8 Therapist-Backed Tips for Taking Criticism Like a ChampGetting defensive isn’t it.
Maybe your boss said you had to work on clear communication (don’t we all) or your friend semi-jokingly called your apartment messy (you just have a special way of organizing clothes!). Perhaps your partner told you the pasta you thought tasted fine was beyond bland (rude!). If criticism like this makes you feel like you were personally victimized by Regina George, you’re not alone.
First, it’s important to note that criticism can be well-intentioned or...not. When someone criticizes what you say, do, or put out in the world, they’re pointing to something they disapprove of to hurt or help you, says Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. For instance, a manager who notes your “poor time management” could be, in their eyes, trying to help. (Bonus points if they go the extra mile to give you tips to improve how you prioritize your work, which would make it constructive criticism.) But other times criticism can be a bunch of hurtful garbage, like a stranger body-shaming you in your IG comments.
Regardless of the person’s intentions, criticism can feel a lot like rejection, and since it’s human to want to belong, not having someone’s approval and acceptance sucks, Dr. Hendriksen says. “Criticism means or implies that we've stepped out of line in some way. And in the ultimate worst-case scenario, being rejected by the tribe means we're alone,” she explains.
Being told you’ve stepped out of line—whether they’re right or wrong—can make you feel inadequate or incapable, Dr. Hendriksen says. And because we’re social creatures who don’t want other people to view us poorly for letting them down or messing up, we often get defensive when criticized, she says.
Another common response to criticism is guilt if we’ve actually done something wrong and shame if we’re falling into a spiral of, I’m a horrible person for doing that thing wrong, says Dr. Hendriksen. Have you ever felt those emotions? Yeah, they are NOT fun.
The big picture, though, is that criticism is a natural part of being a person existing around other people—it’s a given when we work on a team, live with friends, post content on social media—and it’s often going to feel bad, Dr. Hendriksen says. But there are therapist-approved ways to help criticism sting a little less or, at the very least, to help you find some worth in words you might not like.
1. Ask for clarification.
It might seem like someone’s being mean on purpose when they offer criticism, but that could just be how you’re interpreting it, and, chances are, they might not actually want to hurt you. It’s oftentimes hard to assume the best in people, so getting to the bottom of someone’s intentions can help you feel a bit better about the criticism. One way to do that is by asking for more info, says Dr. Hendriksen. You could try something like: “What makes you say that?” or “Can you tell me a little more about why you see it that way?”
Maybe your boss has an exhaustive list of notes on your work presentation, and it feels like they're attacking every little thing you do. It may even feel like they’re attacking you, not just your work. But by asking them for clarification on why they have tons to say, they might tell you that they see so much potential in you and want to help you learn to create the perfect presentation on your own.
2. Consider it could just be a difference of opinion.
Even though your boss’s criticism might be a smidge easier to swallow knowing they want to help—not attack—your work, you still might be annoyed that they thought your presentation could be better. However, receiving feedback from someone doesn’t automatically mean you did something wrong; it could be the other person’s opinion, Dr. Hendriksen says. Basically, you may have different views on what a good presentation is, but since they are in charge, they’re in a position to tell you what they think.
If you’re shaming yourself for dropping the ball, remembering that criticism is an opinion can make it feel a little less personal. Just because your boss is telling you this doesn’t mean they think you are a bad or incapable person. “We have opinions all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily change how we feel about others,” Dr. Hendriksen explains. Maybe you tell your friend every other week that you really think they should shave their mustache. That doesn’t mean you hate them for keeping the stache on their face! Apply that same knowledge when you get feedback.
3. Test-drive criticism before you reject it.
Even if you’ve groaned 50 times in the past day thinking about someone’s criticism, it can be a roadmap for doing things better, so you don’t always want to flat-out reject all of it, Dr. Hendriksen notes. Viewing their critique as an experiment you can try out for your own benefit can help you see the positives in whatever the criticism is. Then, if you don’t like how things are going, you can change course, she says. Easy peasy.
Maybe it feels like a slap in the face when your BFF tells you that you need to jump back into dating because you’re "stuck" on your ex. Sure, you could just ignore them, but you could also—if you’re comfortable—download apps or let them set you up on a chill coffee hang with a friend of a friend. If it sucks, you don’t have to keep doing it. You tried their approach, and you can decide to continue following it or not. You have options!
4. Distance yourself from the criticism in some way.
If you’ve been replaying something a rude customer said to you in your head since last week, separating yourself from the thing you’re thinking about—called cognitive defusion, or defusion for short—can help you not take it so seriously. You could try picturing the criticism as words on a screen in front of you, not in your head, and watching them go by, Dr. Hendriksen suggests. You can sing the words over and over—they might sound silly when you do—or imagine you’re typing them on your laptop and change the color, size, and font to look as weird as you want, she also suggests. Play around with it!
