Want to Cope Better With Criticism? You Can Build A Boundary to Filter It
Wife: Every time I say something even slightly negative to my husband, he gets really hurt and angry and refuses to discuss it.
Employee: Every year I’m extremely nervous to meet with my supervisor for my annual evaluation. If she gives me any criticism, I’m not sure I can take it.
Student: I made a C on my first statistics test. I guess I’m not cut out for this graduate program.
Friend: My friend Maggie told me that she thought I could get a better job. I feel so insulted that I haven’t talked to her for a while.
Stranger: The cashier at the grocery store snapped at me for taking too much time to pay. I was so upset that it ruined the rest of my day.
When I was 23 I started my first year of grad school. I was so excited that I had been chosen from hundreds of applicants for admission to a Ph.D. program in psychology. My first test in the psychology program was in statistics class. I was appalled to receive my test back with a big ugly C on it. “Are you prepared for the rigors of this program?” my professor had written at the top.
Actually, I was more than appalled. I had never imagined making a C in graduate school, let alone my first test. Stunned, I went home and questioned my entire life plan. “Maybe he’s right and I’m not up to this. I guess I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I should just drop out now before they kick me out,” I agonized.
Let’s face it. No one can go through life without getting negative feedback or criticism from others. And believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing. Because feedback (especially negative feedback) is essential for your growth and health.
We all have our own view of ourselves: our choices, behaviors, and performances. Criticism from others offers us a view of ourselves from the outside. In this way, other people’s views offer an excellent source of information about how we can grow. Yet unfortunately, many of us aren’t able to take advantage of this rich resource.
Two Ways You Can “Waste” Good Criticism
- You Fold: It hits you like an arrow to the heart. It hurts so much that you’re not able to process it or make use of it. (The Employee, Student and Stranger examples above).
- You Fight: It hurts so much that you can’t take it in. So you become angry and defensive and shut out the criticism, the person, or both. (The Husband and Friend examples above).
Folding and fighting are two very different responses to the same thing: feeling hurt. Unfortunately, neither response allows you to benefit from the criticism. And both happen when you lack a good, healthy Criticism Filter.
To become stronger in the face of criticism (and maybe even benefit from it), all you have to do is build yourself a boundary to keep criticism from spearing you in the heart while you process it. Sound easy? It’s not.
But you can do it!
Five Steps to Build Your Criticism Filter
- Know that no criticism is 100% true. It’s always complicated, nuanced, and based on someone else’s point of view. So before you take in someone’s criticism, pause; and take the time to process it.
- Know that every piece of criticism says as much about the critic as it says about you. Every single human being sees the world through their own lens. When it comes to human behavior, few observations are based on 100% reality and truth. Every criticism comes from the eye of the beholder.
- When criticism comes your way, stop it before it can pierce your heart. Hold it off while you ask these questions to process it.
- Who is the criticizer? How well do they know you? How credible are they?
- What are the intentions of the criticizer? Do they have any reason to wish to hurt you? Are they upset or angry? Are they trying to help you? Are they simply having a bad day? Do they have reason to exaggerate?
- Is there information that the criticizer lacks? Might that information change or mitigate their opinion?
- Are some pieces of this person’s criticism more accurate than others?
- Do you need more information before you can answer the above questions?
4. Ask your criticizer questions. Try to understand exactly what they mean and why they are saying this. Filter their message, owning the parts that are true and discarding the parts that are false.
5. If your criticism carries something valid and useful, develop a plan of action. Is there something you can or should try to change about yourself or how you’re doing things?
And now, flashback to 1983. After several hours of painfully questioning my abilities and my future, I suddenly felt indignant. “Who is this professor to question my potential on the basis of one test?” I thought to myself. “He doesn’t know me at all.”
So why would he say that? I knew the answer. Because he was challenging me to either work harder or get out.
I also realized my part in this event. I had been over-confident and had not studied properly for the test.
I took out my Statistics book and started on page 1. I spent the entire weekend poring over every page and working through every problem until I fully understood every element of every section we had covered so far and was actually ahead on the material.
And what did I take forward from that experience? I never again went into another test under-prepared.
Sometimes I look back on that experience and wonder what might have happened if I had given up? Where might my life have gone, and how many regrets would I have taken with me?
Each experience of criticism is a challenge: to get better, get stronger, or change for the better in some way. You can fold or you can fight.
Or you can filter it and use it to make yourself better.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can lead to a lack of resilience in the face of criticism. To learn more, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.