The world is not kind to modern self-esteem. It only takes one ill-received piece of feedback at work or sassy comment on an IG post to completely derail your day.
It can take a lot of time and energy to convince yourself that you’re awesome — so how do we avoid letting people infiltrate that awesomeness with a flying knee to your self-worth? And how do we use it to get better?
In these situations, your initial reaction may take inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech, a lesson on ignoring naysayers, around which optimists from LeBron James to Miley Cyrus rally. And who doesn’t want to be more like Miley?
Being alive in 2020 means getting hit by wave after wave of criticism, both online and off — as anyone who has ever left themselves at the mercy of a YouTube comments section or a Twitter pile-on will be able to testify.
However, naysayers are essential. Both personal and professional success depend on being able to take criticism in your stride. The ability to hear and truly listen to people’s opinions, even when they’re negative, improves relationships, academic performance, and negotiating abilities.
Plus, if you can learn to put aside your ego and use even harsh criticism to get better, you’ll have a powerful tool that can propel you forward personally and professionally.
In this article, we give you the low-down on how to handle what others have to say without wanting to hide in a corner or knock someone out.
Criticism is a term for judgment or evaluation, good or bad. It pops up everywhere. We’ve all had to save someone from wearing Crocs on vacation or texting that ex while intoxicated. Or, maybe we were the ones committing a fashion faux pas.
Any time someone gives you criticism, they’re evaluating you against specific standards, whether it’s their own or those of an organization, such as a place of work. Many students and employees associate the word “criticism” exclusively with negative feedback, which is not the case.
There are lots of reasons people offer criticism.
Negative motivations for criticism might include feeling jealous or insecure in a romantic or family relationship, such as a father criticizing his kids for never calling home. Others may criticize you out of sheer resentment — ever been on social media? Yeah, that.
But not all criticism is bad news, bears. If you have any rapper friends relentlessly playing their dreadful mixtape at people, you’ll be well aware that letting them know that their vocab is limited or their choice of beats ill-advised are the first steps to sparing them from future embarrassment.
And while the word “criticism” may see more frequent use when discussing negative evaluations, not all criticism comes with bad intentions — even when it highlights mistakes and failures. That’s because people give certain kinds of criticism to help. This is known as constructive criticism.
A 2018 research article evaluated constructive criticism models using focus group interviews with undergraduate students.
This process identified three important requirements for negative feedback to be constructive:
- It’s compassionate: People should give criticism in a way that indicates care for the recipient, and it should come from someone the recipient respects.
- It’s specific: Criticism should target the appropriate elements of the recipient’s performance and offer specific guidance for improvement.
- It’s a match: Criticism should align with the recipient’s emotions and motivation.
You can use this list as a way to determine if a critic is trying to help or harm you.
In organizations where leaders don’t understand effective criticism, employees may feel like their guts are in a twist before approaching the boss’s office. And coaches who criticize without positive intent end up doing things like throwing basketballs at the young adults they’re supposed to be mentoring.
A 2017 research study showed that people who received “destructive criticism” at work reported higher perceived levels of workplace stress.
Surprise, surprise, telling everyone they’re crap all the time doesn’t work wonders for them.
Knowing which type is coming your way can help you make better use of criticism. And it can save you from coming across like an asshole in the face of well-intentioned, constructive feedback, as well as protecting you from self-serving pedantry.
Now that you know not everyone with opinions on you or your output is gunning for you, let’s look at how to defuse and use other people’s feedback for the best.
Listen honestly for a critic’s intention
Many people get defensive at the mere possibility of negative feedback. But no one’s perfect. It’s okay to think about your strengths and weaknesses.
When you’re about to receive either type of feedback, approach the situation with an open mind, so you can understand the difference.
For example, “Hey, are you able to eat in a different room or chew more quietly at your desk?” may seem confrontational at first. But it may just be someone trying to deal with their own distractions and self-improve.
And, to be honest, you didn’t have to set up an actual microwave next to your sticky notes.
Decide if feedback is constructive or destructive
Think about whether feedback is coming from someone who cares about you, references an area you want to improve in, or specifies how to get better.
If you make a veggie moussaka for your bae, and they tell you it’s terrible without detailing why, they may just be nitpicking for its own sake. And they can make their own friggin’ moussaka next time.
Some people criticize others to cement a never-ending power trip. You’ll usually be able to recognize this if the criticism is baseless. For example, a manager criticizing your stats without having calculated them.
Or perhaps the feedback is followed up with demeaning or self-aggrandizing language — “because I said so” is a huge red flag. You can swerve this criticism big time.
However, your reaction to criticism should vary depending on its intention. It’s important to take stock of the people in your life who really want the best for you. If they do, then criticism should be a dialogue. If you prefer a different style of communication, let someone know.
