7 Tips for Handling Criticism.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 tips for dealing with criticism.

I have a very tough time being criticized, corrected, or accused – of even the smallest mistakes – and I react very angrily. I’ve wrestled this instinct under control in a professional context, more or less, but I have more trouble with it at home. All it takes is for my daughter to make a mild comment such as, “You forgot to remind me to bring my library book,” to set me off. “What do you mean…it’s not my responsibility…I didn’t know Wednesday was Library Day…” etc., etc.

More and more, I see the connection between perfectionism, control, and anger. Zoikes, how I struggle to keep my sense of humor and light-heartedness! Here are some of the strategies that I try to use to accept criticism. If I manage to use them, they never fail me, but I don’t always manage to put them to work.

1. Listen to what a critic is saying. Really listen, try to understand that point of view, don’t just nod while I formulate my retorts. Accept just criticism.

2. Don’t be defensive. This is the toughest step for me. With my writing, for example, I always have to take a deep breath before reading an edit letter or meeting with an editor, to remind myself, “I welcome criticism. This person is helping me. I’m eager to hear how to improve my book/article/post.” Along the same lines…

3. Don’t expose myself to criticism from people I don’t respect. I pay a lot of attention to criticism from people I respect, but I try to shield myself from criticism from people I don’t know or don’t respect, because I fear that I’ll react to it, even though it may be unfounded. So when I get trustworthy criticism about my writing, I act on it, but I try to avoid reading drive-by snarkiness. Bad is stronger than good, and I fear that I’ll change my writing in response to some person’s thoughtless comment, in ways that won’t make my work stronger.  I need to stay creative, open-hearted, adventuresome, and honest, and if I feel defensive and apologetic, I won’t maintain those elements.

4. Delay my reaction. Count to ten, take a deep breath, sleep on it, wait until the next day to send that email…any kind of delay is good. A friend told me her rule: when she’s upset about something that happened at her children’s school, she won’t let herself do anything about it for three days – and usually she decides that no action is better than action.

5. Admit my mistakes. My father gave me an outstanding piece of advice when I got my first real job. He said, “If you take the blame when you deserve it, you’ll get the responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true. Difficult, but true. In my experience, until someone in a group (or in a family) accepts blame, everyone stays very anxious and focused on fingering the person at fault. Once I raise my hand (if appropriate), then everyone else can relax. And then we can all focus on what needs to be done.

6.  Enjoy the fun of failure. Fact is, trying new things and aiming high exposes me to criticism. I remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure to try to re-frame failure and criticism as part of the fun. Otherwise, my dread of criticism can paralyze me. Once, when I told my husband that I was upset because I’d received a mean comment here on the blog, he said, “Remember, this is what you want. You want to put your ideas out there. Not everyone is going to be nice.” That made me feel better.

The discussion of criticism reminds me of a passage from Stephen Spender’s autobiography, World Within World:

To overhear conversations behind his back is more disconcerting than useful to the writer; though he can perhaps search for criticism which may really help him to remedy faults in style. But he should remember that the tendency of reviewers is to criticize work not for what it is but for what it fails to be, and it is not necessarily true that he should remedy this by trying to become other than he is. Thus, in my own experience, I have wasted time by paying heed to criticism that I had no skill in employing rhyme. This led me to try rhyme, whereas I should have seen that the moral for me was to avoid it.

This passage is a good reminder that criticism should help us do better what we want to do, and to be more wholly ourselves, and criticism that doesn’t serve those goals isn’t helpful.

What am I overlooking? Have you found any other strategies that work for you?

  • Gretchen, this is so timely. I struggle so much with this. I’ve also learned to just stop the back and forth communication. One email on both sides and then I’m done. The delete button is my friend. Great advice.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point, I call this “redundant criticism.” Sometimes people just love to load it on, and I want to say, “Yes, I got the point the first time.” But I have to resist doing this myself, too, of course!

    • Suzanne Utts

      Like, like, like!

