Ask LH: How Can I Learn To Take Criticism Without Taking It Personally?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m awful at taking criticism. Whether it comes from other people or I’m judging myself, I take constructive criticism too personally. How can I learn to handle criticism without feeling so discouraged I don’t want to try to get better? Sincerely, Why Bother

Title photo by Nic McPhee.

Dear Why Bother,

No-one is good at everything, and few people are great at the first time they try something. You’ll always have room to improve, no matter what you’re doing, and the best way to grow is to take constructive criticism from people who have the skills and know-how that you’re lacking. The key, however, is separating the constructive from the unconstructive, and separating your self-worth from the object of the constructive criticism.

Dealing with Criticism from Others

Criticism from others can be difficult to take, especially if the person delivering the criticism isn’t exactly subtle about it. The first thing you need to do is determine whether or not the person delivering the criticism is important to you. Do you value that person’s opinion? Maybe that person is your boss and you need to take his or her criticism seriously in order to be successful. Maybe the person is well known as someone who thinks they’re an expert but just likes to shoot their mouth off. Even that last person can offer something valuable, but you definitely want to take his or her opinion with a few grains of salt compared to your boss. Photo by Everett Collection (Shutterstock).

Once you’ve decided how important the person’s opinion is, here are some ways you can distill the important bits and use them to your benefit:

  • Try to detach the criticism from the environment in which it was given. It’s normal to be happy when praised or defensive when insulted, and it’s normal to react accordingly. But you should also try to dispassionately look at what’s being said and see if there are clues for your personal growth embedded in the praise or the vitriol. Pretend the person isn’t talking about you and try to read between the lines.
  • Ask yourself: What part of this criticism is useful? Filter out the things that are actionable and repeatable from what can often be a lot of subjective opinion. This is where you listen and say “OK, that makes sense” or “I can come up with a plan to do that”. Keep what’s applicable to what you do and filter out the rest. Remember, haters are gonna hate, but even they sometimes hate for reasons worth considering.
  • Write down those useful tidbits in your own words. Doing this removes the heightened emotion and lets you step back from the criticism, look at the it with clear eyes, and separate the advice from how you felt when you got it so you’re more likely to act on it.
  • Turn those tidbits into goals. Once you have specific, actionable tips, turn them into measurable to-dos. If someone complains that your writing is too long-winded, for example, set a to-do to trim the fat from your work after every writing session. If your boss complains you always wait until the last minute to complete tasks, set your due dates a day earlier than they’re really due so you get to work sooner.
  • Adjust your attitude. You can do all of this and still get depressed when someone tells you how you can improve. Attitude is the key here, and if you don’t push yourself to be more positive about the criticism you get, you’ll always get depressed. Look at criticism as a chance to grow and get better — or even to surpass the person delivering the critique. It’s easier said than done, but knowing your strengths and being ready to hear and accept your weaknesses is the most powerful thing you can do.

Dealing with criticism from others is tough, but you have a choice about how to deal with it. It can be discouraging when your boss sends your work back to you with revisions and changes all over it, but those are your best opportunities to get better. Even when your boss spends your performance review praising you, don’t forget to ask how you can improve — it’s important to never let the opportunity for criticism pass you by. If you’re not getting it, seek it out — doing so on your own lets you get it on your terms and in a positive environment.

Dealing with Self-Criticism

Dealing with the criticism we get from others is easy in comparison to how difficult it can be to deal with the ways we beat ourselves up. Those voices in your head that tell you that you’ll never be any good at the thing you’re learning or that you shouldn’t have gotten up this morning because nothing’s working out? They’re harder but not impossible to deal with. Here’s how:

  • Remember, you don’t have to listen. One of my favourite music and politics commentators, Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine, describes those voices as your “little hater”. In the video here, he describes his own in a rhyme that reminds him — and us — that our little hater doesn’t have to rule the day. The point here is that even when you can’t hear anything but those voices, and you feel absolutely terrible about yourself, you still have the choice to listen to those voices and do nothing, or defy them and press on. Some days you’ll feel like checking out, and that’s fine. But if you can, whenever you can, it’s important to put your little hater back in his place and remember that you’re the one out here and he’s the one in there.
  • Ask yourself: Is that really you talking? Determine whether or not you’re beating yourself up for good reason or being too hard on yourself. Are you actually the one doing the mental flogging, or are you depressed in general? Perhaps you’re hearing the voices of other people who have told you over the years that you’re not worth it. Stop, take a deep breath, and try to determine if this is really you doing the critiquing or if you’re just hating on yourself.
  • Get away from it. Often we feel the worst about ourselves right after we get the criticism that triggers those voices in our heads. If you can, step back and away from the critique and do something else — preferably something you know how to do well that makes you feel good, and come back when you’ve calmed down and ready to tackle the criticism.
  • Ask a trusted friend or advisor. One quick way to determine if you’re being too hard on yourself is to ask a trusted friend — someone who cares enough to be honest with you and not just tell you what you want to hear. Share your thoughts and your work with them. Get their feedback on your self-criticisms. Often that voice in your head has a point, but it’s covered in so much self-loathing that it’s hard to distill.
  • Approach criticism from yourself the same way you would others. Write it down. Distill the good stuff from the nonsense your brain is shovelling. Make goals and press on.

A point worth bringing up is that if those voices in your head — and we all have them — are consistently negative, always difficult to bear, and they impact your day-to-day life and relationships, you may actually be depressed. If those voice make things you used to love lose their lustre or make it difficult for you to do anything, it’s worth talking to a professional about how you can cope and what you can do about it. Depression shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Don’t Take It So Personally

A lot of people will tell you to “stop taking it so personally”, which is a pretty dismissive cop-out that minimises how you feel. They mean well, but telling someone who’s unhappy to just “be happy” isn’t going to do any good. That said, attitude does count for a lot, and sometimes a good mood will give you the clarity of mind needed to handle criticism better. In some cases, that just means you need a dose of self-confidence or a chance to do the things you’re good at.

When you know criticism is coming, do something you know you do well, and enjoy that feeling. Talk to someone who supports you and can honestly tell you why you’re good at what you do. Keep a work diary or a journal of awesomeness to remember why you rock, and then dive into the criticism knowing that whatever you hear will only be fodder to help you rock harder. You can do it!


PS Criticism is hard to take, but it’s essential for all of us. Do you have any more tips for Why Bother that can help him stop worrying and be awesome instead? Share them with us in the comments below.

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


Leave a Reply