It is hard enough to set goals and achieve them on your own. But in times faced with criticism the feat can sometimes seem impossible.
It is not so much that criticism is a bad thing. In fact, it can even be seen as a necessary thing for anyone on a path towards personal development.
The problem with most criticism however is those on the receiving end have a hard time discerning the good and valuable criticism with those that end up being counterproductive. What ends up happening is that instead of using criticism to empower us and make us push ourselves forward, we end up folding under pressure or even ignoring our own strength and expertise.
In this article I hope to give a quick outline on how to discern the good criticism from the bad criticism, and how we can use this criticism to improve our life goals and ourselves.
GENERAL GUIDELINE FOR DISCERNING GOOD-BAD CRITICISM
Nowadays especially, everyone is a critic. This could be due to the ever-growing information age we now live in. The internet, TV and movies have lead everyone to believe they know a lot more than they really do about the real world.
In one sense, our generation does know much, much more than past generations, and we may be surprised where good criticism can sometimes come from. But in many other ways we have largely become misinformed, and bad ideas can begin to spread like wild fire. This (mis)information frenzy has left many of us helpless and discombobulated when it comes to picking out the good from the bad, right from the wrong, and truth from the lies.
One of the first things you need to do in the face of criticism is to evaluate the source of it. Important questions to ask include:
1. Does this person know me?
2. Does this person understand my intentions?
3. To what extent does this person have experience with what I am trying to do?
These types of questions are crucial because they put the criticism into context.
Depending on the answers, some follow-up questions may also be in order.
If the answer to (1) is “YES”, then consider:
A. Is this the type of person who just wants to make me feel happy and pleased or are they actually concerned about me improving my product?
Your grandparents, for example, may be more likely to fit into the former. This would mean they are prone to give compliments to practically anything you share with them contrary to the actual quality of what you produced or accomplished. With this knowing, you will find most of their criticism unhelpful.
If the answer to (2) is “NO”, then consider:
B. Did I not make my intentions clear?
If someone doesn’t seem to understand what you were intending to accomplish then this can mean one of two things. First, they may just be unfamiliar with what you are doing (such as criticism from someone about your art even though they have no prior knowledge of art history or that particular style). The second thing to consider is that you did not present your intentions clearly. The critic may just be unaware of what it was you were trying to accomplish simply because you did not present yourself well. This is important to keep in mind. If you find people are continuously misunderstanding your intentions than you may need to reevaluate your approach.
Depending on the answer to (3), you must consider how well an “outsider” (someone who has no experience with what you are doing) can offer criticism to your product. Just because someone doesn’t have experience doesn’t mean they cannot give good advice. At times, I find the best and most brutally honest advice comes from young children, all despite their lack of experience and limited worldview.
After considering the source of the criticism you now have a somewhat good idea on how much weight their words will have. From here we can focus on the words and criticism itself.
Here are some general indicators of poor criticism:
1. Name-calling and ridiculing
2. Poor spelling and grammar
3. Irrelevant advice and tangents
4. Sense of hostility or aggression
5. Curt sentences with no further explanation
On the other hand, indicators of productive criticism can include:
1. At least one or two compliments on what you are already doing right
2. Good spelling and grammar
3. Clear and elaborate explanations on what to do better
4. Providing helpful examples
5. A willingness to answer further questions and concerns
HOW TO TAKE CRITICISM
All of the above are general guidelines on how to discern good and bad advice, which can be an incredibly important skill, but what is sometimes even more important is how you take the advice and what you do with it. Even some of the worst advice can be turned into gold with the right perspective and attitude.
The most important things one can do is to depersonalize the criticism. This can sometimes be difficult, especially when the criticism itself involves name-calling and ridiculing. By depersonalizing the criticism, you are detaching your “core self,” and instead focusing on the individual behaviors and strategies that need improvement. Always remember that it is not YOU that is the problem, just your actions that need adjusting. In Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin Seligman came up with the term “Learned Optimism” to describe the habit of attributing one’s failures to causes that are variable (not permanent) and specific (limited to a specific action or set of circumstances). By doing this we are less likely to form limiting beliefs such as: “I just won’t ever be good at this!”
By depersonalizing the criticism, we can begin to evaluate its worth from a more objective standpoint. You can be a better listener, because you are not so concerned with protecting your ego. Make sure you intently listen to all criticism that you receive, and try to pick out which is helpful and which is garbage. If there is some advice you don’t understand then be sure to ask questions. Good, helpful critics should be more than happy to further explain themselves to benefit your understanding. If they don’t respond back to you then it is up to you to interpret the advice to the best of your ability and see if there is anything of value. Don’t worry if there isn’t – you may find a lot of criticism just deserves being shoved under the rug. Don’t get too hooked up on advice that you don’t understand. It may either be over your head, depending on your current skill level, or simply badly constructed advice.
THAT BOILING SENSATION
Every now and then you are going to come across a critic who really gets under your skin and makes your blood boil. I have had numerous experiences with this and each time it has become a great opportunity for personal growth.
Sometimes you can become so pissed off that if the critic is right there in front of you, you will get a quick urge to just pounce on them and strangle them to death. It is a really strong feeling and whenever it arises it is a good indicator that there is something to learn.
My first thoughts after encountering such a critic are almost always along the lines of: “This person is out of their mind to think something like this. Either that or they are a complete and utter idiot!”
I am talking about the critics that really get you fuming – smoke pouring out the ears and all.
What does this sensation mean? Yes, perhaps, the critic really is a complete ass or tool. But whenever I find myself so worked up about something someone has said, I immediately reflect inwards to see what it is exactly that is bothering me to such a degree.
You may find that you need to do a better job at depersonalizing the criticism. Your reaction is only proving that you took the advice deep in your heart and thus you feel strongly affected by it.
Another possibility is that the critic struck a chord with you on a belief, attitude, or strategy that you had prematurely taken for granted. By hearing advice that is so in contrast with how you typically view the world, you are bound to get stressed out and upset. These moments where you find yourself at the will of your anger (and other strong emotions) are moments that should be contemplated in solitude or even meditation. Take a deep breathe, keep your cool, thank the critic for their advice, and then evaluate its value when you have the time by yourself.
Sometimes upon reflection you will find that a large portion of the blame should be placed onto the critic. They either didn’t understand you or even felt threatened by you. But because you got so upset by this critique, it is important to also reflect on yourself and your own foundation of attitudes and beliefs. At the very least, you will find that your view is not the only way to see things and, if you take the advice as a professional, you can use this experience to strengthen yourself in ways that aren’t possible through normal and more friendly-oriented critics. Remember, even the most successful people on the planet have their fair share of critic rivals. The difference between the successful and the unsuccessful is that the former knows how to turn every experience into an opportunity to learn and improve. No matter how likeable and skilled you are, you will never get rid of all your haters. This is okay as they are only there to strengthen your character.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement