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How to Handle Criticism: 3 Ways to Deal with Negative Feedback

Everyone deals with criticism at one point or another, whether it be judgment from family members or critiques at work. Here’s how to take it in stride.

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We’re more likely to remember the bad things said about us than the good

Anna* spent the better part of her adulthood raising kids. After she and her husband married in 1983, the pair wasted no time starting a family. Their four boys, who were all born within a decade, are now in their 20s and 30s and have begun having kids of their own.

The 57-year-old office administrator was thrilled to become a grandmother, but was recently surprised by criticism she faced over her child-rearing skills. Last year, Anna was feeding her newborn grandson in what she referred to as the “old-school way”—with him in her lap, laid out horizontally, bottle in his mouth—when her son chastised her. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he told her, noting that the baby needed to be sitting upright. “People don’t do it like that anymore.”

“I thought, I raised four of you. How could I not know what I’m doing?” Anna recalls. “It was pretty hurtful.” The comment stuck with her and ever since has made her wonder: Was I a bad mother?

Ruminating over negative feedback is something we all do: a famous 2001 paper published in the Review of General Psychology even proved that we’re disproportionately more likely to remember the bad things said about us than the good. From negative comments in the office to pointed words about our behaviour from loved ones, criticism is something we can’t avoid. But building resilience to it, and learning to accept and grow from negative feedback, is a skill anyone can and should develop.

 *Name has been changed.

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1. Stop and listen

When Anna first heard her son’s critique, she brushed it off as a generational difference. Ignoring a judgmental message, or getting defensive in response to it, are common ways we attempt to separate ourselves from what might be painful to hear. In the long run, though, deflecting negative feedback can be a missed opportunity for self-improvement.

Toronto psychologist Noah Lazar, who specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy, suggests taking time to process criticisms instead of immediately reacting. This, he says, will protect a relationship with someone who may actually be trying to help you. “Anger and defensiveness are never well-received,” he says. “So you might say, ‘Thank you for your feedback. I’ll consider it,’ and leave it at that.”

Once removed from the situation, he explains, you’re more able to calmly and logically unpack what the comments mean and how you might alter your actions in the future. This is one of the first steps of what Lazar’s field calls “cognitive restructuring,” the process of recognizing your automatic defensiveness and asking yourself why that happens. If this practice is done regularly enough, Lazar says the result is a better understanding of your reflexive emotions and, in turn, better control over how you react.

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2. Distinguish criticism from attacks

Accepting feedback can be the difference between success and failure. A University of Southern California study from 2008 found that interactions with the faculty (in the form of construct­ive criticism) allowed underrepresented students to not only improve their grades but also enjoy their educational experience more. And when it comes to romantic relationships, researchers have found that positive, constructive criticism translates into a greater overall satisfaction within the partnership.

But how do you tell the difference between useful and harmful criticism? Eleanor Beaton, a women’s leadership development expert in Nova Scotia, says the distinction is all in the delivery: was it aggressive in tone or was the person calm and empathetic? Was derogatory language used? And was the message presented as a suggestion for improvement—offering, for example, helpful hints to do better next time—or did it aim to shame, calling attention only to your faults? “Just because you’ve received criticism doesn’t mean you have to take it,” says Beaton, suggesting silence is an apt response to an attack that is not constructive.

If the feedback makes space for improvement, though, you can try setting achievable goals to change a problematic behaviour. Starting small, says Lazar, can keep things from feeling too overwhelming. If a roommate is unhappy with your habit of not making any contributions to the household, for instance, start by making a specific commitment, like doing the dishes more often. “Making that small change is much more manageable,” he says. “Then you can work up to those goals of changing yourself overall.”

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3. Don’t make it about you

It took Toronto journalist and author Rebecca Eckler a long time to learn not to take attacks on her work too much to heart. Eckler, best known for her controversial writing on parenthood, has been receiving angry words from readers since 2006. When she penned a column six years ago recounting leaving her newborn baby with her fiancé’s mother while she vacationed, Internet commenters were enraged, calling Eckler derogatory names. Twice during her career, she remembers actually throwing up as a response to cruel words. “There were many days when I thought, I can’t do this anymore, especially when a piece went viral and all the nasty comments came out.”

To cope, Eckler tries not to take things too personally; most columnists who write about themselves, she reminds herself, get plenty of unpleasant messages. And while not all of us are putting our opinions and lives out there on a consistent basis, it can be helpful to remember that doing so may invite unwarranted attacks. When a mean comment sticks with Eckler, she says yoga helps undo its destructive effect. “I set my intention at the start of my practice to not think,” she says, “and by the time the hour is over, I’m back to being in a good mood and planning what to write next.”

Even when you’ve received constructive feedback, Beaton encourages placing it in the right context. “In the moment, criticism can feel really painful, but it’s not necessarily a blanket judgment of who you are as a human being,” she says. “It is simply learning that what you’ve done doesn’t match someone else’s evaluation criteria.” Instead of berating yourself, you can focus on how you’ve missed the mark on that specific expectation and follow up for clarification.

In the months since Anna first was confronted with her son’s criticisms, she’s learned to take them in stride. She’ll walk away if she feels frustrated and wait until she’s ready to face the constructive remarks. “I can’t beat myself up for not understanding something,” she says. “I have to grow from it.” This approach, she adds, is helping her become a better grandmother—and a better mother, too.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada