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How to Deal with Criticism

November 11th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

We all get subjected to criticism from time to time — sometimes harsh criticism. What's the best way to deal with it? Do you simply need a thick skin? Do you try to understand and forgive the other person? Do you fight back?

What if you want to stretch yourself by doing something that may incite others to criticize you more? Do you feel you're holding back in some ways because you're worried about what others might think of you? Will concerns about criticism make you less motivated to succeed? What if this criticism occurs in public?

It's no secret that I take a good bit of flak for some of the things I write about. Since I get subjected to public criticism frequently, I've learned over time how to handle it, so it doesn't bother me or slow me down. So let me share some insights that may help you better deal with criticism in your own life. Some of this may seem counter-intuitive.

1. Accept the Existence of Criticism

First, realize that criticism happens. And the more success you enjoy along a certain path, the more criticism there will be. Criticism is simply par for the course. If you succeed, especially in a big way, you'll be criticized.

This may sound like a bad thing, but in the long run it's actually very beneficial.

It's not that criticism makes you a better person by pointing out your faults. While some criticism can be constructive and positive, most of it won't be. The real benefit is that you'll grow stronger by facing the challenge of dealing with criticism. By learning how to deal with it, you burn off some falsehoods and disempowering beliefs within yourself.

I'm actually grateful that I've received so much criticism because by learning to deal with it, I've become stronger and more confident.

2. Understand the Different Types of Criticism

Not all criticism is the same.

Some criticism is helpful and constructive, but in my experience that's a small percentage of the total, perhaps on the order of 1-3%. Your percentage may vary, depending on what kind of criticism you receive. Most of the criticism that I receive of this nature comes from people who know me really well. They generally deliver this feedback by phone or in person, and we have a discussion about it. It's hard to even call it criticism; it's simply friendly feedback.

Helpful criticism is that which gives you new insights into your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and points you towards positive change. If criticism doesn't have this effect on you, then it isn't helpful. Another category of criticism is useless but well-intentioned criticism. Some critics have their hearts in the right place, but their feedback just doesn't do anything for you. I'd say that around half of the criticism I receive falls into this category. Mainly it comes from people who've read my blog, but they've never met me, and we've never had so much as a single conversation. They try to give me helpful advice, but it's filled with too many false assumptions and projections. Deep down, these people are really writing for themselves, or they're procrastinating on something else. They presume to know my situation and what I should do about it, but since they don't actually know me on a personal level, their feedback is rarely helpful or actionable. They provide feedback based on who they imagine me to be, but their imagination doesn't align with reality. I guess these people don't realize that you can't get to know a person simply by reading articles they've written for the general public; you have to meet them face to face or at least talk on the phone.

Yet another form of criticism could be categorized as trolling. Trolls are your typical drama addicts. They want to get a rise out of you and make you react, which makes them feel powerful. These people are often starved of loving attention, so they try to court attention any way they can, even if it's negative. If you respond to them, they'll try to escalate it into a pointless argument. Hence the expression, "Don't feed the trolls." Almost half of the criticism I receive falls in this category. Much of it comes from people in their teens and early 20s who are still working their way through the rebellious "teen angst" development phase.

And a final category could be described as zealotry. These are people who have deep-seated personal issues or beliefs that lead them to target and attack certain people. This is less than 5% of the total criticism I've received, but it's often the longest and most detailed. Such people will frequently crank out thousands of words to attack someone they've never met. I see this mostly from highly religious people since many of the ideas I've shared apparently push their buttons. For the most part, they're simply projecting their inner struggles outward, turning someone else into the bad guy in order to avoid dealing with the parts of themselves they can't accept. If you're the object of such criticism, you become the manifestation of that person's inner demon, so they'll cast you as greedy, selfish, blasphemous, and so on. While they may attempt to get personal, this kind of criticism isn't personal at all. It really has nothing to do with you.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine the nature of the criticism:

  • Does the criticism seem to be motivated primarily by love or by fear?
  • Is the criticism helpful and actionable? Do you value it?
  • How well does the critic know the real you? Are they merely projecting their own issues onto you?

How much of each form of criticism do you see arising in your own life?

3. Notice How You React

Next, notice how criticism affects you. How do you generally react to these different types of criticism?

Do you become pissed off, angry, or defensive?

Do you feel compassion and understanding for what the critic may be dealing with in their own life?

Do you get sucked into a debate with them?

