Dealing with Criticism

…or learning to think positively in the face of negativity. Here’s the scenario:

You’ve just started a new blog and posted your first entry. Your friends’ comments have come pouring in: “Great site!” “You write so well!” “Keep ‘em coming!” But as you scroll down, five words catch your eye: “What a waste of space.”

That single sentence eats at your confidence. Despite all the wonderful things everyone else has said, that one line troubles you the whole day. You question your writing skill. You wonder whether you should keep blogging at all.

Criticism almost always carries more weight than praise. Psychologists say it’s because positive remarks are easy to process, while negative ones need to be digested and analyzed by the brain. But whatever the reason, the important thing is learning to deal with the criticism you receive. For instance, how do you forget the time your teacher told you your report deserved a barely passing grade? Or the day your mom said you don’t have the talent to fulfill your dreams of becoming an artist so you should just focus on what you’re good at?

As tough as it may be, there are ways to take criticism with grace. Leo Babauta, the man behind ZenHabits.net, suggests following these four steps:

  1. STOP YOUR FIRST REACTION. Instead of throwing a tantrum or spitting a biting comeback at your critic, take a deep breath and walk away (literally and figuratively). Let the criticism sink in before responding. It keeps you from saying anything you’ll later regret.
  2. TURN NEGATIVES INTO POSITIVES. Even the meanest, rudest comments have a nugget of positivity in them. The trick is to spot that bit of honest feedback. For example, “What a waste of space” can be read as, “You need to find more interesting topics to write about.”
  3. THANK YOUR CRITIC. No matter how harsh they can be, critics are people too. Maybe they’re having a bad day or maybe they’re naturally negative. But quick, sincere thanks from you will catch them off-guard – and you might even end up making their day. What’s more, you get to file this as something helpful and move on.
  4. LEARN FROM THE CRITICISM. Now it’s time to act. Apply the feedback you’ve received. You might take your friend’s advice and look for fun topics for your blog as well as find more creative ways of writing about them. Or you could listen to your mother and take art classes, but also hone your natural talent at sports. What matters is that you use the criticism and make yourself better through concrete action.

Keeping these four steps in mind, how about a little mining exercise? Let’s dig through a few common criticisms until we find the useful suggestions they hide. Then we’ll decide on a course of action.

The Negative: “You’ve gained so much weight!” or “You are so skinny you look like a scrawny witch!”

The Useful Suggestion: You should care about your health.

The Action: Start taking your diet and exercise seriously. You could begin a regular jogging routine with your friends (much cheaper than a gym membership), incorporate healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and lean meats, and stay away from chips and chocolate (well maybe you can eat a small portion of dark chocolate of at least 70% cocoa content everyday). The effort will benefit you in the long run.

The Negative: “She’s prettier than you.” or “You’re not pretty enough.”

The Useful Suggestion: Learn to be better at something other than smiling.

The Action: Your face isn’t your only weapon. Venture out of your comfort zone and try new things! The search for a hidden talent is one of the most enjoyable things life has to offer. And once you find what you’re truly good at, work on perfecting it. Eventually you’ll find yourself too busy to worry about how you look.

The Negative: “You’re such a nerd!”

The Useful Suggestion: Loosen up!

The Action: School is important — no doubt about it — but you don’t have to spend all of your time studying. Unbutton your collar; let your hair down! Go to a party or two. It’s all right to take it easy once in a while. You’re probably a lot more fun than you realize.

The Negative: “You’re not smart enough.”

The Useful Suggestion: Spend less time watching television and more time learning new things.

The Action: Open your mind to challenges. Read a classic book. Watch a Discovery Channel documentary. Go see an artistic film. As fun as a full-season marathon of Gossip Girl is, a day spent on the couch tends to dull the mind. Keep yourself sharp through thought-provoking tasks.

The Negative: “You’re no good at this.”             

The Useful Suggestion: Get better.

The Action: We’re not always naturally blessed with talent at the things we want to do. For instance, you may dream of becoming a ballerina someday, but stretching and exercise wears you out after a few minutes. Or you want to become a novelist someday, but your English grades are in the dumps. There’s only one solution: practice. Work on it, and then when you think you’ve reached the skill level you aimed for, work on it some more.

Remember that when it comes to taking criticism well, it’s all about spinning the negative to make it useful to you. Learn to stay humble and accept others’ suggestions openly and with gratitude. You’ll be helping others help you become a better person.