How to Handle Criticism: 5 Helpful Steps

“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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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I

    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.

  • 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 …

  • 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.

  • 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!


    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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

  • 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

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