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The Best Response to Criticism

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I learned early on that criticism feels about ten times as bad as praise feels good.

For a while I assumed this was a neurosis only I and other recovering pessimists had. But when I started blogging, I kept hearing the same thing from other writers: one critical comment makes you forget a dozen positive ones.

It turns out this is normal for human beings. Criticism just weighs more on our emotions than praise does. We remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, and we give more emotional weight to a loss than an equivalent gain.

This makes sense from a survival perspective, if you think about it. There’s more urgency to remember dangers vividly than rewards. The trauma of negative events — whether it’s from a pointed criticism or a stubbed toe — teaches you how to stay physically safe and in good standing with the tribe. Positive events are beneficial when you have them, and it’s helpful to remember how you got to them, but there’s no benefit in staying preoccupied with them for a long time.

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones,” wrote social psychology professor Roy Baumeister in a paper he co-authored, entitled “Bad is Stronger Than Good”.

A natural side-effect of this overvaluation of negativity is that we tend to be more passive in life than we would be if we weighed negativity and positivity the same. Bad outcomes seem to promise more in terms of punishment than good outcomes promise in terms of benefit, so it can seem sensible to speak out and try new things as infrequently as possible. As writer Elbert Hubbard put it, “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” 

Most of us understand intuitively what Hubbard is getting at — as painful as criticism can be, avoiding it completely is far too costly to our social lives and creative goals, and probably impossible anyway. Yet even if you acknowledge that we overvalue criticism, a single remark can still be burning in your head at bedtime, after a day where nothing else at all went wrong. How do we stop criticism from lodging itself in our minds like this?

Criticism is an event in someone else’s head

The first thing to recognize is that criticism is about all the critic’s experience, not the target’s. It all begins with an internal reaction between what the critic sees and what it reminds her of. If someone at work thinks you’re a pretentious brown-noser, it could be entirely because you remind her of a pretentious brown-noser at her previous job; you use a few of the same pet phrases, and you wear the same kind of sweater vests. You are, in her mind, a representative of a bad experience from her past, and so she feels ill-will towards you out of habit and association, and interprets everything you do through that lens.

We are all constantly reacting internally to how other people behave, comparing what we see to what we’ve seen, and it happens very quickly. It’s emotionally driven, with little or no time spent considering whether your conclusions about this person are premature, or even whether you’re making conclusions at all, or simply observations. These scrutinizing thoughts just happen to us, we don’t ask for them; the only difference between being critical and uncritical is whether the thought comes out of your mouth or not.

Criticism — the everyday kind, not the academic kind — is all about appearances. We see something in another person that we don’t like. Our thinking goes, “Okay, I’ve seen this before, and it’s bad news.” But every situation is different, even if the actor is the same, and you haven’t seen this scene before, at least not quite. You simply cannot, in the time it takes for a judgment to form, understand and evaluate the countless invisible factors that might bring someone to do or say the thing that currently has you narrowing your eyes at them.

While the process for the critic is very often superficial and ephemeral, when we’re criticized we take it as an indictment of our selves directly, of our very being. Criticism, from the sender, really means “I don’t like what this seems like,” but to the recipient it feels like “You shouldn’t be who you are.”

This is what keeps you fuming, for hours or days, about what someone had the nerve to say about “you.” But it’s not about you. The critic was really just reacting to a fleeting appearance that happened to include you, filtered through his own worldview, emotional state, and personal experience. A criticism is an outward expression of an internal alarm bell, which has only a circumstantial relationship to you as a person.

Any human being is vastly more complex than any one of his tens of thousands of appearances, yet most criticisms are based primarily on what you appeared to be like on one day at one time, or perhaps across a small series of self-reinforcing impressions.

Of course, it’s possible that despite the superficial basis for the criticism, the remark happens to be right on the money. It is especially devastating when the target knows it is, because then they have to immediately confront the possibility that they are sometimes petty, or selfish, or pretentious, or ignorant, or guilty of any other common human fault.

But even when the criticism does make you aware of a fault of yours, the critic’s negative impression and your bruised self-image are not at all the same thing. They don’t see what you see — they didn’t peer into your soul and see its defects, they just got involuntarily reminded of something they remember and don’t like.

These two sets of feelings are ships passing in the night, each imagining they’re alone at sea. So we should not misinterpret casual criticism as something truly personal. You might still learn something if you find yourself reluctantly agreeing with what they say, but it doesn’t mean their criticism is a meaningful evaluation of who you are.

There are exceptions to this, such as when a long-time friend who truly knows you confronts you about a long-time problem. But this only happens a few times in most people’s lives, and in the long run it isn’t usually a bad thing.

Meet criticism with empathy

In all cases, we are in a much better position to learn from criticism (and minimize its sting) when we think of it as something that is happening in someone else’s head. If we’re not caught in the throes of a defensive reaction, then we can make use of our most potent tool for responding to criticism, which is empathy.