  • This looks like 6. Am I missing something?

    • gretchenrubin

      Gosh I do this SO OFTEN! Mis-number my list. I check and check, too. Oh well. Count the Spender quotation as an unnumbered 7!

      Did you notice how nicely I accepted that just criticism?

      • I did! I have a problem with it too. It’s lead me think carefully how I deliver it. This (http://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Tools-Talking-Stakes/dp/0071401946) and other books in the same line can be quite helpful. I also use the Non-Violent Communication model (http://www.cnvc.org/) both are worthwhile, if you’ve never checked them out.

      • I’m so glad I read the comments *before* jumping in feet first and pointing out that there were only six tips 🙂

        I think the lesson here is to react as you’d like others to react to your constructive criticism. You wouldn’t want them to jump down your throat, so don’t take that approach with them.

        So much for constructive criticism. When it’s just plain nasty criticism, then…ignore it. Nothing deflates it faster than not responding to it. And you get to keep the moral high ground, where the view is always much better.

      • Manda

        Well done! is it a bad thing that i didnt notice there were only 6 tips (until the comments below pointed it out)? Gretchen, you need not be woried about misnumbering….

  • Three is a really interesting point and not one I’d thought of before. I’ve tried not to be bothered when I shouldn’t really care what that person thinks anyway, but avoiding putting myself up for criticism by them is a neat way out. Thanks!

  • lemontree

    What a great list. Thank you for putting
    it together. I am in the position of the person that is being criticized and unfortunately
    i am about to lose my job because of misalignment with the expectations of my
    manager. In the last month I’ve followed all 6 and have to say that it did help
    to turn the conversation from the completely negative tone to a much more civil
    discussion based on the criticism that was so focused on what i have failed to
    be … wish me luck!

  • Just Jaime

    Thank you! I needed this. I’m terrible at receiving criticism.

  • Shelley Munro

    I don’t have anything to add. I thought your tips were spot-on. I particularly liked the one about failure. It’s good to try new things and let yourself embrace the entire experience – both good and bad.

  • Anne

    Gretchen, I’m the author of four nonfiction books that sell well and get great reviews, and of several novels. Reviews of the novels are all over the place, from glowing to growling. The bad reviews used to bug me a lot, but not so much anymore.

    I think what made the difference was comparing my reviews to those of authors whose work I love. I don’t even pretend to be in their class, but they get the same kind of mix that I do.
    “The dogs bark, but the caravans roll on.”

    • gretchenrubin

      A writer friend comforts himself by reading the Amazon reviews of Tolstoy’s novels. Tolstoy apparently gets LOTS of very bad reviews.

  • Kimberley Bischof

    You’re right the Camp Mighty logo is fantastic! My hubster and I both struggle with this but we are aware of it. I believe awareness is the first step for change.
    Dazed and Creative Blog

  • Veronique

    Great post. Something I have not thought of before was not exposing myself to the criticism of people I don’t respect. I used to be very competitive in an unhealthy way. I have reformed and now channel my competitive streak in constructive ways. One day while talking to my sister who has a bad habit of saying hurtful things (but herself is over the top ultra-sensitive to any criticism no matter how gently worded )I said, “I can be really competitive so…,” and before I could continue my sentence she said in a spiteful tone, “You are very competitive.” I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach! I felt as though all the effort I had made to identify the issue and address it was completely without value and It even left me wondering if I had made any progress at all. It is so bizarre that I would be so hurt by an insensitive comment made by someone whose opinion I do not respect. Yet if someone I respect had said it, first they would have said it in a more constructive way and second I would have asked for examples to help me continue on my path of improvement. Thanks for that word of advice.

  • Susan Hammack

    If it is a friend say, “Thank for caring enough to give me feedback. It’s certainly something I might want to think about.” And then change the subject if you need to or if you want to ask some clarifying “non-defensive” questions then that’s great if you don’t that’s great, too. If the criticism is from someone you don’t know very well you can just use the ” I get what you’re saying. It is certainly something I might want to think about. Thanks.”
    When you “practice” this…criticism will not create as much negative energy that it used to!

