How to Handle Criticism: 5 Helpful Steps

by Henrik Edberg

Image by Mike Bailey-Gates (license).

.“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.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

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

What do you fear in your everyday life? One common answer would probably be to be criticized. To stand there and hear those words streaming out of someone’s mouth and feel stupid or feel rejected or like you are getting smaller and smaller.

I get quite a bit of feedback from my readers. Most of it is positive and supportive. But there are also sometimes criticism or harsh and nasty attacks. That part isn’t always so fun and can be hurtful. But it is a part of life if you want to live your life your way.

That being said, I have a few steps that I usually run through when I get an email that is critical or is attacking me. This isn’t some magical protection from being hurt or feeling pain but it helps me to better handle criticism and sometimes to get something good out of it.

These steps work pretty well in real life too.

1. Don’t reply right away.

It is very easy to become riled up, angry or defensive when you receive some criticism. This is not a good position to be in to fire away a reply if you don’t want to wind up making the situation worse.

Plus, I really work on keeping my self-esteem high. And to lash back at them or to not be the better person here can really hurt your self-esteem. It might feel good for a while to do so but it is a dirty high that comes with a hangover of feeling worse about yourself and subtle or not so subtle self-destructiveness.

So this is about my own well-being to a high degree. And so I never reply back right away. Instead I look closer at the email. If you receive criticism in real life try to at least take a couple of deep breaths to cool down just a bit and to feel more balanced before you reply.

2. Really listen to the criticism

Instead of attacking the other person for his or her words and building a hostile atmosphere try to calm it down. Try to remain level-headed, open and figure out how this message can help you.

Ask yourself questions like:

Can I learn something from this piece of criticism? Maybe there is something here that I do not want to hear but that could help me to improve?

3. Remember: the criticism isn’t always about you.

Some criticism is certainly helpful. Some isn’t that helpful or just simply attacks. What can I do then?

Well, then I remember that criticism isn’t always about me. It would be nice if all criticism one gets comes from level-headed place. But in reality people will have a bad day or week. Some will hate some part of their life. Some might not be all that well at this moment.

So they lash out at you to release pent up negative emotions. On your blog or maybe in school or at work. It’s not fun. But it happens.

To lessen the sting of this criticism or these attacks I try to be understanding. I think that based on the message I got – often really angry or overly critical about some pretty minor thing – this person isn’t feeling too good right now and is overreacting or need to release some pent up emotions.

By being understanding of this it becomes easier to just let such messages go instead of feeling bad or becoming angry too.

4. Reply or let go.

If you reply then try one or a few follow up questions if you think that could help you. And even when someone blurts out something not too constructive like “Your work/blog/product isn’t very good” you might want to ask a few open-ended questions to get more constructive information.

Questions like:

  • What part of it did you not like or did you not find helpful?
  • How can I improve it?

When I reply to a critical email I try to keep my attitude positive and kind no matter what they have written.

I thank him or her for what he or she wrote. I may add a question or two to get more clarification.

Sometimes I get back a much more level-headed reply where they actually help me to improve what I am doing and although I may still feel a bit hurt it also feels good to be the better person in this situation and to create a constructive conversation.

If they won’t answer your questions then they are probably just lashing out. And so it is time to let go.

I really don’t reply to all emails though. Nasty attacks are for example most often just put in the junk mail folder. I have more interesting things to focus on.

5. Keep your daily balance.

This isn’t a step to handle one specific email, phone call or critical message. But I have found that it becomes a whole lot easier to handle criticism if you stay balanced in your daily life. Those messages seem to not be as hurtful, they don’t affect me as much or sometimes just roll off my back like water on a duck when I:

  • Work in a relaxed way. Extra stress makes you more susceptible to the negative messages and to overreacting to criticism.
  • Manage the 3 fundamentals. That means to eat properly, to get enough sleep and to work out a couple of times a week. Keeping the balance of your physical fundamentals make you mentally stronger too.
  • Keep the self-esteem up. Criticism can send you down a spiral of self-loathing and feeling lousy about yourself. Keeping the stress down and the energy-giving fundamentals up can help you to not wind up in such dark places. Keeping your own self-esteem up is also vital. A couple of basic things that help me to do so is to behave in way where I do the right thing (like being the better person when replying to a critical email) as best I can, to appreciate myself, my good traits and accomplishments and to forgive myself instead of beating myself up about stuff or holding myself to impossible standards.

What is your tip for handling criticism in a good way?

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Classier Corn September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Inspiring post!

