How to Handle Criticism: The Top 7 Tips from The Last 2500 Years

by Henrik Edberg

How to Handle Criticism: The Top 7 Tips from The Last 2500 Years
Image by *Zara (license).

“Criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.”
Emmet Fox

“Before you go and criticize the younger generation, just remember who raised them.”
Unknown

Criticism can be a painful thing. When it’s valid it can also provide you with new insights about yourself and your life.

Many of the tips in this article can be used to learn to handle criticism aimed at you in a better way. But I’d also like to point out that it can be very useful to examine your own reasons for feeling like you have to criticise someone. It can tell you quite a bit about your own life at this moment and what you think about yourself.

1. Understand through experience.

“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.”
Elvis Presley

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
Benjamin Franklin

It’s easy to fall into the trap of criticizing things because, well, you feel like it’s wrong. But do you really understand what you are criticising?

From my own experience I have found that one tends to become less critical of things when you have experienced it for yourself and have an understanding. Instead of just knowledge about it.

It’s easy to be the armchair general, knowing what is always right. Especially in hindsight. It makes you feel good and like you are right.

But in the end the credit does not belong to this person.

2. Remember who the credit belongs to.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt

Awesome quote and a thought that you may want to keep in mind. It is of course the wo/man actually out there in the arena who takes the difficult path. The path one doesn’t really have to take. You could just stand on the sidelines criticising which would be easier.

But watching life instead of living it may not be the best option. Because anytime you are on the sidelines just watching you are probably not doing what you deep down think is the right thing to do. Such behaviour makes you not feel good about yourself or your life.

3. Keep your focus on what’s helpful for you.

“The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.”
William Faulkner

If you’re in the arena you are doing, failing, learning and repeating that all over again and again. You doing something you think is worthwhile.

It’s helpful to use your focus selectively. If you look at the sides of the arena you may see people booing and some people cheering you on. But to really get the results you want you have to focus. Focus on what you are doing in the arena. Keep your eyes on the ball.

The thing is if you take in the positive voices and let them define you then you have to take in the negative voices too.

How can you get past that problem? You can listen to them all, but don’t have a need or craving deep inside for any of them. Don’t seek yourself on other people’s opinions. Instead, validate yourself by focusing on the positive things you think and do. And get to know who you really are, not what other people think you are.

My mindset for praise – that I try to stick to as much as I can – is that it’s cool and I appreciate it. It’s great to get praise, but I seldom get overly excited about it and jump and down shouting enthusiastically.

A great upside of this mindset is that when you receive the opposite – negative criticism – you can often observe it calmly without too much wild, negative emotions blocking the way. This allows you to appreciate that piece of criticism too (if there is something to learn from it).

Basically this mindset is about not caring too much about what other people think. If you do then you easily become pretty needy and let others control how you feel. Both how good and bad you feel.

4. Don’t accept the gift.

“A man interrupted one of the Buddha’s lectures with a flood of abuse. Buddha waited until he had finished and then asked him, “If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?”

“To the one who offered it,” said the man.

“Then,” said the Buddha, “I decline to accept your abuse and request you to keep it for yourself.”

Simply don’t accept the gift of a criticism. You don’t have to. Then it still belongs to the person who offered it.

This is of course easier said than done. To have everyone own their own feelings and opinions instead of letting them be a part of you or something you feel responsible for isn’t easy.

Still, one can do it if one is aware of what Buddha describes. You can then choose to decline the gift rather than thinking that you have to accept it. Now, this might not work every time, especially if you are feeling very emotional and vulnerable. Still, it can be helpful to keep in mind.

This also ties into the previous tip. When you really need and crave other people’s positive – and perhaps negative ­– opinions to define yourself it becomes hard to reject the gift since you don’t see/don’t want to see it as something separate from yourself. You are all wrapped up in it.

5. Who are you talking about?

“When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.”
Unknown

When you criticize someone what does that say about you? And when someone is criticising you who are they really revealing?

If someone makes a personal attack or just let’s the destructive words flow then remember that criticism isn’t always about you. Criticism can be a way for the one critiquing to release pent up anger, frustration or jealousy. Or a way to reinforce that his/her viewpoint or belief is the right one. Or s/he may have habit of getting others involved emotionally – baiting them – to build a negative spiral, an argument/fight or to get attention. It’s about him/her. Not about something you did.