  • Liane

    I also get defensive, especially when I have to hold my tongue all day at work and get home to my husband. Yikes. These tips are very good. And yes, perfectionism and control are so closely tied! Learn to let go, learn to wait that extra beat, go with the flow. 🙂

  • Barbara Gonnella

    This is something I struggle deeply with. Not only is it a source of pain personally, it’s affected me professionally. And yet I have the hardest time figuring out how to correct an instinctual response. Thanks so much for these tips.

  • The delay tip is a great one! I get defensive so very easily, especially with my husband. So when I start to feel my hackles rise, I (try to!) think, “Take a breath. Listen. Take a breath. Listen.”
    The other thing I do is try to remember first, with love. That is, if it’s someone I love and respect, I remember they aren’t trying to hurt me, or make me feel bad, and what they are telling me comes from a place of caring about me and my life and wanting me to be happy. If it’s criticism from someone I don’t know or don’t respect, I try to remember that whatever they are saying is most likely more about their issues than mine. I think partly that strategy works because it distracts me long enough to get over my initial reaction!

  • actuary

    OK, here’s my criticism:

    “I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too!”

    It should be “you CAN have one, too.”

    Google “can vs. could.”

    Please take this criticism as constructive criticism. I love the Happiness Project! It has been really helpful to me. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have this ingrained grammatical mistake in nearly every post. I am surprised your book editor hasn’t mentioned it.

    • LizHH

      I’m not sure how you could construe this post as a request for criticism. Also, as a book editor myself, I can assure you there is nothing wrong with choosing to use “could” instead of “can” here. “Could” is more polite and implies that a recommendation is being given. (See m-w.com.) “Can” just states a fact.

    • Rebecca

      “Could” is absolutely appropriate in this situation; it refers to a hypothetical situation ~ the possibility of having something, not one’s ability to have it.

      • gretchenrubin

        Hmmm….I appreciate your attentiveness, and I’m looking up the issue in my several grammar books – from what I’m reading, “could” is correct.

        • actuary

          Even the little engine that could says “I think I can, I think I can.”

          “could” is abstract and tentative. you could have a happiness project, but you could just take a nap instead, or eat a cupcake.

          “can” is concrete and definitive. you can have a happiness project and therefore take steps toward being happier.

          • gretchenrubin

            I’d love a reference to a grammar book. I’m old style that way.

          • actuary

            Let me backpedal a bit. There is room for debate. It’s not that “could” is actively incorrect. It’s just that “can” is more precise in terms of what I believe you want to communicate, which is to affirm that people have the ability to start their own happiness project and you want ’em to get moving already. There’s a connotation that comes with each word that involves certainty or tentativeness. To declare that people CAN have their own happiness project is more definitive than to declare that they COULD have one, which also means that they could just as easily NOT have one. “Could” has an edge of waffling, of wishy-washiness, of iffiness.

            from the Chicago Manual of Style:

            Can means “to be able to” and expresses certainty {I can be there in five minutes}. Could is better for a sense of uncertainty or a conditional statement {Could you stop at the cleaners today?} {if you send a deposit, we could hold your reservation}.

            Here is a good online explanation:http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic27966.html
            Strunk and White doesn’t quite answer. CAN. Means “am/is/are able.” Not to be used as a substitute for “may.”
            Nor does the WWD stylebook:Can denotes ability.May denotes permission.A company president would ask his production manager: Can we produce this product? He would ask his lawyer: May we produce it?
            My addition (along with the objection that the company president is presumed to be male): Saying “We can produce this product” indicates ability to produce it. Saying “We could produce this product” indicates “Yeah, but…”
            Gretchen, a suggestion is to make this topic into a separate post and see what your commenters have to say. To get an accurate read, it’s best to put it in neutral terms. Saying “I, Gretchen, disagree with the idiotic idea of changing COULD to CAN” will draw a far different response than saying “I, Gretchen, am considering the great idea of changing COULD to CAN.” As all survey-takers know, how you cast the question determines much of the response.