How do you feel about it afterwards? Do you feel that digesting the criticism was a good use of your time? Did you learn anything valuable and actionable from the exchange?

Pay attention to how you're really being affected. Forget about how you wish you'd reacted. Observe your true reactions. Especially notice when you promised yourself you'd take the high road... but didn't.

I notice that with truly constructive criticism, I may initially be a little defensive, but in the end I tend to appreciate it. Sometimes I realize that the other person's assessment is off, and my original mindset remains unchanged. Other times they may see something I've overlooked, and I shift my mindset as a result. Either way, I gain more clarity from these exchanges.

For the other categories of criticism, I've noticed that in the past, my reactions have usually been negative, regardless of how I choose to respond. If I argue and debate, that's invariably a waste of time. If I forgive and forget, I've also wasted my time digesting the criticism in the first place. Either way, it's unhelpful to bother with it at all.

Doing this will quick assessment will raise your awareness of the role of criticism in your life. This helps you make a conscious choice about what to do about it.

4. Silence the Critics

Years ago as my blog traffic began to shoot up rapidly, and more people became aware of my existence, I figured that if I was going to be some kind of public figure, then I should remain open to all points of view. I should welcome criticism and do my best to deal with it.

Boy was I wrong about that. That mindset wasted a lot of my time.

The first basic step was to realize that ignoring unhelpful criticism saved more time than getting into it with someone. It's not that difficult to figure this out, but it can be difficult to apply it if you have a lot of critics in your life. This by itself can help a little, but it isn't much of a solution overall.

The next step was to realize that it was still a waste of time to read or listen to such criticism in the first place. I began to wonder what would happen if I started actively tuning out critical feedback, so it wouldn't even reach me.

I decided this would be a worthwhile experiment, so for several months I began summarily booting unreasonable critics from my life (which means nearly all of them). I began dropping such people hard and fast. If they emailed me, I added them to my spam filter. If they posted on my Facebook page, I unfriended them. If they sent me messages on Twitter, I added them to my block list. If they posted in the forums, I banned them.

It took time to observe the results, but over a period of several months of doing this kind of weeding, I saw many beneficial effects.

First, I felt less stressed and more relaxed.

Second, my own inner critical voice softened. As I refused to tolerate unreasonable criticism coming from the outside, my inner doubts began to die down as well. My confidence increased. I felt better about my decisions.

Third, I felt more motivated. Dropping criticism reduced the drag on taking decisive action. I realized I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions and learning from the results. I don't need to listen to other people second-guessing my choices. If it's a bad decision, I'll see the results and learn from them. But more often than not, I saw that I was making good decisions and getting good results, and I just needed to trust myself more. By tuning out criticism, I stopped allowing seeds of doubt to take root within my mind.

Fourth, when I nuked the random criticism, it allowed me to pay more attention to actionable feedback from people who know me really well. It's hard to hear this kind of feedback if I'm drowning in fluff.

Fifth, I realized that by engaging with critics, I was generating pointless drama. Dropping this kind of drama freed up more time and energy to create positive stimulation, such as by setting and achieving new goals.

Sixth, my life felt richer and more vibrant overall. I enjoyed some really cool experiences like going on a 3-week road trip. That really brought home what a complete waste of life it is to even look at criticism. Seventh, the communities around me became nicer. My Facebook page became a friendlier and more constructive place, for instance.

Eighth, I feel less critical and more trusting of others. By preventing the negative stuff from even reaching me, I can pay more attention to the positive items. I can lower my shields and connect in a more heart-centered way. I especially noticed this at my last workshop. During the week after the workshop, I made a point of getting together with attendees who were still in town and hanging out. It's much easier to connect when you don't feel like you're under attack. Interestingly, this also reduces the volume of criticism. If you allow yourself to be more vulnerable and less shielded, you'll tend to disarm would-be critics before they start.

Ninth, critics lose interest when you deny them an outlet. When it gets around that you banish people if they criticize you, it probably won't surprise you that the level of criticism goes way down, at least from those who want to stick around. This doesn't mean you're closed to feedback of course. It just means that people are more likely to think twice before they go kittywompus in your presence. You'll still get the zealots taking their pot shots now and then, but they're a minority, and they're easy to spot. They seem to like banishment anyway since it feeds their persecution complex.

