I was a very sensitive kid. Even a well-intentioned correction or constructive feedback would propel me into tears and a swell of self-criticism equal to or worse than the criticism of others.
I took things personally. I assumed blame when I wasn’t at fault or the expectations were unreasonable. This took a toll on my self-esteem. I felt inferior. And to make matters worse, I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. So, I positioned myself to avoid as much feedback and criticism as possible. Criticism really stung, so I tried to do everything right.
Other times I’d lash out with big, impulsive, angry and defensive reactions to criticism. Neither reaction worked well.
It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I learned how to separate my self-worth from what others thought of me and how to respond to criticism with grace and respect. I’m not perfect at it. Sometimes a negative comment sticks with me and I start second guessing myself. I’m going to share with you the strategies that I use to keep these kinds of doubts at bay.
Effectively dealing with criticism isn’t about toughening up, cutting off your feelings, or learning to not care what other people think. It’s about knowing these truths:
- I’m more than my successes or failures.
- My self-worth doesn’t depend on whether you hold me in high esteem.
- Most criticism isn’t really about me (it’s about the person giving it).
- I can decide how I feel about the criticism I’m given.
I respond to criticism with grace and respect with these 7 strategies.
Decide whose opinion matters.
I couldn’t possibly write an article on dealing with criticism without referencing Dr. Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong. In it she uses the metaphor of the arena based on Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”
I want to receive feedback – positive and negative – from people I have a relationship with and who genuinely care about me or my work. Some people want to “dump and run” (especially on the internet and social media). I find this when I write and you probably find it in the ways you courageously show up in life, whether it’s speaking your truth, setting a boundary, sharing your talents, or launching a new business. When you let the world see you, you have to accept that they will judge you. You can respond to criticism like a pro – with grace and dignity and respect. You can decide what feedback you let in and whose opinion really matters.
Brown writes, “For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked I’m not interested in your feedback.” In other words, anyone can sit on the sidelines and hurl insults, but unless they’ve got some skin in the game, their opinion doesn’t matter. It’s only the people who are courageously showing up in life whose opinions matter. These are the people who give constructive feedback. They’re empathetic even when giving criticism. They know what it feels like to take chances, to get knocked down, stand back up and continue on.
Take your time.
You don’t have to respond to criticism right away. This is certainly easier when you’re responding in writing versus having a conversation with someone face to face, but you can still pause to think or cool off so that you respond (instead of react) with grace. If you’re having strong feelings in response to criticism, taking a few hours or even days to respond may be ideal. I often need this time to sort out my feelings, let go of hurt and defensiveness, and decide how best to respond.
Look for something positive or useful in the criticism.
Sort through what was said like you’re putting it through a sieve. Separate what has merit from what doesn’t. Sometimes there isn’t anything useful, but it’s helpful to assume the best about people.
Look for evidence.
When you’re not sure if the criticism has merit, look for facts. For example, if someone says I make a lot of typos or am constantly late to meetings, I can count the number of times these things happen or ask the opinion of someone I trust.
Remember it’s probably not about you.
“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.” – Don Miguel Ruiz
Imagine that Joe left me a comment that said, “Sharon, that article sucked. Using the label codependent blames the victim and you should be ashamed of yourself for labeling people.” This is very much a window into Joe’s beliefs and experiences and has nothing to do with me or my article. Joe’s comment is a reflection of his perceptions of me and the world. Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in The Four Agreements, “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up….”
Be kind whenever possible.
I’m not saying you should be a doormat. Kindness isn’t the same as passivity or placating. Kindness means I choose not to meet a personal attack with a counter-attack. When someone attacks me personally, I wonder, “Why is Mary having such a strong reaction?” When I can see the pain, sadness, and hurt behind Mary’s negativity or anger, I can access empathy and not take her criticism personally.
Sometimes the best response is no response.
You gave the criticism thoughtful consideration. You looked for evidence. You assumed the best about the criticizer. You were kind. Some criticism is so far from your reality that it’s quite preposterous. Notice when someone’s criticism of you just doesn’t make sense. You may wonder if you’re having the same conversation, reading the same material, or living in the same house. When this happens, it’s probably other people’s baggage or agenda that they’re trying to hoist onto you. They’re looking to engage you in a conflict. You don’t have to participate. What’s the point in trying to convince someone of your reality when they are clearly living in a different one?
When you show up and do anything in life, you’re going to get shot down some of the time. It’s the price you pay for “being seen”. The alternative is to live a small life, to never create, never try anything that you aren’t already good at, to play it safe.
I’ve decided to take my chances in the arena. I hope you’ll join me.
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