A 5-Step Simple Plan for Dealing with Criticism

I have bristles.

You probably have them too.

They come out when someone says something to me that is critical or that I interpret as a criticism.

When they are activated, these bristles set off a chain of internal feelings, thoughts, and physical symptoms. It's amazing how one comment can't set this complicated system in motion.

All at once, you might feel hurt, anger, embarrassment, shame, or indignant.

Mentally, you quickly assimilate all of the necessary elements for your defense, your contrary evidence, and possibly a counter-offensive.You might calculate ways to deflect blame or turn the tables.

Physically, you feel tensed up, short of breath, on high alert, or sometimes totally deflated and teary.

All of this happens in a matter of seconds. The words are barely out of the person's mouth before the bristles are up and the reactions are activated.

If the criticizer is someone close to you, someone with whom you have history, who knows your strengths and weakness, and who has a finger on your hot buttons, then this bristle activation system is super-charged. An avalanche of past feelings and old hurts crashes down on you.

Words have power.

And whether or not the criticizer knows what they are doing, criticism (even if it is well-intended or constructive) rarely brings out our best qualities.

More often than not, our internal response to criticism results in external behavior that is less than stellar. We have the common knee-jerk reactions to deny, defend, deflect, and attack back.

Or if the criticism is proffered by someone in authority, where it would harm us further to have those knee-jerk reactions, then we attempt to shove it down. In addition to feeling hurt and anger, we feel bad about ourselves. Our self-confidence takes a hit because we can't even properly defend ourselves or let this person know what a jerk they are.

As with every other negative experience, criticism provides an opportunity for learning, renewal, and personal evolution — if we choose to walk that path.

We can view criticism as a random bomb that has exploded in our wake, or we can transform it for our betterment.

Yes, we will always feel the sting of criticism in the immediacy of the moment. But knowing that criticisms are inevitable in life, you can plan ahead and develop some coping skills for the moment and a strategy for later when the bristles have receded.

Here is a simple plan for dealing with criticism:

1. Immediate Reaction

When it happens, and the bristle system is activated, do everything in your power to prevent yourself from saying something defensive, ugly, or reactive. Take a deep breath, and count to twenty to allow the first flood of feelings to pass.

If a response is absolutely called for, then say something like, “Wow, I need to think about that for a few minutes.”ย  If you are so overwhelmed with anger or hurt, then excuse yourself from the person's presence — not by stomping away, but by saying something like, “Your comment has caused a flood of emotions. I need to step away to process them for a few minutes.”

The goal is to avoid saying or doing anything in the moment that you will regret later or that will compromise your dignity or integrity. This takes some practice and skill, but it is well worth the effort.

2. Consider the Source

When enough time has passed, and your emotions have calmed down, think about the person who criticized you. Do you value this person's opinion? Was the criticism presented kindly and constructively? Was there any manipulation or meanness behind the comment? Was the person under pressure or stress? Was it the result of an argument or disagreement?

Come to some rational conclusions about this person, how much you respect them, and the context in which the comment was made. This will shed some light on the real power and legitimacy of the source so that you can fairly decide whether to dismiss it altogether or give it further th0ught and consideration.

3. Look for Truth

This is the hard part, because it involves taking an honest look at yourself. But this can also be the greatest opportunity for growth if you are willing to be real with yourself. Ask yourself, “Is there any truth to this criticism?” Is this a criticism that you have heard before? Did it sting because you feel there is truth behind it?

If you have a few close friends or family members whom you trust, ask them whether or not they see truth in the criticism. It hurts to hear validation that the criticism has merit, but it also opens your eyes to a need for growth and change.

If the criticism is related to your work or something you are creating, it is still wise to ask for a second or third opinion to provide additional perspective.

Most often, criticisms are only partly true. They are generally skewed by the criticizer's own emotions and perceptions. But addressing the issue is still necessary in order to preserve or nurture the relationship (if that's worthwhile).

4. What Have You Learned?

After you have spent some time thinking about the criticizer and the possible truth or the amount of truth behind the criticism, it's time to find the take-away.

If there is truth to the criticism, how do you want to change? What can you do to change? Knowing that there is truth, you may need to offer an apology. You may need to show a genuine effort to change.

If the criticism is related to work or a creative effort, you may need to re-group and formulate a better plan or a different idea. Maybe you need more research, better information, or simply to apply yourself more.

Whatever large or small piece of truth there is to the criticism, how can you apply it to your life to learn, evolve, become better at something? How can this criticism actually serve your greater good?

5. Circle Back

A criticism isn't just about the behavior or work being criticized. It is about relationships as well. This is another huge opportunity for personal evolution. Who do you want to be in this situation?

If the criticizer is a trusted person whose opinion you respect and who offered the criticism constructively and with love, then go back to them with heartfelt appreciation. Share with them how you have learned and grown from their comment. If an apology is necessary, offer it. It will be restorative and positive for both of you.

If the criticizer had less than honorable motives, but the criticism held some truth, go back anyway and offer your thanks. Be the person you want to be in the situation, regardless of the criticizer's motives or behavior. In light of your mature reaction, they may offer you an apology or healing words.

If the criticism was mean-spirited and untrue, you have a choice. If the relationship is important to you, then it will be your turn to offer a criticism. But present it gently and kindly, the way you would want to hear one. “What you said to me was hurtful and unkind. I reflected on it to see if there was truth to your words, but I found none. You need to know the impact your words have had on me.”

