Doling out advice, hurling negative comments, passing mean remarks - we have all done it. Given an opportunity, it’s easy to assume the role of an expert and tell others how wrong they are, why their product isn’t good enough, why their idea will never work, how they should behave, what they should do. Why seek permission when we feel right in our criticism?
Now let’s turn this around. Are your critics telling you the blunt facts you need to hear? Think for a moment about how you feel when you are on the receiving end of this criticism - angry, defensive, resentful, frustrated, sad, maybe even a little bit devastated.
Well, honestly. These feelings are all but natural. Even when it’s well-intended, criticism is always painful. Who likes to be told that their work sucks or what they consider praiseworthy does not come close to being good enough?
Loved by some, disliked by others. Useful to some, unhelpful to others. Valuable to some, rubbish for others. That’s how it is. Every person is entitled to their opinion. Very few people care about all the hard work you have put into creating something. All that matters is their personal opinion.
The thing about criticism is even when we know that criticism coming our way is unfair, even when we know it’s from some mean people, even when we know it is not useful to us in any way, it still hurts. It is easy to take it to heart, to feel discouraged, to engage in self-doubt, and ruminate about it.
No doubt some people are bad at delivering criticism, but we are far worse at receiving it. We don’t know when it’s useful to tune in to someone’s criticism and when it makes sense to politely shove it aside and move on. So, instead of trying to avoid criticism, what’s more useful is to learn how to act afterwards.
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher states “Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed and you haven't been."
Can you really avoid the critics? I don’t think so. At least not if you really care about personal development. If you care about feedback, you need to open the doors and look outside. You need to invite others to share their opinion even when it isn’t what you want to hear.
I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time - Brene Brown
She adds “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Out of many who criticise your work for no reason, there’s usually one with valuable feedback and the uncomfortable truth you need to hear. You possibly don’t want to lose that nugget of wisdom. Sometimes, that one advice can be a major driver of growth, something that will push you ahead in your career, help you see the reality of your situation, or make you implement a corrective action.
There’s an upside to having critics all around us - our well-meaning parents, coworkers, boss, friends, social media, and even the uninvited neighbor. It is easy to get feedback on almost anything. But there’s a downside too. Very few people actually care to give you valuable feedback and will put in the effort to add value to your life. Most get away with a fleeting comment without much thought placed on intention and the value it serves the other person.
Instead of placing all critics into the same bucket, it’s usually useful to categorize them.
This kind of criticism is completely useless with no real substance. Instead of giving a path forward, it’s based on conclusions - I don’t like it, your work is not good enough, this sucks, it doesn’t meet my expectations, you can do better.
Really, there’s hardly anything in the feedback that’s actionable. Worse, it isn’t even specific. You can keep scratching your head and waste your precious time, but you won’t go anywhere.
If the vague criticizer hasn’t learnt the art of criticism and doesn’t know how to contribute, it might be useful to ask them to expand on their comment. Unless they are open to add meaningful information, it serves no purpose.
These are the people who attack you as a person instead of focussing on your work. Their criticism isn’t intended to help you in any way as in most cases it’s a reflection of their own deep-seated fears - their failures, outcomes they did not achieve, or goals they are too scared to pursue.
They criticise others to feel good about themselves, lifting themselves up by pulling others down - you are a bad person, you must be terrible, your life sucks, you don’t have what it takes.
The attacker with a fixed mindset may also say things that makes them look good and validates their intelligence. Passing criticism is one way for them to establish their smartness.
These are the people who actually mean harm. They derive pleasure by misleading you, cooking up stories, making up data, and even providing false claims only to make others sway in their direction.
Their criticism is intended to fool you, believe in things that don’t exist, and make you give up on your dreams. Why do they do it? Making others suffer and crushing their dreams is all too satisfying.
They may seem like well-intentioned people who mean no harm. After all, fooling others is their goal. It’s only when you dig deeper, you realise their intention.
These are the ones you should be after. With a lot of experience of doing things and knowing how to do them well, these people believe in adding value, even when the value is packaged as a criticism.
They understand the game and will not spare you from giving the feedback you need to hear. Their criticism is precious, not personal. It preserves your dignity while helping you uncover the flaws. They mean no harm, only care about adding value. They seek no personal interest, only believe in your growth.
Even when it’s well-intentioned, not everyone is great at crafting a message that suits the other person. So, you may need to go beyond words to the intent of the message. Don’t expect criticism to be served on a platter. There’s work for you in it as we will see in the next step.
But first, think about the feedback. How do you see the person - is it the vague criticizer, the attacker, the notorious informant, or the seasoned critic? Think hard.
Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity. Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings - Ryan Holiday
When someone criticises your work:
Feelings of self-doubt may kick in - I am probably not good enough, I am not capable, I should have never done it, If the person is saying so, it must be true. Instead of asking for clarification, you jump to conclusions. Self-doubt can make you give up or quit too soon.
You see only harm and doubt their feedback - they are jealous of my success, they don’t know what they are saying, they aren’t capable of adding value. It can make you ignore feedback even though there’s value in it for you.
You feel judged and get defensive - Your agenda shifts from deriving value to sharing your viewpoint and making them see it your way. You stick with the feedback that supports your belief and reject anything that contradicts your viewpoint.
You remain calm and choose vulnerability - You want to face the uncomfortable truth even if it hurts. By keeping your emotions in check and telling your mind not to switch to a fight or flight mode, you open yourself to ideas you never considered earlier. You embrace the opportunity to learn about how different people think, why they react differently and what’s the real value in the message they wish to convey. You think from their perspective - what was their intent, was it easy for them to say this, why do they care about sharing this criticism with me?
The most natural human response is to avoid criticism. But without criticism, there’s no growth. It is easy to ignore feedback with the attitude that it doesn’t apply to you, but accepting the uncomfortable truth, even if it’s painful at first is the only way to grow.
Choose for yourself. Do you want to waste energy in justifying, proving you are right and they are wrong, being defensive, ruminating over what others said or can you use that energy to implement change, discovering areas that need improvement, finding better ways of doing things, and seeking pleasure in making a difference?
Adopting a positive outlook will help you in triggering the right behavior. There’s still work involved in finding a needle in a haystack - yes, that’s what useful feedback turns out to be. You need to cut through the noise and find that one piece of wisdom that will bring value to your work. It’s more art than science and something that can be acquired only through experience.
You will make mistakes, you will feel frustrated, even demotivated at times, but if you keep at it, it will lead you to a path of learning and growth.
Worse than ignoring criticism is to acknowledge the value in it and then do absolutely nothing about it. Deep down you want to implement the change but can’t come to terms with putting it into action.
As Seth Godin says “Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment.” Accepting feedback can be hard, but implementing a change can be even harder especially if it goes against what you hold dear, if it means giving up something you value.
Take time to process the feedback, do your research, ask questions and gather data. There’s no need to rush through a decision. But, once you know what needs to change, act on it. It may require you to create new plans, make adjustments, shift your commitments, update your goals but not doing them shouldn’t be an option. Now, every change doesn’t need your immediate attention. So, it’s fine to commit to a later date, but not committing is the same as not doing. Unless you make an effort to put the task on your calendar, it’s not going to happen. You will keep pushing it aside for something more important.
Criticism isn’t meant to stop you from moving forward, it’s a path to reach your goals faster, to help you see clearly the things that matter.
In the end, always thank the person who gave you the useful feedback.
Criticism hurts, but it can hurt more if you ignore feedback that can help you grow:
As author Jim Rohn puts it “Successful people do what unsuccessful are unwilling to do. Don't wish it were easier; wish you were better.”
Previously published here.