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Thoughts on Handling Criticism


If you are like me some criticism hurts and some doesn’t bother you at all. It is the first kind that this post is about.

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt – why not?

I think there are a couple of reasons why some criticism doesn’t bother us.

1. is because the person criticising us gets us so wrong.
A friend of mine once criticised me as being too competitive (he was convinced that everyone was – yes it was a he.). If I can get on with doing what I want to do then I’m not bothered much about what other people do or whether they do it better than me. It took him months to realise that I really didn’t need to compete (and to his credit he did examine his belief).
2.is because we don’t care about being the thing being criticised.
People are very welcome to criticise my ignorance of sport.
The pursuit and abuse of balls is an occupation I find strange. I am still not an initiate into the mysteries of what “Off side” means – people have tried to explain it to me and I still don’t get it. (Very likely because I don’t put much effort into figuring it out because I couldn’t care less.)


Why it hurts
If the criticism hurts it is because it has touched on something important to us – either our view of ourselves, or some relationship, or object, or project that is precious to us.


Here are my thoughts about how we can respond to criticism.

1. It may not be a good idea to act on (or even voice) our first reaction; but it is worth knowing what it is.

I’m a very verbal person so making speeches in my head to defend myself and denounce the criticiser is something I naturally do. After doing this for a while (sometimes quite a while) it is possible to start knowing what is bugging me.

Our reaction always tells us what is important to us.

Some criticism I experience as an outrage. Especially when I think it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

My favourite example of this, which I can be quite light hearted about now, is: You’re so critical!

I used to dislike this criticism; because I felt that the person didn’t see my intention – to clear away the rubbish so we could focus on what was important and useful and so we could get on with being constructive. Now I can ignore what I think is wrong, or focus on the useful part without needing to bother with what is wrong (unless it is important to understand the mistake). What was important to me was to get to the good stuff and not be messed around by misperceptions, shoddy thinking and so on.


2. It’s harder for perfectionists
Perfectionists usually spend a lot of time criticising themselves. So when someone else does it too it can be pretty hard.

If you are a perfectionist one approach is to see if the other person’s criticism matches up with your own.


3. Distractions are fine
Sometimes we know that our reaction is over the top and that it will pass in time. If so, there is nothing wrong with passing the time in a pleasant way. Doing vigorous physical activity, watching an engrossing movie or whatever. Or work on something that you think is important (if you can focus your attention).

I don’t think we have to confront every issue or work on every experience. Some things aren’t worth bothering with. I think it is fine to enjoy yourself while the intensity fades.

If your reaction doesn’t diminish as you expect it to then it is time to learn.


Learning from the criticism
It is possible to learn from the criticism itself if true; and possible to learn from our reaction to the criticism whether it is true or not.

If you aren’t too upset it is possible to adopt the position of: What in this criticism is true? In this way you get some distance from it and can gain insight.

This only works if your emotion isn’t too intense. When I’m making those speeches in my head defending myself and/or denouncing others I’m in no frame of mind to enquire into the truthfulness of the criticism.

When the emotion is intense it is helpful to express your emotion as strongly as you can, with all of who we are. This can be done in ways that don’t harm yourself, others, or the furniture. Here are some possibilities:

  • Walking around giving speeches in your head (the most common one for me)
  • Writing a letter to your critic that you will never send
  • Letting your muscles do what they want to do (strangle a pillow, punch a bed, tear apart a box with the criticism written on it)

After you have done this you will feel more clear headed and perhaps tired or exhausted. It can take a while.


Then it is time to see what you make of the criticism and your reaction to it.

You may be able to decide if the criticism is fair or not. (You may want to ask someone to listen to you while you talk this out).

And then consider any changes you want to make. Which may include:

  • Having nothing to do with your critic ever again
  • Telling your critic they were wildly mistaken
  • Not telling your critic particular things about you
  • Not involving your critic in some things you do
  • Acknowledging that there is some truth in the criticism
  • Deciding that your critic is right and you need to make some adjustments
  • Deciding that your critic is right and embarking on major changes
  • Thanking your critic for their feedback and that it has helped you start making changes.


Handling criticism is not easy. These are my thoughts. If you have suggestions for how to handle criticism I would love you to share them in the comments.

I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don't hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Chris Edgar 2013/02/07, 11:24 am

    I like what you say about asking whether the criticism matches up with what you typically say to yourself — one of the things I tend to point out to myself when I am ruminating about a criticism I’ve received is that the reason for my hurt and my consequent mental spinning about what was said is likely that it “confirmed” what I’d been saying to myself.
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  • Evan 2013/02/07, 7:51 pm

    I think that is very true Chris. Thanks for your comment.

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