By default, your attention goes to the relationship between the criticism you see, and how you feel. See if you can use that initial sting to remind you of what the criticism really is: an internal relationship between what the critic sees and the feeling it gives him.

Richard Carlson gave us the key to this door in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “Just for fun, agree with criticism directed towards you (and watch it go away.)”

This is more useful than it sounds. The point isn’t only to defuse the energy of the critic by giving him nothing to push against (although that alone can be extremely helpful.) The deeper point is to find what it is about what you appear to be doing that might trigger suspicion or concern in a casual observer.

The critic may have no real grounds at all — they may be misunderstanding something, or unfairly presuming something, or have too limited a worldview to see the value in what you’ve said or done. But either way, the element that arouses their critical impulse is often something you can understand, if you try. You may find it’s something you regularly criticize others for — being presumptuous, being too in love with one’s own ideas, being defensive, or being sanctimonious, to name a few of the many qualities we all resent.

Even if you do believe the critic is totally off base, you can learn a lot by asking, “Where are they coming from?” It could be a legitimate concern you haven’t addressed, or it could be a common misconception you need to clarify. Or it could just remind you that not everyone is going to understand why you did things they way you did, and perhaps that’s okay. In all cases, it cools off the burning need to argue or undermine the other person.

Whenever you notice yourself reacting to criticism, remind yourself that you’re just witnessing outward evidence of another person’s involuntary free-association exercise. They see, in what you’re doing or saying, their own past — they don’t see you.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

Arthur December 15, 2014 at 12:00 am

I’ve made it a habit to think about criticism logically and dismiss it if the person criticizing is full of IT and has no grounds. As always great post David!

Ragnar December 15, 2014 at 1:14 am

I have three separate reactions to criticism, when I feel it is unfounded, indignant outrage, and when they touch upon a flaw I’m already familiar with I’ll either happily agree, or it will feel like a blow to the stomach. Even if I’m in the process of slowly dealing with said flaw, I have to go through the same process of, initial reaction (short pang of guilt/shame), calm breaths, reason, then back to normal.

Usually, the most useful insights come after overcoming my indignant outrage at seemingly unfounded criticism, as they often tell me a lot about how my behavior is actually perceived versus what I feel like it should be perceived.

David Cain December 15, 2014 at 8:25 am

Yeah, I think that process is usually unavoidable to some degree. The body just reacts. But it can be shortened by remembering that the other person can’t help but react the way they do internally, and may or may not say something about their reaction.

Knowing how our behavior is perceived can be helpful, even if we believe it is being misunderstood.

frank szymanski January 1, 2015 at 2:44 am

I’ve done some good work as a result of valuable criticism. There are some good points in this post, and I believe we have the ability to change any leverage imbalance from criticism and praise. Your writing addresses the empowerment of awareness and we can employ it here, in addressing this imbalance, as much as anywhere. Many will say it’s natural for criticism to weigh more heavily than praise. Are we “made” this way? Whether we are or not, I don’t believe we have to “stay” this way even if we are. We can choose our course, our identity. We’re best always to look for what renders us most resourceful. We have our own inherent value and equality. We can treat any criticism that we can’t actually learn something from as noise.

Mohamed Hekal December 15, 2014 at 1:26 am

Great Post

Katherine P December 15, 2014 at 3:24 am

This is such a great post David! A great reminder for us when we receive criticism, but most importantly what happens when WE judge others and let it come out of our mouths. We all need more duct tape in our lives. :->

Mukta December 15, 2014 at 3:34 am

Your articles are always very insightful and thought-provoking; Often making me re-look at things in a different light. Thanks to you, I benefit ! You’re good David ! Keep writing and God bless you.

BrownVagabonder December 15, 2014 at 5:17 am

I was criticized constantly by my ex-boyfriend and it made me self-doubt myself everyday. I’m so glad I am not with him anymore, but now that I think about it, a lot of his criticisms had valid points. I just couldn’t see clearly at the time. My reactions depend highly on where the criticisms come from.

David Cain December 15, 2014 at 8:26 am

All the more reason to be very selective about which criticism we voice — the more someone criticizes, the less likely anybody is going to listen to what they’re actually trying to say.

Kenoryn December 16, 2014 at 10:55 am

It really does make a big difference where the criticism comes from – if it’s from someone you love, it is much more hurtful than criticism from a stranger, and you risk piling on past criticisms and interactions to make it seem in your mind like much more than it really is. In some ways I think the people closest to you might have the most valuable and constructive criticism, but theirs is also the hardest to accept.

It also matters what the criticism is about – being criticized on something you pride yourself on or which you make part of your identity can be a real blow.