          • JW

            This is not a “mistake” as you stated, but more a matter of personal preference in its use.


          • JW

            “Watch out for the I’m right you’re wrong conversation” link.

          • Manda

            @actyary: and its only one word – who cares?

    • roxanne9000

      Maybe a post on how to give criticism would be beneficial to @actuary? This criticism isn’t directed at me, but I couldn’t help but feel defensive when I read it because of the tone. It seems this poster is leaping at the opportunity to criticize a little too eagerly, as LizHH points out. Directing Gretchen to “google it”, rubbing it in with the “mistake in nearly every post” dig and then finishing with a condescending sneer about the editor’s skill – it’s all a little overbearing and insulting. Doesn’t sound like “constructive” criticism to me. Sounds like Gretchen is going to need to refer to Number 3 on this one.

      As for the “can vs. could” issue, I feel like it’s clearly Gretchen’s choice. Given her extensive research on every topic, I would give her the benefit of the doubt that she chose the one she did deliberately. Certainly, there is room for debate over the choice, but @actuary decided to use it as an opportunity for a put-down. This strikes me as the abusive behavior of a controlling person – especially when the next comment is an onslaught of “relentless logic” which one of the classic tactics of abusers. Maybe you should google THAT, @actuary?

  • Felice

    I think all these are great and helpful suggestions! And not to be snarky, but we also have to remember that just because the criticiser (is that spelled right?) is who they are, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily right. So perhaps we should consider what they have to say for whatever value it may have, understand that ultimately it is probably an opinion, and then make a decision for ourselves.

  • Martine

    You are overlooking the 7th tip! Or perhaps I am? I only saw 6 (but all very good) 🙂

    • Help! Martine critizised Gretchen!
      Take cover!
      No, seriously, this is one of your best posts Gretchen!
      Thank you!
      I think you are spot on when you write about the connection with perfectionism and control, that’s exactly why we react like this.

  • May I be so bold as to add a couple of strategies that have worked for me? I used to be supersensitive to criticism. Finally, I realized that I don’t have to take it in if I don’t want to. What I do is:

    1. Consider the source. What’s this person’s motivation for the criticism? Is the person angry with me for some reason, or have some other ulterior motive for trying to make me feel bad?

    2. Is the criticism realistic, valid, and/or useful? Does it really apply to me?

    Putting a barrier between my tender psyche and the criticism and criticizer helps me to take it in, evaluate it, and either accept it or reject it.

    Carolyn Kay

  • Laura Keller

    Great article and great food for thought!

  • Distraction. That works. Go away from the thing criticized….erase the thought, temprarily. And to really get with the “think of something else” program, go and thank someone for something you liked, something they did for you or something they did to help or create something or help someone you care about. It works wonders! It reminds you whate – good parts – are within you! [It’s one reason why I created Thankly.com to go and do just that, by the way]
    No critic, no cry!
    Oh and…happy August!

  • Suzanne Utts

    I pray it through and read a few chapters of the Bible–either testament. The Bible is full of people who were criticized, and sometimes very unfairly. I remind myself that the person who is criticizing me isn’t trying to saw me asunder as someone did to Isaiah, nor crucify me as Yeshua was or Peter, etc. I also remember that ANYBODY whose head pops up these days is going to have pot-shots taken at him or her. We live in a pc environment and there is great pressure to think and walk in lockstep.

  • I’m glad you put “listen to what the critic is saying” as number 1 on this list. In both getting criticized and having to offer criticism I know that many people (me included) start thinking about a rebuttal before we even hear what the other person is trying to communicate. Active listening goes a long way. Sometimes I will ask followup questions to clarify. The followups help me understand and help the other person feel understood.

