Psychology Critiz1

Published on July 23rd, 2013


Dealing with Criticism: A Few Simple Strategies

Joachim Vogt Isaksen

In the earlier PSS article “Why does Criticism Hurt?” I described how criticism leads to negative emotions by triggering negative self-talk. By learning a few simple strategies it is actually quite easy to handle verbal abuse.

In everyday life we continually interpret external events with a series of thoughts that flow through our mind. Our feelings are created by our thoughts and not the actual events, since all experiences must be processed cognitively, and given meaning before we have an emotional response. Another person’s harsh remarks may trigger self-blaming thoughts, but you are the only person that have the possibility to stop your inner critic.

A common dysfunctional reaction to criticism is to start questioning oneself. But no matter how mean the comments are, no other person than yourself have the power to let you feel down. It is therefore essential to take personal responsibility for negative feelings stemming from others evaluations.

The first step to better deal criticism is to interpret unreasonable criticism in a more realistic manner instead of beating yourself up. When you become more consciously aware of the reasons you are triggered by a person´s negative remarks, you will start to realize that it is your ongoing self-criticism that really makes you feel bad.


Disarming the critic

David Burns, a clinical psychiatrist, has developed several techniques that are useful when it comes to responding to criticism. First of all it may seem counterintuitive, but when being criticized you should try to be curious about what the critic is trying to communicate. You can find out what he really means with his negative remarks by asking him to be more concrete. This is called The Disarming Technique.

Lets say that you are a medical doctor and experience that a patient says that he is not satisfied with you. Ask the patient what exactly it is that makes him so unsatisfied. Even if you feel that the criticism is unfair you can look for some grain of truth in the answer and agree with that in principle. Follow up by asking whether he has some suggestions on how you can improve yourself. Being driven by curiosity is constructive and does not only work to improve yourself, but it is also an efficient strategy of emotional self-defence.

Being Empathic is trying to see the world through the other person’s eyes. Paraphrase the critics words and acknowledge how the person is feeling, based on what she said. You can ask questions to learn more about how the person is thinking and feeling. Try to convey an attitude of respect, even if you feel angry with the other person. Find something genuinely positive to say, even in the heat of battle.

When someone criticizes you accurately an appropriate response is simply to agree. This allows you to accept your mistake without apologizing or “beating yourself up” about it. Admit to the critic that he is right, and paraphrase him to make sure he knows that you recognize his point of view. Make sure not to apologize if you feel that the critic is being totally unreasonable.

When the critic is particularly mean or destructive, make sure not to reward the behavior by responding or retaliating to it. In order to get a feeling of power or satisfaction the critic is dependent on some form of reaction from you. By not retaliating or responding in any way you deny him this satisfaction, thus allowing the bad behavior to fade away. Behaviors that are not rewarded have a tendency to soon fade away, often leading the negative person to look for a more cooperative victim.

Whether you are being verbally harassed or a person is criticizing you in a constructive manner, I recommend that you apply one or several out of the strategies described above. They may protect yourself emotionally, and at the same time lead the critic to run out of ammunition.

Further reading

Burns, David 2008. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper.


*Cover photo by Joshua Davis, escape photo by Brett Jordan, duck photo by Joshua Davis, empathy photo by the Shopping Sherpa

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