January 4, 2012

5 Tips: How to Handle Criticism.

 “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary.

It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body.

It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

~ Winston Churchill


Love me tender?

If you love me, tell me the truth–tender or not.

Ah, criticism.

It is more blessed to give than receive, no? No one wants to hear he has screwed up. You get flustered. Maybe even blush. You feel like a little kid who’s been called on the carpet for doing something naughty or making a mistake. You want to start swinging away at whoever is dishing out the criticism. It sucks. Can’t we just skip over this part where I’m wrong and move on to where you like me again and everybody’s happy? Please? Nope.

Criticism is like going to the dentist. You know you need it. You’re afraid it’s going to hurt. You get that knot in your stomach when you see it coming. You want the end result where you are better, stronger–but you don’t want to go through it.

We often avoid it as much as possible. We want to stay in our little cocoons where everything is nice and cozy, and no one makes us feel bad about our choices.

But that isn’t what we need.

Compassion isn’t always yes. It isn’t always flattery. When we screw up, flattery is a band aid; criticism is the surgery. If we really want to grow, surrounding ourselves with people who always tell us “it’s okay” isn’t going to cut it. If we want to be stronger, be better, we can’t let fear of criticism keep us wrapped up in our neat little boxes. We have to be able to give it–and take it.

Praise can be addictive. And dangerous.

Just look at Elvis. When Elvis was a rising star, he had his mom around to set him straight when he needed it. After she died, he surrounded himself with “yes men” and became insular, miserable, up and down…with, finally, a tragic, too-soon ending. Imagine the much happier ending if he had friends around who called him on it when he was popping pills and blowing all his money. Instead of random “sightings” by diehard fans, we might be still be enjoying Elvis and Willie duets today.

When criticism comes your way:

1. Stay quiet. Mouth and mind. Hear the person out until he’s finished. Being defensive doesn’t make you stronger; keeping an open heart does.

2. Ask yourself if it’s true. Be honest about this. Even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.

3. If it’s true, thank the person. Anyone who gives you honest criticism has given you a too-rare gift. He or she has shone a light on an area where you need to change. Might still hurt, but it’s a good thing. If an apology is in order, do that too. The word “but” should not appear anywhere in the apology.

4. If it’s not true, thank the person. And then move on. If it’s a friend and there’s been a misunderstanding, sure–explain yourself. It’s fine to clarify things if you truly believe you are being criticized for something you didn’t do.

But sometimes people just feel like criticizing. Period. Sometimes it has absolutely nothing to do with you except for the fact that you were in their line of fire. I recently received a comment from someone who told me that it was “People like me that make him hate the world.” and he went on in about half a dozen unrelated directions about what made him angry. Had absolutely nothing to do with what I had said or done. Still…good practice.

5. Right the wrong. The great thing about criticism is when it doesn’t just end with you feeling bad. Learning where you’re flawed isn’t where it ends; you are learning where you can grow. If it was unwarranted criticism, then learn the lesson of detaching a little more from your ego. You don’t always have to be right. You can let it go. (I’m writing that for me…I need to hear that the most. Maybe you do too.) If you deserved it, even better. Feel the hurt, stay open, and be better now that you know better.


Unless you never do or say anything, you will be criticized. As the Japanese say, it’s the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down.

But before criticism even comes up organically, we can try soliciting some constructive comments from someone we respect, who will give it to us honestly. No fishing for compliments from people who are going to stroke our ego and tell us how great we are. What good does that really do us? If we are closed up and smoothed over by flattery, how will we be able to learn and improve? 

Real growth towards enlightenment starts with a broken, open heart. And how we respond to criticism is one way to get there.



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