For me, developing resilience to criticism is one of the final frontiers of adulting. I can pay my bills, host fancy dinner parties, and even take care of my three kids with confidence, but the moment a friend or colleague points out a failing of mine—whether it’s telling me I can be judgmental, standoffish, or even, ironically, too sensitive—I spiral into self-doubt like a junior high student. I’m not proud of it. Still, I’m starting to see that criticism can actually be a very powerful force for good in my life, if I have the maturity to let it influence me in a positive way. Gradually, I’m learning that taking criticism with grace can actually help me grow into a better version of myself.
If you, too, struggle when tough-love comments come your way, try these five steps to better handling criticism.
1. Listen to discern truth.
When someone points out my imperfections, my natural first reaction is often disbelief or disagreement. How could I be wrong about this? I might wonder when I know a subject inside and out, or How could they not have liked my work? after I’ve given a task my best.
But the truth is, none of us can view ourselves with perfect objectivity—and we all have flaws. Perhaps, if we can set aside our pride, we can listen for whatever truth might underlie a critical comment. Though it may sting to hear it, maybe we really do take certain people for granted, for example, or don’t pull our weight with housework. Sometimes we actually need someone else to reveal these blind spots to us.
2. Give yourself a window of time to feel upset.
Some of the best advice ever given to me after a painful rejection in my writing career was, “Give yourself 48 hours to be mad.” Offering myself a window of time in which to rail against my critic (at least internally—I never respond back with a nasty-gram!) gives my tender ego a chance to recover. We’re all allowed to acknowledge the emotional pain criticism brings. And then, once we’ve had a little time to stew, it’s often easier to move forward with a cooler head.
While, depending on circumstances, it’s not always possible to follow this step, there are often ways to work in a breather before responding to criticism. Perhaps you tell your boss you need a day to consider her comments on your project, or you ask a family member if you can schedule a call after you’ve had a chance to think.
3. Ask questions to go deeper.
My personal tendency, when criticized, is to clam up, keep my head down, and bulldoze forward with as little communication as possible. A friend mentions she thinks I might be a bit of a hypochondriac? Okay, I’ll just never bring up my health again. An editor asks me to rework a paragraph? Yes, sir, sorry, sir, I’ll fix it immediately, no questions asked.
I’m learning, though, that continuing the conversation is usually a far more constructive approach. The more details I have about something I’ve done wrong, the better I can rectify it. No doubt, it’s uncomfortable to ask for more feedback after someone points out my failings, but doing so often clarifies the ways I can improve. Or, probing questions can even reveal that a comment I interpreted as critical that wasn’t intended that way at all.
4. Flip the script to see an opportunity for growth.
Mindset is everything when it comes to handling criticism. In her book “Mindset,” Stanford researcher Carol Dweck describes two possible mentalities: a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities, like intelligence or talent, are inborn and unchangeable. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that every failure or piece of critical feedback is an opportunity for positive change. Most of us would probably say we’d like to keep improving in various areas of life, whether in our work, hobbies, spirituality, or relationships. Viewing criticism as a chance to grow can flip the script from painful to positive.
5. Seek out constructive criticism in a safe environment.
Strangely, I’ve found that one path to handling criticism well is simply getting more of it. The more I receive challenging feedback, the less it phases me. To get more comfortable with criticism, try making a habit of asking a trusted friend or partner how they think you could improve. Soliciting their opinion could provide the safe environment you need to begin viewing criticism as a familiar, helpful tool.