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How to manage criticism

In my coaching sessions, clients often tell me one of the things they value most is the ability to talk to someone who doesn’t judge them.

Everyone wants to be accepted for who we are. No one likes to be judged or criticized.

Unfortunately, it’s a natural human trait for us to make judgments. We make judgments about what is good versus bad for us, and it extends to our judgments about ourselves and about others.

When criticism comes from someone important, whether it’s a parent, a boss, or a close friend, we may experience tremendous level of stress. When left unmanaged, the criticism can manifest into animosity towards the critic, as well as habitual doubts about our self-worth.

Seven steps to managing criticism

Whenever someone criticizes you, do the following:

1. Defuse animosity against the critic.

We may feel justified to be angry toward the critic, but being angry brings harm to our health. The fact that someone is placing judgment on you indicates that they judge themselves on those same values. If someone criticizes you for being selfish, they despise the part of themselves that is selfish.

People can only see a quality in you that they see in themselves. We are all mirrors for one another. Hence, there is no need to attack or defend yourself. Know that you share something in common with the critic, and that you are both on the journey to become the highest version of yourself.

2. Defuse any animosity against yourself.

What happens most often when someone criticizes me is that I see some truth in the criticism, and my inner critic begins barraging me. Someone comments that I can do something better, and almost immediately, I begin calling myself a loser. I am my own worst critic!

Negative self-talk is unlikely to create positive change. It only beats us down and keeps us stuck in a hole. Instead of spending precious energy harboring negativity, let go and direct the energy towards the empowering thoughts described in steps 3 to 6.

3. Ask yourself what evidence supports and contradicts the critic’s assessment.

For example, if the assessment is that I am selfish, ask the following:

  1. What behaviors did I demonstrate that can be judged as selfish?

  2. What other judgments can be made about these behaviors? Can positive judgments be made about these behaviors?

  3. What behaviors have I demonstrated that can be judged as generous?

These questions help me assess my actual behaviors in an objective way instead of spiraling in negativity. They help me understand what circumstances influence my behavior; they help me see that I am not the weakness (selfish), I am someone who sometimes behaves in ways that can be interpreted as the weakness (selfish).

4. Understand the weakness.

Instead of blaming yourself for having a weakness, ask yourself - how is this quality trying to help me? Using the same example, my weakness (selfish) is trying to keep me safe. It tells me that I have a fear of scarcity or a fear of getting hurt. These fears are part of being human. Instead of hiding these fears, it can be good to question if these fears are warranted, and if they serve me. If they don’t serve me, what practices and habits do I want to develop to overcome these fears?

5. See the weakness as a strength.

Strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin. Every strength is a weakness, and every weakness is also a strength. For example, selfishness can be generous – we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. When a person practices self-love, they radiate positivity and reduce the burden they might have placed onto others. Ask yourself: How can I transform this weakness into a strength? What good can this weakness bring into my life?

6. Know that change is a choice.

If you decide to make some changes because the weakness/strength does not serve you in certain ways, know that the decision to change is your choice. You have the freedom to pick what behaviors you want to change. You are not making a change to please others, you are making a change to please yourself.

7. Practice empathy for the critic.

Ask yourself – why does the critic feel threatened by this weakness? What are their fears? When you immerse yourself in the critic’s shoes and identify their fears, you can turn the criticism into an opportunity to develop a stronger relationship with them.

For example, let’s say a relative calls you selfish. Before reacting negatively, consider the possibility that their criticism is rooted in a fear or an unmet need. Perhaps they are really trying to communicate that they feel distant from you, and are worried that you may not be there for them in a time of need. Perhaps they just want to be loved. When we take the time to understand their needs, we can find ways to address them without questioning our self-worth.

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