We can’t expect everyone to approve of us or our behavior at all times – it’s simply impossible, since different people prefer different things. Also, we are not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations. In addition, none of us are perfect.
So, it’s inevitable that we’ll be on the receiving end of criticism at some point. While this isn’t always a pleasant experience, there are ways to learn from the encounter without becoming unduly upset. Some pointers:
Repeat some silent affirmations. It’s easy to become defensive when we’re hearing ways in which we may have fallen short. Our automatic reaction can be to equate a mistake or shortcoming with being a failure as a human being. To avoid this self-derogatory stance, try some of the following statements:
- I have many good points [and then name some].
- I may have made a mistake, but I am not a mistake.
- I can use this experience to grow as a person.
Consider the source. Try to discern if the person criticizing you is your ally or adversary. Is the person offering criticism generally a reasonable person, or does he or she often discourage or find fault with people other than yourself? Does the criticizer tend to yell, be prone to coldness, condescending looks or comments, or have a “my way or the highway” mentality? If this is the case, it’s wisest not to take the criticism personally.
Sometimes you’ll sense that the criticizer is mainly being rude or in a bad mood. I know that this can be difficult if you’re feeling threatened, but keep in mind that everyone sees the world through his or her personal lens. You don’t have to take on another person’s irritability, depression, or perfectionism.
Manage your stress level. It’s very hard to really take in what someone else is saying when we’re physically and emotionally tense. We simply do not process information well in this state. To calm yourself, take some deep, slow breaths. Relax your shoulders. Sit (or stand) up straight, but not rigidly.
Acknowledge the grain of the truth in the criticism. While you may not “always” be late to work (as accused), perhaps fairly often you do saunter or race into the office ten or 15 minutes (or more) late. Or maybe you don’t turn in work with mistakes “all the time” (as accused), but maybe you sometimes rush through a project and neglect to proof-read.
Try to see past the all-or-nothing statements and extract what information may be useful to you.
Listen carefully. If allowed, repeat or paraphrase back what you believe you heard. For instance, you could respond with, “What I’m hearing is…” or “You feel that…” Wait for some sign from the other person that you’re on track, and if this isn’t clear, ask for further clarification. When your intention is to listen and understand the other person’s viewpoint, you’ll be less likely to become defensive.
Do your best. Some people will simply never be satisfied. Whether this be due to narcissism, your reminding them of their “evil ex-husband”, or dissatisfaction with themselves that is projected onto you, they may be fighting their own demons. All you can do is behave in a manner that’s consistent with your values, and if this isn’t enough, you may choose to limit or cease contact with the other person. If leaving the situation entirely isn’t possible (for instance, if the perpetrator is your boss and you can’t quit your job just yet), do consider moving toward an exit plan. Your other option is to accept the other person’s idiosyncrasies and stop expecting more from them.
Sometimes we stay in personal or professional relationships that aren’t working out because we try too hard to please the other people involved. Learn what you can from the criticism, but if it’s destructive and degrading, rather than constructive, do not fall into the trap of thinking that you have to “fix everything”.
Acknowledging that you did make some mistakes does not negate your worth as a human being, and you still owe it to yourself to take good care of yourself, which may include leaving your job or romantic partner if necessary. On the other hand, if the criticizer is also being kind, you can thank them for their feedback. Remember that it’s not easy to give constructive criticism, given that the recipient may experience anger, hurt, or sadness.
Above all, surround yourself with people who are encouraging and can also point out in constructive ways where you may be falling short of your best self. It’s important to get honest feedback. We generally grow better with encouragement than when surrounded by disdain. Go where you are celebrated, where people are both supportive and honest with you.