Do You Know How to Deal With Criticism?

05/15/2016 10:54 pm ET
Lisa Runnels

What do you do when you’re criticised? Are you able to remain strong, take what’s valuable in the comment, and discard the rest, or does the slightest slight have you curled up in the foetal position questioning your very worth in the world?

Between these two extremes, most of us struggle with managing criticism well. How can you get better at this inevitable (yes, it is, sorry!) part of life? Follow the guidelines below and you’ll soon be not just handling criticism, but dominating it and actually finding yourself better off for the experience (gasp!).

Know the Difference between Criticism and a Personal Attack 

First, you need to decide if what you’re hearing is criticism or a personal attack. These are not the same thing! Although sometimes the criticiser mixes the two together, more often, we tend to take any criticism as a personal attack. Here’s the difference:

Criticism: Criticism is a comment about something you’ve done, that is not up to someone’s standards or expectations of you.

Good Criticism: Is specific about what you did wrong, and also tells you how to fix it. For example, ‘Your work on this project wasn’t good enough. You didn’t provide enough detail. I need you to give me more information about this, and also that, so I can make a properly informed decision.’

Bad Criticism (personal attack): Is not so much about what you did, but about who you are. Bad criticism takes your lack of competence in a certain area and says this means something about you as a person. Bad criticism also fails to tell you what you need to change to improve. For example, ‘Your work on this project was terrible. It’s obvious you’re not suited to this role and I don’t know why I ever thought you could handle this.’ Bad criticism is a personal attack.

If you have been subject to a personal attack, the best you can do is to swallow your pride and ask for specific guidelines about what you can do better next time. This allows you to regain some sense of hope from a ‘you’re hopeless’ type comment. It also shows you’re a strong person as you’re able to: a. not stoop to their level and attack them, b. not let their comments affect your self-worth, and c. take back your power and turn the situation to your own advantage. Asking how you can improve gives you a sense of control in terms of avoiding the situation next time.  

If the person can’t be specific, then feel free to blatantly ignore this kind of ‘criticism’. Analysing it, trying to guess what they really meant or taking it to heart will all just lead to hurt with no benefit to you. Do as Frozen tells us and ‘Let it Go, Let it Go.’

Know You’re Not a Bad Person because You’re Not Perfect

What’s actually more common than bad criticism is a good criticism that we then turn into a personal attack in our own head. Someone criticises a specific skill of yours, and you do the work of turning it into a ‘global’ statement about you – proof that you’re not good enough in that area, or even good enough in general.

For example, your work on the project was terrible. And you’re told how to fix it. But instead of getting to work, you sit there thinking how the comment ‘proves’ you’ll never fit into that workplace, and maybe even that it ‘proves’ that you’ll never fit into any workplace. This is especially toxic because not only is the time you spend doing this making you feel worse, you’re also wasting time that could be spent improving what was wrong! So you end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get too paralysed by doubt and fear to improve, and if you keep that line of thinking up at the expense of change, then your performance will suffer to the point where you will be ejected from the workplace. Even if it doesn’t get that far, globalising a specific criticism is extremely unhelpful. It makes a bad situation much worse than it has to be by making you feel worse than you need to.

If you have a tendency to do this, talk it through with someone. Often verbalising thoughts like ‘My boss criticised my dress sense and now I’m never going to make it in this industry,’ can help us to see how inaccurate they are. Other people are usually good at showing us more reasonable and specific explanations for the criticism, rather than responding with ‘well you’re just an inherently flawed person then aren’t you’!

Hint: The ability to avoid globalisation is a major difference between those with high and low self-confidence. Those with high confidence are more able to accept a good criticism for what it is - a valid point about an aspect of their behaviour. They quickly learn from the experience, improve as a result, as so their confidence increases. Whereas people with low self-confidence interpret specific criticisms as being statements about their whole being and worth as a person. If you know you have low self-confidence, then be alert for the possibility that you’ll make a biased interpretation. Ask yourself ‘What would my high confidence friend say if someone said the same thing to them? What would they do in this situation?’ (for a wonderfully self-affirming but not necessarily realistic interpretation of a situation, you could also ask yourself ‘what would Kayne West say in this situation?)

What to do instead

Stop using criticism to ‘prove’ something bigger about yourself. Instead, hear the criticism, give yourself a bit of time to feel and process the painful feelings that come with being criticised, and then get on with doing what needs to be done to fix the situation.

Not sure how to ‘just feel’ painful feelings without suppressing them or adding to them with unhelpful thoughts? Check out this blog post.

Know You Can’t Please Everyone

Sometimes it’s not even relevant to make changes to what you’re doing, even if the criticism was a good one. Whilst at work, you probably need to do what you’re being asked to do, in most other areas of your life, there’s more flexibility to ignore criticism.

How do you know what to ignore and what to listen to? By considering the values of the person making the comment in relation to your own values. For example, if someone criticises what you feed your child for dinner, the first thing you should do is ask the question: ‘Are your values the same as mine?’ In this example, you might prioritise spending time with your child and cook a quick dinner whilst someone else values cooking very healthily even if it means spending less time playing with their child. Neither one is wrong! There’s just different values at play (connecting with others vs. physical health and wellbeing) and one has to be prioritised at the expense of another, because time is a limited resource. So if you’re being criticised for your food choices, is this something that matters to you? Are you trying to get better in this area? If yes, then listen to the criticism and start cooking better. If you’re not, then feel free to ignore the criticism. You’re living in line with your values, and that’s what matters.

You can’t take on board every criticism if the area of concern doesn’t matter to you. Doing this is just people pleasing and it’s very damaging to your sense of self, because you give up your values just to keep someone else happy. Don’t do that!

Summary: How to Deal with Criticism

1. Make sure you’re acting on a criticism that is specific, not just a dig at who you are.

2. Resist the temptation to listen to (or create) a bigger meaning around a specific criticism. Just fix what needs to be fixed, and leave it at that. You are not a bad person because you’re not perfect.

3. Remember you’re free to ignore criticism if to do so won’t affect what you value in life. You can’t please everyone! So only change if doing so improves your ability to live your values (remember a sense of security from a steady job or the sense of connection that comes from a healthy relationship are values too).

Lana Hall is a Psychologist and Author who writes weekly on how to use psychological techniques to boost your mood, motivation and happiness. She works one-on-one with clients at her clinic in Brisbane, Australia and via Skype with national and international clients.

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