Geraldine September 1, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Some excellent advice and reminders here Henrik. I can’t imagine what anyone could complain about or bash in terms of your work. You host such a wonderful blog and there is always something fresh and relevant to enjoy here. I love stopping in!

Great photo choice too.

Elizabeth B September 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm

I have found that separating the behaviour from the person helps me become more understanding and compassionate about the individual and situation. This is routed in religion and spirituality. “Love the sinner, hate the sin”
When you lose a loved one you can become very compassionate towards others because you then have a new standard to measure things by…. what’s reeally important in life? I would say being above ground instead of under it …. So much to be thankful for no matter what the circumstance is.

Christy September 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

Agree with the quote above. People will always have something to say for whatever you do.

clement sadjere September 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

so excited to discover this amazing site. love every bit of the article as it opened my eyes to some wonderful secrets.

Caricami September 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm

This is a great post. It is really easy to take all criticism personally and if you let it, it can be really depressing; I think it really comes down to most people’s desire to be socially accepted, and criticism is often equated with rejection.

The idea of waiting to reply is the most helpful to me. I always have a gut reaction to immediately defend myself in effort to prove the criticiser (is that a word? Probably not) wrong. After sitting on it for a while, though, most of the time I realize that a) the criticism was valid and can teach me something and b) it just isn’t realistic to try and please everyone.

Great post! Thank you!

Andrea September 3, 2011 at 2:35 am


Thanks for this. It is a good approach as not getting hurt or angry when someone criticize you. Thanks I learned something today.

Neil Butterfield September 4, 2011 at 9:07 am

Nice post. While I agree with everything that you have listed here, I would like to add that people should play the ball and not the man. Too often people will have a personal go at a person and that is not on. One must especially be cautious when dealing with such matters online.

Danielle September 4, 2011 at 9:26 am

Thank God this site came up when I Googled. This is EXACTLY what I needed right now. Not only were the tips helpful, but it always helps to hear that others go through the same thing and that I’m not alone.

Chrysalis September 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Very good post!
Often times… if it is an angry, nasty email full of criticism, it says more about them than it does you. If they had valid points, then they should articulate them in a manner that is both respectful and courteous. It does little good to approach someone in an ill-tempered manner. Very sad you should receive any of these. When the delivery is such, it leaves slim opportunity, for both people, to grow and learn from the exchange. If its intent was only to wound, then it deserves to be deleted along with all the other junk mail.

Jason September 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm

The best advice here is the “don’t reply right away”. How many of us have caught ourselves wanting to reply right away and speak through reaction rather than proactively listening, deciphering, and ultimately deciding if the criticism is worth a response in the first place.

Criticism like everything else has within it a dual polarity, we have the choice to view it negatively and personally or we can embrace it as a nudge that perhaps there are areas of our life that we could focus on and improve.

Great post Henrick.

Henrik Edberg September 5, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thank you everybody for adding your own tips for handling criticism, that is some really helpful stuff. :)

Student Forum September 5, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Hi, Henrick, nice post on Criticism, especially the first tip on reply factor, because I have gone through this , and I experienced that if we react too quickly, the argument between other person and me tends to increase instead of solving,
so the 3rd tip is also very good, :criticism is not always about us’.
Thank you I am really learning from your posts Henrick!

Cyprian Udebuike September 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Hi, Mr Henrik that is a wonderful post. It will go a long way in helping hot tempered people like me. Sometimes, it is really hard to forbear and control yourself when you been criticized . But one doesn’t have to flare up all the time. We just need to learn how to control ourselves. Thank you very much for that masterpiece.

I am also a young blogger, check this site out

Kari September 5, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Criticism is everywhere! But your right, you can’t be yourself and not receive criticism. We all just need to look to our mothers (many of us anyway) to prove that point!

Like you said, nasty criticism is more about them and their mood or anger than it is actually about you, and chances are that they let it go not long after they get it off their chest whereas the person receiving the criticism can let it build up into a bundle of negative emotions – which is not good. I always think about that old saying “If you knew how little people actually thought about you…”- this reminds me that there words are more about themselves and less all about me.

But positive constructive criticism is always good! We couldn’t move forward without it.

I September 6, 2011 at 1:50 am

Loved your post! Good advice! And everything you say is oh so true! I must say that most of the things you wrote I also always go through.I don;t reply immediately, I re-read the comments and I think about the learning process, and if interesting I reply. I just add one other thing: Life is too short to get upset about things which are trivial when you put everything in perspective. And there will always be nay-sayers and haters. Take the good from the comments, take the learning experience and let the rest go.

