Learning to deal with criticism

Let’s be honest: facing criticism isn’t easy for anyone. Even the toughest, most seasoned professionals occasionally receive feedback that they find really upsetting, and anybody can be caught out on a bad day. Learning to deal with criticism rather than simply trying to hide from it is important because it can be a useful resource. It’s important to learn to separate constructive criticism from mere heckling or trolling, to separate the personal from the professional, and to develop the skills that will help you manage your emotions when dealing with it. This will give you the opportunity to learn from it, growing and improving in both a personal and a professional capacity.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

In today’s world, everybody is a critic. If you’re creating publicly visible work, the chances are that you receive a lot of responses on social media and that many of them are critical – but how can you sort out which ones deserve your attention? First of all, remove anything that attacks you for personal characteristics, such as your race or your appearance. Criticism of your opinions can be valid and provide useful insights, but there’s usually nothing to be learned from people who join pile-ons for the sake of it or those who repeatedly get themselves banned, so you can safely ignore anything from freshly created accounts or those with hardly any followers or connections.

It’s important not to throw out everything that seems personal because this often overlaps with material related to what you do professionally. It can also help you to understand where your personal expression might be interfering with the way you want to communicate about your work. When it comes to direct criticism of your work, it can be useful to keep track of the balance of positive and negative comments. However, there’s no point in taking to heart posts simply saying that your work is ‘horrible’, ‘stupid’ or similar because they have no substance. They don’t really tell you anything about why people have failed to connect with what you’re doing, or whose fault that is. It’s only the ones that make substantial points that you really need to think about.

Retaining your confidence

In order to learn from criticism and to avoid getting hurt, you need to work on building up your self-confidence and managing your emotions. It can help to recognize that everybody who manages to achieve anything significant faces criticism at some stage in their career. Broadway producer Louise Gund had to fight to get taken seriously when she first started out but used criticism to help her hone her creative instincts. She went on to stage a successful revival of Fiddler on the Roof along with several other hit shows. Oprah Winfrey was told throughout her youth that she would never amount to anything, but it only made her more determined to prove her critics wrong.

There’s a myth out there that confident people don’t put up with being criticized by anybody. On the contrary, it’s only those who are insecure who feel a constant need to defend themselves from every attack. When you like the person you are and feel good about the work you do, you’ll have an inner self that negative comments can’t touch. You can then let yourself be receptive to constructive criticism, understanding that you’re not perfect and you will sometimes get things wrong – everybody does – but that you have the capacity to improve by listening and changing the way you do things.

Learning from mistakes

Learning from mistakes and improving as a result starts with accepting that negative feedback is sometimes well-deserved and that you don’t always know best; even if you have nothing but good intentions and genuinely felt that you were doing your best. Most of us have a natural instinct to be defensive when criticized. There are times when this is entirely appropriate, and some people apologize far more than they need to, but it’s still important to learn to let go of that defensiveness at least for long enough to think properly about what the other person is trying to say. Think about who that person is as well. Might there be a valuable different perspective there, informed by education or experience that you don’t have?

Responding productively to criticism isn’t just an internal, intellectual process – it’s also about how you change your behavior. When you have ongoing contact with the person giving you negative feedback, you can try to shift your relationship into one of collaboration, giving you the opportunity to ask ongoing questions and request further feedback as you start to do things differently. If the other person isn’t able to engage with that, they may be able to recommend another source of support.

Ultimately, criticism is disconcerting because it challenges our feelings about who we are and what we can achieve, but we need that to be challenged from time to time or we would never be able to develop. Constructive criticism is an opportunity to improve.