It can have a calming effect to remember this. And to remember that the other person is still human and might just be having a bad day or week.

This does of course not just go for “the other people” out there. It goes for you and me too. Whenever you feel a need to be critical, ask yourself why. Whenever you have been critical towards someone who didn’t deserve it remember that you are hurting yourself and reinforcing your current state of mind and self-esteem level by this behaviour.

6. There is a better choice.

“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
Charles Schwab

So, what can one do instead of criticising someone to get them to improve? One way is by lifting them up instead. By focusing on what they are doing well. And on how they can improve, rather how they are screwing things up.

As Schwab says, and as you probably have noticed in your own life, the spirit of for instance the workplace can have a great effect on your on your own mood, productivity, enthusiasm and motivation.

Energy flows where attention goes. So whatever is focused on – criticism or lifting people up – will expand and become stronger. One may think that harsh criticism may help and get results. It may just bring people down though and pollute the emotional environment.

7. Accept that it will always be there.

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing”
Aristotle

Since criticism often is a form of self-expression for the one critiquing or based in a lack of understanding there is little you can do to escape it. You can of course minimize your interactions with highly negative and critical people. Or keep your focus on what you are doing rather than the critics.

But whatever you do some people will probably feel a need to criticise.

Whatever you do there will always be people who don’t like what you are doing.

And that’s OK. That’s normal.

As Eleanor Roosevelt says:

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

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{ 21 comments }

Valeria | TimelessLessons November 14, 2008 at 6:00 pm

This would be so valuable in a relationship! But then again, it’ll also be harder to do – you usually don’t hold back your emotions with the ones you love most.

I’m certain that at least 80% of my arguments with my significant other will never explode if I thank him for his criticism, and internally reflect to turn a seemingly negative comment into a positive one.

We can only control ourselves, not others. So, while someone may give us harsh negative feedback, we still have the ability to be graceful in our response.

Eric Hamm November 14, 2008 at 6:17 pm

I really like the idea of ‘not accepting the gift’. We just assume that because it’s been given, we have to take it. But with anything, especially criticism, we have a choice. And unless the negative notion is well founded in fact, we should reject it with a calm confidence and then just go on our way.

Excellent list! Just what I needed to ‘educate’ my social mindset. Eric.

Brianna November 15, 2008 at 6:32 am

I like your comment that “Energy flows where attention goes” – I’ve found this philosophy to be helpful on difficult days of parenting. Changing my focus and where I put my attention with my kids has a profound affect on the overall energy of the day. I find that I’m more critical of my children when I’m least satisfied with how things are going with ME – and when I take a minute to identify that problem, and another handful of minutes to FACE the problem, then I can make changes with how I interact with my children and others around me.

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. #4 is an especially great one – and one that will take practice!

Zoltan's self-esteem November 15, 2008 at 8:58 am

Criticism is a very good friend. You can learn a lot more from your “enemies” than from your friends. They judge you on a different way you have never thought of. And they are honest, because they want to find every single detail to piss you off. Listen to them and learn from them.

francisonline November 15, 2008 at 9:35 am

the buddha was indeed a wise man.

Sean November 16, 2008 at 1:03 am

Quoting The King! Excellent! Another quote of his that would fit in this article is: “The image is one thing; the human being is another.”

Faith November 16, 2008 at 5:19 am

I’ve found numbers 3 & 4 to be the most helpful for me. It really makes no sense to care a great deal about what people think of you. It just is not wise to allow others to define you. However, it’s true there is such a thing as constructive criticism though. So we can’t reject everything out of hand. We have to find a healthy balance.

johnlazy November 16, 2008 at 6:10 am

Criticsm cannot be avoided so learn to live by it.

Andrew - The Creative Instinct November 16, 2008 at 11:01 am

Great article and some fantastic quotes. I love the idea that the act of criticism says more about the person giving it. I think that can be worth remembering for ourselves too, when we are being overly self critical.

As you say, getting the right frame of mind can help – especially if you are trying to be creative. So ‘pity the critic’ and ‘dare to be disliked’ help me stick my head above the parapet.

Andreea November 16, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Out of them all, my most favorite is “Before you go and criticize the younger generation, just remember who raised them.” I never saw it this way, it really shows you that criticism is sometimes a non constructive matter, especially when you’re not better that the one you’re criticizing. And this happens most of the times. I really found it to be very useful. Being able to manage criticism most sure improves your social life.