  • susmcl

    “Bad is stronger than good,”
    Although we may freely give more power to bad, in this case negative criticism, bad is never stronger than good in any shape or form.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a phrase often used to describe the “negativity bias,” a psychological phenomenon that means that negative information catches and holds attention better than positive. E.g., bad news or good news, criticism or praise.

      • susmcl

        Thank you for clarifying, it is a bit frightening to see the words “bad is stronger than good.” Glad to know that you mean we may register bad more strongly than good. It is only word choice/ phrasing, but I personally do not care for that word shortcut. Can you see what I mean? thanks again for your response!

  • Janet

    I have always been extremely sensitive to criticism. I did come to a realization a while ago about why that was so. It was a problem of excessive pride. We don’t live in a world where true humility is appreciated anymore. There is a constant, never-ending push for self-promotion now, even down to the point where we feel like we need to publicize our every waking action. When I think about the people that I admire the most – in public or in my own life – they all have something in common. True humility.

    I’m still working on the sensitivity.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think about pride and humility all the time. This is one reason I’m fascinated by St. Therese – the notion of humility.

      • Janet

        And she is one of my most admired people! I even took her name at Confirmation.

  • This is really helpful and great advice. I struggle with this too. On a professional basis I made a rule a few months ago to never google my name – it means I may miss some great reviews and might not connect with people as I should but it also means I don’t get down about any negative and unconstructive comments of strangers that might be lurking – they can knock me down for quite a while!

  • lyseth

    One of my favorite “rules for life” is; ” We always learn more from our own mistakes, than we will ever learn from another’s advice.”
    It is an outgrowth of my Father’s favorite….”To Err, is Human. To make the same mistake twice is criminal folly”. In short, we all make mistakes, and each one is a new learning curve.

  • Well It may be somewhat conceited, but I just simply consider the source. Everyone has motive and if I were in their shoes maybe would be critical as well. Maybe.

    Thanks for the post

  • DanielAipa

    Great write up. I’ve been afraid of criticism ever since I was a little kid. But after reading more about happiness, success, leadership, and more. I’ve come to terms to embrace criticism. I was one to always want to please everyone, but you simply can’t. Great tips, and thank you for sharing.


  • Andrea

    I particularly like the first two items on this list. I often find myself becoming defensive, but not to the actual criticism — rather I get defensive about the critic’s “solution” to whatever fault they are finding with my work. “This isn’t clear, so you should say this instead” always gets my hackles up (“But I don’t want to say it that way!”). When I try to focus on the first part — what the underlying problem is — I can often find my own solution to fix it my way.

  • Brenda D.

    Who really does accept criticism well? No one wants to hear negative feedback. Framing a conversation to hear feedback is crucial for a real awakening. Criticism is usually about putting someone down to make the sender feel better about themselves.

  • Judy Ray

    Great post. Criticism is a hard thing for me too. Recently, I had to give a speech and take criticism from my peers. I had to gear up mentally for it and decided that I would take each critical comment to heart and make every change that was offered with gratitude for the help. As it turned out the criticism allowed me to vastly improve my speech. I’m trying to view criticism with gratitude, but it’s still hard.