Mrs. Frugalwoods December 15, 2014 at 6:07 am

I absolutely internalize criticism more than positive feedback, which is such a negative cycle. Over the years I’ve come to realize that criticism often contains at least a kernel of helpful truth. When I’ve decompressed from a situation and can asses it calmly, I often realize that there’s something of value I can take away from it.

David Cain December 15, 2014 at 8:28 am

What I’ve said about is especially helpful when the criticism comes over the internet. Because you know the critic really doesn’t know you and can’t see you. And it’s easy (and strangely comforting) to picture what is really happening: some person, somewhere out there, getting mad at pixels on a screen.

Amy December 15, 2014 at 6:12 am

Defusing energy by giving nothing to push against is the basis of Tai Chi. It is brilliant to use this for defusing criticism. Very helpful.

Kellie December 15, 2014 at 7:16 am

Amazing post. I think it’s a new favorite. Which is a hard pick, because all of your posts are great!

Susan December 15, 2014 at 8:06 am

Excellent observation, especially during the holiday season. Not all family situations are ideal and criticisms can run rampant, internally and externally. A withering glance lasts far longer than a hug and kiss.

David Cain December 15, 2014 at 8:29 am

It sure does. I keep hearing horror stories about perennial intra-family conflicts during the holidays, and it makes me grateful my family more or less gets along.

John N December 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Thanks David. Reminds me of Don Miguel Ruiz: “Don’t take it personally” (The Four Agreements). Also Byron Katie, Loving What Is.

Trey December 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm

That’s very helpful. Thanks for the effort you put into sharing your perspective. Good stuff!

Mark December 15, 2014 at 6:57 pm

I appreciate this post. I’m a manager and I don’t know which is worse: receiving it from a stressed out boss who seems to like giving criticism, or delivering it to hard-working and well-intentioned staff laboring with few resources. Feedback (euphemism for criticism) comes with the territory of management but I won’t do it forever, precisely for these reasons of discomfort. I think we can minimize the impacts to ourselves, as you show well, and try to bolster recipients, but there are a lot of uncontrollable cross currents, for sure.

David Cain December 16, 2014 at 8:39 am

In all these cases empathy could help, even if you’re the deliverer of the criticism. In the case of giving “feedback” to an overworked employee, it doesn’t even have to be framed as a criticism. You could just have a straightforward discussion around “How can we get our output to X?” or “How can we improve Y given that we’re short of resources?” As long as it’s a real discussion and not veiled personal criticism, you could address the problem that way without anyone feeling like they’re being criticized personally. But there are unavoidable cross-currents as you say. We often take remarks to be critical when they have nothing to do with us, we’re just self-conscious already and certain words trigger that self-consciousness.

Anne December 15, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Thank you for this post. It is very enlightening, and immensely helpful!

Michael Jenkins December 16, 2014 at 3:35 am

How about “Thank You”.

David Cain December 16, 2014 at 8:35 am

Not all criticism is appropriate, so I think “thank you” as a standard response could only be disingenuous.

Melissa Wilson December 16, 2014 at 10:51 am

This is a great post, David. It’s so true that criticism often speaks louder than praise. It’s not that we don’t appreciate praise, but one bad thing said just seems to be so difficult to let go. But that is what we have to do if we’re not going to let it bother us, isn’t it? I like how you look at it as an event in someone else’s head. I think taking that approach to it can help us keep things in perspective and not take it so personally.

David Cain December 18, 2014 at 8:49 am

> It’s not that we don’t appreciate praise, but one bad thing said just seems to be so difficult to let go. But that is what we have to do if we’re not going to let it bother us, isn’t it?

You got it right on the money. Not taking criticism personally isn’t a matter of ignoring it, it’s a matter of thinking about what the critic might be seeing that they think is a problem.

Anicet Heller December 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Thank you David! I enjoy reading your writings! You are inspiring and refreshing!

Rose Costas December 16, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Thanks David for another great post. I enjoy the post but the thing that stood out for me was where you mentioned that criticism is in the person criticizing own head and has nothing to do with the person being criticized. I wish most of us would view it that way.
Unfortunately, we take critiquing so very hard forgetting it is not who we are but how the other person perceive us which is different from who we truly are.

Jeff Lebowski December 17, 2014 at 9:22 am

I just say: “That`s like, your opinion, man”

David Cain December 17, 2014 at 9:27 am

Or if you want to get more assertive, “This will not stand. This aggression will not stand, man.”

G. Silver December 17, 2014 at 11:57 am

Criticism, I find it helpful. Even the poorest delivered criticism has its points. Not always what you want to hear at times, its what you need to hear at times. As an artist I find criticism a very important part of Life. As I want to continue to grow in my life and my art. I understand criticism differently than you, criticism is a part of life. Thanks

“I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.”
Johannes Kepler

David Cain December 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

I don’t disagree with you here. This article is not about dismissing criticism as useless or irrelevant, but overcoming our tendency to take it personally.