That's a boatload of positive effects. Were there any drawbacks to this? Some people may think I'm a bit ogre-like for doing this, but those whose opinions I respect seem to understand; some even regard it as a no-brainer for someone in my situation. Overall the downside has been virtually nil. In the end I wish I'd had these realizations years ago. In the past I thought I was being magnanimous by welcoming criticism, but today I regard that mindset as ignorant and naive.

My current mindset is that unreasonable criticism (and more than 95% of it is unreasonable) is like a weed being planted in your mind. As soon as you notice it, it's best to pull it out. You don't want weeds growing in your mind.

Is this censorship? Sure, you could call it that. It's perfectly reasonable to censor non-contributing or destructive input. To tolerate its continued presence would be foolish. You can't pay attention to every possible form of input, so cutting out criticism is an easy choice, especially once you realize how it wastes your time and energy.

If you've never tried this before, I recommend a 30-day trial. You need to know what it's like. My words are no substitute for your first-person experience.

So the next time someone in your life starts to criticize you, hang up on them instantly. Put them in your spam filter. Walk away. Close the door. Unfriend them. Banish them to the netherworld. You may miss out on some constructive items, but it will likely be a tiny fraction of the total. You won't miss it.

What if the criticism is coming from family? Give them at least a 24-hour banishment for each infraction — a week or longer if they're willful or stubborn about it. They'll catch a clue soon enough. Teach your family to treat you with respect. If they walk all over you, you're the one giving them permission to do that; hopefully you can see that this is dumb. Don't expect them to change unless you enforce good boundaries.

Then notice how much improved your life is after 30 days of this.

5. Build Strong Social Support

Once you turn your back on the critics, the next step is to build strong social support. Replace those critics with positive, friendly people who love and care about you. Spend your time connecting with people who will encourage the heck out of you. Dump the people who keep projecting their issues onto you.

It will take time to do this, but you'll have plenty of extra time when you stop filling your life with criticism and sarcasm.

It may piss off your critics even more when they notice how happy you are without them, but you won't be able to hear their screams of protest anyway.

Sometimes you can convert critics into supporters, but that will usually require a period of disconnection and then a future reconnection once they've come around. Don't get too attached to who converts and who doesn't though. That part isn't up to you.

Remember that even Jesus surrounded himself with 12 Apostles, who followed him around and called him Lord and Master. So one denied knowing him, and another betrayed him, but 10 out of 12 still ain't bad. Or maybe it's a lesson that 2 bad seeds can still make a mess of things.

It makes no sense to remain loyal to negative feedback. It's much better to turn your back on those sources, so you can focus your gaze upon the voices that will encourage and support you to be your best self. Criticism won't shape you into a diamond. It will only make you an ever darker lump of coal. To become a diamond, you need people who can see the beauty within you and coax it to the surface.

It's not like you're turning into Joseph Stalin, sending your critics to their deaths, and surrounding yourself with yes-men. All you're doing is disengaging from time wasters and heading in a more empowering direction for you.

Hearing "I love you, and I think you're doing great" will do much more for you than hearing, "You suck and here's why..."

6. Make Your Own Evaluations

What will you do without your critics telling you you're wrong?

You can start by listening to yourself. Pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings. Don't worry about what others may be thinking.

You don't need critics to tell you right from wrong. You can make those distinctions yourself, and you'll do a much better job of it too. Learn to discern when you're acting in accordance with your values vs. when you're violating them.

If you make a wrong turn, you'll see the results, and you'll adapt. Let reality provide you with real feedback instead of relying on the false feedback of criticism.

As you learn to trust your own evaluations instead of worrying about what others think, you'll build experience, competence, and confidence.

7. Do Your Best

In the end, this is a decision you must make for yourself. Do you think you'll excel with an abundance of critical feedback, or would you be better of with lots of loving, friendly support?

There's no rule that says you have to listen to criticism. If you review some of the critical feedback you've been receiving, I think you'll agree that most of it is bogus anyway. And if you happen to think it's valid and that you need it, then I strongly encourage you to kick off a 30-day trial of turning your back on all criticism. You need to know what that's like. You can always roll things back later if you miss it, but I can turn the page by saying you won't want to.

Who will you become with the critical voices muted? Who will you become with the voices of love and encouragement at max volume? Are you ready to become that self-actualized person yet, or do you want to keep weakening yourself by tolerating less than you deserve?

I wonder how many ex-critics are buried in the desert around Las Vegas. ;)