Marya | Writing Happiness September 6, 2011 at 3:56 am

Today at work, somebody in a position superior to me said something to the effect that I have no confidence as a teacher. I am not ready to be a teacher. (I have been teaching for a number of years both at undergrad level and now at a school). I lack tone when I teach, the kids picked up on that, that they needed to call in somebody to evaluate my performance.
How does one respond to that?
I did by bursting into tears (I am having the toughest time at home) and making a total fool of myself. Why couldn’t I just listen calmly, ask for clarification and walk away? Why couldn’t I be an adult? I can deal with critcism, but those words really shook me to the core.
Oh well …

Dean September 6, 2011 at 5:14 am

Nice one Henrik. I can’t comment enough on your writing simplicity. So easy to understand and yes so true when it comes to criticism. Most often I do find that when people say negative things about you, it is not about you… they’re just lashing out. As for my tip, I usually tell people during my trainings or one-on-one coaching sessions that “people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”

Thanks Henrik… look forward to reading more.

Cliff September 6, 2011 at 7:24 am

People doesn’t like the idea of being criticized especially if they are in disagreement or denial. But, most of the time, receiving criticism constantly reminds us that there’s always room for change and improvement.

All we have to do is listen, calmly accept them and take action improving yourself.

marc van der Linden September 6, 2011 at 8:14 am

Great points, Hendrik!

I have used most of them while learning to deal with my own anger. I truly believe that not the criticism is the real problem, but the anger inside ourselves who reacts on a outside event.

I often use a variation of “Really listening” by putting myself in the shoes of the person who is criticizing me to find out what his/her motives are and what is so painful for him/her? It helps me to put things in perspective – it is not always about me.

Thanks for this valuable reminder!

JOSHUA September 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm

you know i’ve been reading up on meditation, and one of the main topics mentions “emptyness”. Emptyness basically means to not look at things as if they inherently exist. we always consciously attach ourselves to people places and things and fail to realize that none of these things have any concrete existence. take a chair for example. you observe and you can obviously tell that its a chair and it seem ridiculous to even question it. but mentally disassemble the pieces and lay them on the ground. where is the chair? is it the pieces of wood? the nails? the glue? if you really contemplate you’ll realize there isn’t a chair you can find. to delve a little deeper into emptyness lets look at the “I”. the “I” is something we identify in ourselves. for example like “I’m sad” or “I’m angry”. where is this “I” you identify yourself as? is it somewhere in your body? in your heart or your eyes? the more you contemplate on that you realize there is no “I”. its all an illusion you’ve created within your mind throughout your life. i think if we understand this concept we’ll realize that we give people the power to criticize us and make us feel inferior.

Elliot Zovighian September 6, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Excellent article. I had to retweet it when I saw think in my stream. Criticism isn’t easy for the most confident of people at times. These perfect reminders should help people cope with the disappointment criticism brings.

Ken Wert September 7, 2011 at 8:08 am

Important tips, Henrik!

I remember hearing about a lady who went to a religious leader to complain about something someone had said about her. She was angry and wanted satisfaction. She insisted the leader do something. But instead, this leader simply told her that people often say things about him. But his reaction was always first to stop and consider the accusation and try to think if he had done or said anything that could have even given the impression that the thing said could be true. He then added that usually, he found that there was something he had said or done. He would then go to the person and apologize for the impression he had given.

Some of the tips you gave reminded me of that story. Well done!

Petr Mihulka September 8, 2011 at 7:05 am

I’ve stumbled over this blog the first time and this post really appealed to me. I used to be very sensitive to criticism and tried out a lot of methods over the years. To this end, I can say that all the tips are valuable and can be immediately applied in day-to-day life. During my self-research, I found one more thing very important – having inner power. It enables one to withstand and all other techniques work then even better. Increasing one’s inner power is about working on oneself and gradually transforming the internal stuff that resonates with criticism. Anyway, thanks for these valuable tips…

motivation forever September 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

Wonderful post.really informative stuff.Not responding right away actually helps to avoid “coughing up BS” in the heat of the moment.

7times77 September 18, 2011 at 7:59 am

Recently I replied to criticism with “That’s correct”.
You should have seen the face of the teacher.. priceless!
Inside me I agreed, that what he perceived is correct. But I couldn’t agree with it, still I agreed with his perception. I did not try to justify myself or to find excuses. That will knock anybody off their socks, if you agree with the their harsh criticism. It shows also that you don’t care so much. Let the other person feel right and move on. You can think about it later and find maybe something useful in it.

Correct! ;)

Hari September 25, 2011 at 3:37 am

Its things like this which really makes the change,and makes things happen.

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