If they push back, you might find they just wanted to be judge, jury, and executioner without even attempting a legal degree. If they alter their approach to match how you wish to develop, it’s a sure sign that they’re #TeamYou.
Thank those who offer constructive criticism
People who provide you with helpful feedback want you to achieve your goals. Even if it hurts to hear what you did wrong, remember their intentions, and thank the person who gave you constructive criticism for being an ally.
Thanking them is as much for your peace of mind as it is theirs — by showing gratitude, you can start to calm your own knee-jerk reactions to all criticism and become more open to feedback.
Avoid exploding in the face of constructive criticism
The Roman philosopher Seneca compared anger to “a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing it crushes.” Even if the criticism is obviously mean-spirited, you’ll regret giving in to your anger and saying something deliberately hurtful in response.
However, that doesn’t mean rolling over and taking someone’s crap, which can leave a dent in your self-esteem. There are calm ways to request clarification, and most poorly-intended criticism will break to pieces (like so many falling rocks) under scrutiny. Take a breath and set emotion aside.
This all applies unless Miley Cyrus is the critic in question. In those circumstances, simply bow to her superior wisdom and take heed. She is Miley Cyrus, after all. And she has way more IG followers than Seneca.
Minimize encounters with harmful people
He looks like a sexy goat-herder, so you swipe right on him. Then he starts providing uninvited criticism of your taste in music for no reason. Into Tinder purgatory he goes — and there’s no reason for you not to apply the same ethos to people outside of the SwipeVerse.
It’s sad but true: Some folks thrive off of tearing others down. If you notice a pattern of negative criticism happening around the same people, it may be time to cut them off. Yes, even if they’re the people closest to you.
Standing your ground against these people is vital for building an identity and developing flexibility. You’ll find it hard to show grace to the well-purposed criticisms when you’re letting those with bad intentions walk all over you.
Flushing toxic people from your life can serve as a colonic irrigation of the soul. You might find that these people have been behind your own, combative responses to criticisms. Yeet them into the abyss. You have mad skillz to build up and a self to love unconditionally.
Make plans to act on constructive criticism
If someone has given you feedback with a genuine view to helping you improve, and you’re dead keen on doing so, action is key.
For example, if your coach asks you to focus on lifting your hands fully during a boxing match, deliberately avoiding any action due to pride will actively result in getting punched in the face further down the line.
Find out how you learn and keep a record of criticisms within your profession or field of interest. You’re receiving cheat codes for self-improvements, and you won’t even lose a PlayStation trophy if you use them.
As with any skill or personality trait, getting it to stick takes time and practice.
You won’t immediately bat away the next piece of destructive criticism you receive without taking it to heart, and you might still jump to conclusions the next time someone lets you know where you’re putting a foot wrong.
However, here are a few phrases to throw out in response to criticism that can help you fake it ‘til you make it.
Before we kick off the list, it can help to let your potential critics know they have open channels to give you feedback. This sets your own expectations, as well as letting people know that you’re open to their needs.
You can nip any potential ill feeling in the bud before criticism even arrives.
- “I understand I haven’t lived up to your expectations on this. How can I do better next time?” This can let someone know that you understand the situation and want to step up your game.
- “I’m really trying to improve. I’m going to redo this now and get it over to you, if you wouldn’t mind letting me know how my second attempt goes.” This can indicate a willingness to improve and an immediate intent to sort any problems. Proactivity is a great response to constructive criticism.
- “I’d appreciate actionable points when you next give feedback.” If someone has provided feedback you feel isn’t constructive, this could help them manage how they present criticism in the most effective way to get the change they’re after.
Ultimately, though, any response you give to feedback is as useful as car made of cardboard unless you’re taking action on genuine, constructive criticism.
And any trolls popping up with their two cents on Twitter with aimless, childish vitriol can catch this block. While the Internet can hurt your feelings something rotten, there are very easy ways to filter spiteful nonsense like this from your life.
This can leave you with enough headspace to work on the feedback of people who really care about you.
The keys to successfully handling criticism are:
- determining its intent
- responding calmly
- acting on constructive criticism
- minimizing time with those who consistently criticize to harm you
The famous basketball coach John Wooden called it a mistake to get too caught up in either praise or negative criticism. If you learn to handle and filter all types of criticism, you’ll live a happier life and get closer to your goals.
And these should be #SquadGoals, as the critic should have your own aims at heart when giving feedback.
Continuing with the basketball analogy, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Kobe Bryant (RIP) holds the record for missed shots in the NBA. Getting it wrong is absolutely fine, and a willingness to do so and learn is what makes people great.
Especially if you’re Miley Cyrus.