How to Handle Criticism

No one likes criticism, and why should we? By its very nature, criticism means that something is missing, that you have flaws, that someone has found you lacking. Even constructive criticism, given with every intent to help you rather than harm you, can plant seeds of doubt in your head. What if I can’t get better? What if I’m just not good enough?

Unfortunately, if you never receive criticism, you put yourself in the dangerous position of never improving. That’s fine if you’re the definitive expert at what you do, but for most of us, we’re working hard to get better at something every day. It would be great if we could criticize ourselves, but it generally takes an objective person to give us solid tips to improve.

Just because you don’t like criticism, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to leverage it. Here are a few tips on how to effectively handle criticism:

Consider the source.

All criticism is not created equal. An expert giving you useful tips on how to improve should be given much more weight than a well-meaning friend who simply says “keep trying.” Find people who are where you want to be, and consider their suggestions more carefully than someone who can’t relate to your situation. Better yet, get a mentor that you can always talk to when you have questions.

Seek out actionable advice.

Ever been told by a teacher, manager, or friend that something you did “just isn’t good enough?” That’s the worst kind of criticism. You can’t improve if no one gives you concrete advice. Instead, dig deeper and figure out why something isn’t good enough. Learn specifically what you need to do to improve, such as work on your editorial skills or take a class on public speaking.

Listen for repeat advice.

If you receive criticism from multiple, credible sources, you may find certain pieces of advice emerging from each source. You should focus your efforts on those areas to improve. If you choose not to follow advice that’s been given from different sources, you run the risk of hearing it over and over until you finally do give it a try.

Don’t try to improve all areas equally.

You may hear some random feedback from a credible source that your instinct tells you is bogus. Listen to your gut in this case. Realistically, you don’t have the time to improve all aspects of yourself, so you need to divide and conquer. Focus on improving areas that you think need improvement. Table the nit-picky (and even potentially unnecessary) advice for now, and create a plan of improvement that makes the most sense to you.

Try again.

Fail miserably the first time you received feedback? That’s okay. If you have actionable advice, then follow your action plan for improvement, and then try again. We learn best when we try things several times, so whenever possible, get criticism from the same person as before. If you start hearing new tips for improvement, you know you’re getting better.

Most importantly, don’t let criticism get you down.

It’s easy to get wound up in the throes of self-improvement. You might feel that you’ll never get to where you want to be or there’s too much to learn. Relax. Everyone started out as a beginner at one point. Don’t let the journey warp your self-esteem. Instead, enjoy the ride of what you’re doing, knowing you’re getting better all the time.

How do you handle criticism? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments below.

Photo by Jack Batchelor

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

21 Comments

  1. I think we need people tell us our mistakes, this can help us to know if we are doing well.

    Reply
    • I also think it’s smart to have someone help point out mistakes. It makes us better in the long run.

      Reply
  2. Of course it’s never easy to hear that you’re doing something wrong, or that the method you’ve chosen isn’t the best. However, you have to always keep your eyes and ears open to what others have to say. You can’t become the best at something without learning from your mistakes. Personally, I handle criticism by realizing that the person offering the criticism cares enough not to dismiss my ideas, but to help me improve them.

    Reply
    • That’s a very smart perspective, Steve. Many people want you to improve, so the care enough to try to help you.

      Reply
  3. It is common to experience resistance when it comes to taking on opportunities that not only challenge us but also test our level of self acceptance when it comes to receiving feedback.

    When we allow the resistance to manifest non-action due to fear, it is because we are not ready to accept ourselves as growing individuals. Only the ego stands in the way of self acceptance. So I find it useful to ask myself, how is my fear of non-acceptance for my growth serving me right now when faced with such challenges.

    All creative activities which have real impact allow the opportunity for feedback. I do not think any could argue this.

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • I agree that if you’re doing something worthwhile, you’ll likely get criticism. In some ways, receiving any criticism is a mark of progress in itself. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

      Reply
  4. Feedback is great when I ask for it, It’s the harsh criticism that is harder to digest.

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    • Harsh criticism has set me back more than a few times. I try to give myself a few days away from it, and then look back to it with a less emotional view. And sometimes, harsh criticism is simply harsh, and I try to ignore it if I can’t get anything actionable out of it. It’s a tough journey though.