Distancing yourself from criticism and manipulating the words in some way might help you realize that you don’t even have to listen to them at all and you actually have control over how they impact you, Dr. Hendriksen explains. “The criticism isn’t truth or gospel; it’s just words,” she says.
5. Think about whether it's worth pushing back.
Defending yourself against disapproving comments might not always be the best idea if there could be consequences. Maybe you don’t agree when your boss says you take too many breaks throughout the day. If it’s blatantly incorrect (you only leave your desk to go to the bathroom and grab lunch), you can present them with the facts, notes therapist Matthew Bell, LMFT. But, in general, you probably wouldn’t want to lean too hard into defense mode when they have the power to fire or demote you real quick.
In those instances where you really want to say something but can’t/shouldn’t, try walking away for a breather instead of reacting out of hurt, suggests Bell. If you can’t physically take a walk, do something to get yourself out of your head—which may be spiraling with things that you want to
scream say—and into your body for a sense of calm, he says. Focus on your breath (in through your nose, out through your mouth) or crunch and release your toes, he suggests.
If you feel like you're in a low-stakes situation, pushing back might be fine. Say your mother-in-law texts you bad reviews about your kids’ daycare. Send her a message back saying you’re happy with where your kiddos are at because of X, Y, and Z reasons. But if you don’t feel like getting into it with her for the third time this week, you can thank her for letting you know and call it a day, suggests Dr. Hendriksen.
6. Tell the criticizer how you feel.
If you’re hurt by criticism that your cousin, co-worker, or whoever says, letting the person know can help you by releasing the emotion that might have otherwise been stuck in your mind, says Bell. As a bonus, it can allow the other person to clarify how they actually wanted their words to land with you, he says. Maybe you tell them that their criticism was upsetting to hear and they say that really wasn’t their intention.
When you’re ready, you can say something like, “This felt [insert emotion] to me because [insert why].” But you don’t need to have the conversation ASAP. How the criticism made you feel doesn’t become invalid if you don’t address it right away, Bell notes. It’s based on how comfortable you are with that person, if you have the words to express how you’re feeling in the moment, and also the setting you’re in—like if you’re one on one versus with a group, he says.
7. Give yourself time with your emotions.
Sure, you can mute social media trolls in seconds, but sometimes you can’t ignore the “I’m the absolute worst” or “they are the absolute worst” thoughts on repeat in your head after you read their comments. In fact, trying to mute those thoughts might make you think about them even more since it’s easy to focus on a thing when you know you’re not supposed to focus on it, notes Dr. Hendriksen. The good news is that making room to sit in your feelings can actually help them go away faster since you’re not resisting them, she says.
To create space for the anger, shame, whatever it is, picture it as a physical object somewhere inside your body—it can be a gray metal box under your skin, for example, says Dr. Hendriksen. Then, just breathe and let that object stay where it is to metaphorically make room for it. This is a way to practice mindfulness because you’re watching the emotion in the present moment without judgment, making you less likely to spiral into a rabbit hole of negative self-talk, she explains. You might notice the box go away once you give it room to hang out.
If visualization isn’t for you, you can literally sit and cry it out, and you might observe that, eventually, crying stops. “What goes up must come down,” Dr. Hendriksen says. You can also get mindful about how your body is reacting to your emotions without judgment, she suggests. Are you clenching your teeth or tensing your muscles? Do you feel heat rush to your cheeks? You can pay attention to urges that come up for you too, she adds. Do you want to vent to your sibling or get revenge? Do you want to throw what you’re feeling in the trash? Noticing how your emotions impact you is a way to actually move through them.
8. Treat yourself like a friend.
Getting criticism can feel really rough (especially if we internalize it), so make sure to give yourself the same grace and compassion you’d give a friend in this situation, says Dr. Hendriksen. You wouldn’t want your BFF wallowing for days when they got a bad performance review or when someone called them out on Twitter for retweeting a #canceled celeb. Maybe you’d give them a hug and tell them that even though they may have dropped the ball a tiny bit, everything’s going to be OK.
Do the same for yourself. Try putting a hand on your heart (or wrapping yourself in a blanket burrito) and saying comforting words like, “I know you’re not happy right now, but you’re going to be OK,” Dr. Hendriksen suggests. Maybe you can make yourself some tea or read your fave novel—it’s about supporting yourself with self-care like you would a friend.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.