Or you can simply walk away and let it go. Sometimes this is the best option if you aren't trying to preserve a relationship. Don't give more negative energy or power to the situation by addressing it. The person might verbally attack again, only causing you further pain. It's hard to walk away, but it is a choice from personal power, not weakness.

You won't go through life without being criticized. It is inevitable. But knowing that, you can prepare yourself for your reactions. And you can step back, assess the criticism, and take a higher path for learning and personal evolution. It's worth a try.

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 14 comments
  • Irving the Vizier/Han of Harmony

    Hi Barrie,

    Criticism is certainly not ease to hear. If we are not careful, it can cripple us as you have pointed out. But in the midst of criticism, there may be some gems that we can use for our betterment. It is definitely not easy to look past the sting of the words, but if there is something to gain, we should at least make an effort. I enjoyed reading your 5 steps to dealing with criticism, here are some of the thoughts that crossed my mind.

    2. Consider the Source

    Not everyone knows what they are saying. In the heat of the moment, we may take opinions as facts and make the wrong choices as a result. Considering the source is vital to dealing with criticism. It helps us to see if there is indeed a need to look deeper if this person truly has wisdom and our interests at heart. Otherwise, it may be best to ignore the criticism and get on with our lives if possible, especially if there is no merit in it.

    3. Look for Truth

    This is vital to dealing with criticism. Is there any truth in what is said? It helps to focus on the solutions instead of the problem. If there is some area we can correct, it is more prudent to do so than to brood on things once the sting has passed. If we cannot view things objectively, we could ask for another person’s opinion as you say.

    For me it has helped to focus on how I can benefit from the criticism. It is certainly not easy to do so, but with practice, it becomes easier.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

    Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Irving,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, as always! Everything is easier with practice. Once you have a plan in mind for dealing with criticism, then you have something to grasp on to in the heat of the moment. A bit of rational thinking before criticisms ever occur will save you from saying or doing something that you might later regret. I’m so glad that is works in practice for you.

      Reply
  • Jon Sollie

    Hey Barrie!

    Another gem of a post. As usual, you have provided much food for thought, and perhaps a wake-up call for some of us may have become somewhat complacent about our reactions to the world around us. We can tend to accept events or situations with an “Oh well. that’s the way it is” attitude without giving much real thought to how we’re being affected.

    By avoiding the “knee jerk” reaction to criticism, it seems to me that we are better able to maintain control of what could become an emotionally charged situation. Sometimes it takes lots of discipline to not react, rather than to strike out at the source of criticism. Easier said than done. Eh? ๐Ÿ™‚

    All the best,

    Jon

    Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Jon,
      Yes, definitely easier said than done. The critical time is that brief period after you hear a criticism. That’s when emotions are at the peak. If we can just hold back on reacting and regain equilibrium, then we don’t give away our power in the situation. But emotions are powerful things. And they often get the best of us.

      Reply
  • Sassi lilia

    hi Barrie
    you came across an important and crucial topic Barrie
    I am liable to a graet deal of criticism but the problem is that it comes most of the time from my mother in law
    I always act in a violent way
    You gave me a different way to look at all that
    thanks!!

    Reply
      Nikky44

      VERY Interesting post. Thank you very much for sharing. I am very vulnerable to criticism, much more than people usually are. I never respond. I keep my emotions inside, but it hurts ๐Ÿ™ I am trying to learn how to deal with that

      Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Nikky,
      Criticism does hurt, but as you strengthen your self-confidence and learn to look at criticism honestly, it will not hurt as much or for as long. Keep working on it Nikky. It is an important investment to make in yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Sassi,
      I’m sure it is hard to receive criticism from your mother-in-law, especially if it is not offered in a loving and kind way. But you have a choice about your own behavior. You will feel better about yourself by maintaining your dignity and integrity.

      Reply
  • Susan Gregg

    Hi Barrie,

    I love the term bristles. I never thought about it that way. I find the questions I ask myself habitually really influence the quality of my life in a profound way.

    Questions that I find really help me defuse my bristles are: How can I see (or hear) this through the eyes of love? and What would love do?

    Thanks for the great post,
    Susan

    Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      That is a lovely way to respond to criticism Susan. Responding from love puts the power back in our hands. We are choosing who we want to be in the moment rather than just being reactive.

      Reply
  • Lucille

    Barrie
    I believe all criticism is negative – it serves no one – the giver or receiver. I was in a marriage where my ex loved to point out what I did wrong (and even what I could do better). It did not come from a place of love. Sadly, my father was the same.
    Criticism can never be constructive as it stems from the ego (the unhealthy part).
    I think we should eradicate this word. It leads to whole host of psychological disorders eg. anoreixa. I NEVER criticise since I am super-sensitive. I may offer feedback but I temper my words with kindness. Words can be so damaging.

    Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Lucille,
      I am so sorry you had to endure criticism from such important people in your life. That is so hurtful. I agree that ego-based criticism is rarely productive. But some criticism can be helpful. In work or some other endeavor, honest criticism can help you improve and grow. If there is someone loving in your life who can point out a behavior or issue that you might not see yourself, than can be a blessing (like someone telling you that you have spinach in your teeth!). The motivation behind the criticism is key to how it will be received. It’s never pleasant, but it can serve a purpose.

      Reply
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