      Reply
  5. It took several training courses and several years of transformational work until I got that I just wasn’t being “coachable,” but when I did, I understood how I’d been constantly undermining my own success by not accepting constructive criticism. It took several more years until I really came to understand how to accept it in the best possible manner. At this point, I have a trusted team of committed listeners whom I trust to give me feedback when I ask for it and it makes a world of difference. Once I gave up trying to be perfect and believing that I ever would be perfect, “criticism” went from being a negative to being just another way for me to grow. Great post. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Finding people you trust to give you good feedback can go a long way to learning how to accept criticism. You know in the long run they want you to succeed.

      Glad to hear that you’re doing well in your own journey. Sounds like you’re getting better all the time! :)

      Reply
  6. “A fool has only himself for a master.”
    Good article – I welcome criticism if it’s from a person I respect. I never claimed to know everything and if someone is more knowledgeable than me in something, I am more than open to being critiqued. You hit the nail on the head when you said “consider the source”. People have alterior motives at times so you have to be careful who you take advice from.

    Reply
  7. Great, timely post Jack. It is so important to be open to feedback but to also have the confidence to evaluate it and take action on your own terms. I think considering the source is the most important and overlooked part.

    Reply
  8. Yeah there’s definitely valuable criticism and worthless criticism. That you’re criticized doesn’t mean you’re lacking at all – just that THEY think so. But listening to repeat advice is probably the biggest thing then. Cause if you’re a jerk at whatever, or below average in whatever, people will tell you more than once over the course of your life, and those who don’t say it, certainly show it.

    Reply
  9. Thanks to both Tommy and Brian for mentioning that “Consider the Source” is the most important factor to consider in using criticism. I completely agree, which is why I listed that item first. You should always consider who’s talking to you when evaluating criticism. There is some criticism you should completely ignore if it’s from the wrong person with the wrong intent. Always consider the source!

    Reply
  10. Hi Deborah,

    I liked what you said about considering the source. It seems to have hit a nerve. I write for and about highly sensitive people and we have a difficult time with that because we tend to be very open. HSP’s have to be particularly careful about who that chose to receive advice from.

    Reply
  11. Actually, being criticized is one of my biggest fears. This is why I hate having to report to a superior all the time, which led me to doing freelancing work.

    However, even in freelancing, criticisms from clients cannot be totally avoided. It’s a good thing that I stumbled upon your blog. Now, I am more prepared on how Is should deal with criticisms and how to take them lightly. I used to cry over every critic that I hear, but I am more confident that I’ll be more mature in dealing with my critics this time.

    Reply
    • I’m happy if this column helped you a little. Remember that some criticism should be ignored. I’m sure you know in freelance work that some people just complain to complain. That’s not going to help you. Learning mechanisms on how to ignore useless criticism can help you get past those hurdles.

      I understand how you feel though. I also used to get upset when I heard criticism, but I’m getting better all the time. I wish you the same!

      Reply
  12. Criticism whether good or bad help us know what we need and improve to ourselves. Sometimes bad criticism makes us good and strong person. We should learn how to deal with criticism and what actions to take.

    Reply
  13. I don’t understand why but I get offended very easily when people criticize me. Is it because I’m egoistic? However I accept people cracking jokes on me, when I’m made a laughing stock but somehow cannot accept criticism. Can I change that? What would you suggest?

    I also think that some people criticize just because they are pessimistic or when they don’t like someone in particular. I hate such type of criticism, completely rigged by judgment.

    Reply
    • First, you’re completely right that some people just criticize because they are pessimistic or just don’t like a certain person. That kind of criticism should be dismissed.

      As to being offended by criticism, I don’t think it’s an ego problem, per se. If you put a lot of passion into your work, it can feel like a personal attack to hear criticism. I’ve faced this problem myself as a writer. Besides the advice laid out in the article, I’ve found that having a mentor whom I trust to give useful feedback help. This person can judge my work for what it is and then offer solid advice to get better. I consider this person an expert, better than myself in some ways. Perhaps finding a mentor for your work can help it feel more like a teacher-student relationship rather than just random criticism from an unwanted source.

      Reply
  14. We all face criticism during our daily lives. All we need to do is to take it in a positive way and think if we can improve on it.

    Reply

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