  • Shaeon

    Good article, and I definitely have to remind myself at times to not get overly sensitive about constructive criticism (depending on the kind of day I’m having, even a fully expected session of criticism like an annual review can upset me). I’ve been working a lot on receiving criticism appropriately lately, and it seems to me that it falls into 3 categories:
    1. Expected criticism. Mostly this is at work and school. Sometimes parent to child. Sometimes in a relationship when it is fully a partner’s right to notify you if he or she feels like some aspect of the relationship is unbalanced. In all these situations, these are criticisms that are about the responsibilities that one is reasonably meant to fulfill. It strikes me as being a good thing to get better at receiving this kind of criticism – but it’s also worthwhile to become better at giving it, because sometimes this criticism is made personal when it should not be. An obvious example is talking with one’s partner. Done right, it’s a caring conversation about your loved one’s needs. Done wrong, it’s just a mess of finger-pointing, even if your partner has a valid point!
    2. Unasked-for advice. This is someone telling you how to do something better when they have no reasonable right to assume it’s their business to do so. It’s mostly unpleasant and unwelcome. I have done this a lot and am making an effort not to. I have taken this a lot and am making an effort to politely but assertively say “thanks for the thought, but I’m happy with what I’m doing (what I have done, how I did this, etc.).”
    3. Holding someone responsible unfairly. This is any attempt to make you responsible for someone else’s ability to fulfill a responsibility, accomplish a goal, or for someone else’s feelings. I find this really unpleasant, and it often surfaces in situations where people are putting their bad feelings about themselves on someone else, or if someone has been fairly called out for behaving badly and turns the blame on another, saying “you hurt MY feelings by saying I hurt yours.” I find this one a way to escape responsibility at best, and manipulative at worst.
    Just my thoughts. I’ve been working really hard lately on recognizing each of these for what they are and responding appropriately.

  • Marabeth D.

    I have to say that what I love most about your writing style is how many amazing quotes you share. I fully realize that you are able to do that because you read so much. I can’t ever imagining reading as much as you do, and thus I enjoy your work because you dig the diamonds out of the dirt and make them shine beautifully. Thanks!

  • Thanks so much for the helpful tips. I tend to let criticism derail me. I’m going to try to avoid criticism from anonymous people. This has helped…

  • secret agent girl

    It appears that you’re overlooking the 7th tip.

  • impostercomplex

    You must have a lot of turnover, or readers with short memories. Almost the same post as from Feb. 16, 2011…

  • Karen

    What do you do about criticism that is based on a family member saying that “I was only kidding” when in reality it was criticism? The family member thinks he’s being funny but it’s just a way of getting around the criticism when the criticism isn’t even warranted.

    • Manda

      Distance yourself from them. I had to do it with my entire family, and they are only now being intergrated back in my life. Once they realise you’re not there, it seems to get through to them. Dont retort, cuz it gets you nowhere (and they pat themselves on the back cuz ‘they’re right’). And tell them very politely to f**k off 🙂 Once you realise (and believe) that they are only trying to bring you down to make themselves feel better, its easier to accept that they dont have your best interests at heart.

  • Dayna

    Understand that many people do not take criticism well and may retort in an angry fashion with something that may be hurtful without the intention. Try to understand the true true purpose of their harsh words and maybe share this article with them. Not only is accepting criticism improtant but so is giving it so be concious of your own feedback. Always consider whether the criticism has a purpose when sharing and make sure it s not just for your personal benefit
    Also remember often the comments that hurt us most are due to our insecurity about them in the first place and build on it.

  • Bec

    When someone criticises, they’re making a judgement on you. Getting into the habit of an assertive response as quickly as the criticism is made, helps people understand where you were coming from and gives a clear message that you are not someone who will be open to critical judgement in future.

  • Ol’Jeffer

    I have found the best method to deal with criticism. Simply extend your hand toward the person, then curl your pinky, ring finger, middle finger and thumb toward you palm. Then with a smile and a polite yet slightly firm voice, ask them to to pull my finger. Works everytime 🙂

  • D.S.

    Thanks so much, Gretchen, as always, for your honesty!! That is one of the things I most appreciate about reading anything that you write–sometimes, the most helpful thing is to know that I (speaking only for myself, although I’m certain there are many others) am not alone in my traits or my struggles. When you share with your readers the parts of yourself that are not “perfect,” it instantly breaks the spell of the desirability and feasibility of perfection as a goal, at least for me. I feel like I can finally exhale! And I feel more energized to do what can be done. With gratitude, D.S.

  • Usha

    I always will be defensive when some one criticizes me. Especially with family members. I really get very angry.

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  • alandente

    Sorry to offer criticism, but this is 6 things, not 7 (!)