Kiran December 17, 2014 at 4:32 pm

I agree with G. Silver. Its silly to dispel criticism as ‘Oh, its not me, its them’. By that logic even appreciation is not about you, its about them and their beliefs, so why bother to feel happy when someone appreciates your work, it may have nothing to do with you at all?
Lets not forget that many a times there is some speck of truth in criticism. It is way better to take a rational look at what the other person is saying, no matter how harshly worded the opinion might be.
And an even better approach is to understand we as human beings are so diverse and our preferences so varied that no matter how perfect a piece of work might be, there will always exist a section who would not like it. Simple as that!

To be honest, the moment I finished reading your article I rolled my eyes and mind blurted-‘Bah! There goes another sermon on denial and how to foster it’. And that’s because I am that person who sees criticism as another opportunity to grow, I greet it with a smile! And my personal experience tells me that sure, many a times people will pass personal judgments, but more often than not, I realize that I was the one passing judgments and my critics were just retaliating to that.

So I am sorry, others may think this is a great post, I don’t see any worth it. And its up to you how you take that last line! :)

David Cain December 18, 2014 at 8:46 am

This reaction is really strange to me, because the whole point of the article is to have empathy for the critic so that you can see where they’re coming from. It is clear in the article that criticism is often correct and we can learn a lot from it. I’m not saying we should dismiss criticism, but that we should understand that it consists of two completely separate experiences. Too often our reflex is to resent the critic, and that prevents us from learning anything from it.

Kenoryn December 19, 2014 at 9:15 am

This is actually a perfect example of what the article is about. Kiran, it doesn’t appear that you really understood the article. There’s nothing at all in the article about dismissing or denying criticism – in fact it specifically acknowledges that criticism can be very helpful and says that you should examine what the critic is saying and try to understand their perspective in order to learn from it. This suggests to me that your criticism of the article comes at least partly from your personal experience and worldview, not from anything about the article or its author – you think it fosters “denial”, so perhaps you are a critical person and you find that the people you criticize are defensive and don’t listen to your good ‘advice’, and have that in the back of your mind as you’re reading. David in this case could perhaps learn from how several people have misinterpreted the article and maybe re-frame it if he writes about this in future, with the ’empathy’ piece further up and combined with the ‘criticism is an event in someone else’s head’ concept – I think perhaps that subheader is what set people off to assume he was saying criticism is not ever valid.

bill k December 17, 2014 at 7:42 pm

I welcome criticism. You can learn so much more when someone tells you that you are wrong or did something incorrectly. Criticism is an opportunity, and opportunities are a positive thing.

David Cain December 18, 2014 at 8:48 am

Yes, of course they are. But we have trouble learning when we are preoccupied with defensive reactions to criticism.

Ori December 18, 2014 at 7:30 am

My name is Ori, and I am a criticophobic.

Minikins December 19, 2014 at 4:13 am

On the note of welcoming criticism, I humbly offer some. I have just downloaded your book ‘How to Save the World’ and on the very first page ironically titled ‘Raise your standards, a lot’, there is a misspelling of the word ‘indiscriminate’.

Belladonna Took December 21, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Hi there – just wanted you to know I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger award. I don’t seriously expect you to do anything about it, but I do greatly enjoy your blog and wanted to share it with my few readers. If you’d like to see what I said about you, you’ll find it at https://americansoustannie.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/omigosh-i-got-my-first-award/

Free to Pursue December 22, 2014 at 10:06 am

I appreciated this article because it calls out the difficulty caused by the emotions and self talk we experience when we receive criticism. By offering a logical, thoughtful way of looking at the one offering the critique, as well as our reaction to it, I think it achieves two important things:
1. We’re more likely to take something positive/constructive away from the feedback.
2. We may be less fearful of doing something that may cause a reaction because we’re better armed to deal with the criticism when it, inevitably, comes.

Thanks, yet again, for useful food for thought. It may have made me just a little bit braver as I head into the New Year.

Findia Group December 29, 2014 at 5:54 am

Thanks for sharing!

TeresaC December 30, 2014 at 10:59 am

It is enlightening to watch the reactions of readers to your post. Some are heeding the words and commenting on how they appreciate your ideas on how to handle criticism (handle, not avoid); some are having a knee-jerk reaction to your comments that lead e to think they may react badly to criticism in their daily lives (reacting, not handling).
We need criticsm in order to grow and be better people. All the platitudes and sweet words of others are nice, too, and also necessary, but we cannot improve ourselves just by hearing what we are doing well. That said, some don’t know how to deliver criticism in a way that we can handle – and some cannot see past the words and understand the truth that may (or may not) lie beneath.

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