Andreea
http://www.colouredfeelingsuniverse.com

Tijl Vandersteene November 16, 2008 at 4:51 pm

I agree with Zoltan. All criticism is an opportunity to learn, because most criticism is actually true. It’s hard to accept but once you see what you can learn from it, you will experience criticism as something positive, something that helps you, that makes things better. Don’t mind the reason why peolpe criticize you (that’s their problem), just focus on the content of the criticism. And try not to react emotionally on criticism. Consider it a good tip in the workbook of life.

Vincent November 16, 2008 at 5:06 pm

The quote you stated by Buddha is awesome! I really love the idea of not “accepting the gift.” I would say that it is inspiring.

Cheers
Vincent
Personal Development Blogger

Iza Straightshooter November 17, 2008 at 12:10 am

What if the criticizer was RIGHT? All you offer here is, “Dont listen to them, they are wrong to criticize you” in 7 differently phrased paragraphs. You refuse in block any critic that is not praise. That is immature in my opinion. You ought to think about some criticism… even negative, especially negative and maybe ask yourself, what if they were right? You dont address that issue at all. This article isnt great. It’s self-important, in denial, and incomplete. Get real!

SRS November 17, 2008 at 1:10 am

Thanks for the reminders. I comes to me on a day where I loathe my inner complainer, and I make attempts to release complaining from my outer and inner dialogues.

Martin Wildam November 17, 2008 at 10:24 am

I do not find the quote of Theodore Roosevelt sooo awesome. It is true that you should keep in mind and honor who is actually doing the work but sometimes doing nothing can be more healthy than doing something.

Just thinking about the woodcutters in the boondocks (virgin woods) – to give an example. If unhealthy behaviour is not criticized it is more likely to continue. Sure, there should be some doers that stop those people – but hell, are we talking of war then?

There are a lot of unhealthy actions that do produce other unhealthy actions on and on and on. The doers are not always those to honor.

Henrik Edberg November 17, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for all the comments, guys! I appreciate them.

Iza: That is true. If the criticiser is right (and also if several people may point out the same thing to you) it is very helpful to listen and try to correct the problem. I agree, the article may be a little light on the aspect you point out although I mention it in the beginning of the article. And also in tip # 3 which is what I try to use to be able to listen to criticism without getting too blocked by negative emotions.

Martin: That is also very true. Thanks for adding that aspect to the article.

Chris Edgar November 17, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Thanks for this piece. I’d add that one technique I’ve found useful for dealing with criticism is to “ground out” the feeling that comes up in my body when I get criticized. To do this, I pay attention to where I feel attacked in my body, and visualize a charge of negative energy in that area. Then, I imagine the energy moving through my feet into the ground, where it dissipates. This helps me to listen without collapsing or flying into a rage about it. Best, Chris

Dorothy November 23, 2008 at 6:41 am

Henrik, your article was right on! Iza may shoot straight, but he forgot to aim! Indeed you did say: “You can listen to them all, but don’t have a need or craving deep inside for any of them. Don’t seek yourself on other people’s opinions…”

I’d summarize the two most important points as 1) don’t be disempowered by criticism (use it if it’s useful, discard if not) and 2) don’t disempower others with your criticism of them.

And thanks to Chris on “grounding out.” Never heard of that before, and it sounds very useful. Regards, Dorothy

Kellen November 23, 2008 at 7:16 am

This is one of the best articles I’ve read this year. Perhaps because I struggle with this within myself. And because I face so much of this at work. The quotes are beautiful and the ideas presented are timely. Thank you.

Ranga December 24, 2008 at 6:57 pm

“Before you go and criticize the younger generation, just remember who raised them.”
Unknown

This point touched a cord – When I had joined as a newbee in an organization, another department head was criticizing us youngsters – about work ethics, skills and what not.

I asked him 3 questions:

1) Sir, when you were young, your bosses got out the best work from you – and quite a few must have been novices with little work knowledge or rebellious too.
2) You blame us youngsters for not being upto mark.
3) You are our bosses – so who do you think is to blame?

It was my immediate boss who saved my skin that day – he was a great person, a great boss, and not because he saved my skin.

I have tried to remember this when I deal with newcomers today – I have criticized their mistakes – but not them personally.

Mike July 21, 2009 at 9:31 am

I love this, man. Good job.

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