthens us in the face of challenge!
Let me know in the comments: do you struggle with taking criticism? What’s the best way of responding to negativity of any kind?