Coping with criticism

Life is full of criticism. Learning to cope with it is a fine art. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Few of us can get through a life without being criticised.  Criticism happens when others analyse us, or find fault with us.  At its most basic, criticism is someone telling us they think we are wrong in some way.  We don’t like it because we feel threatened.


Imagine you are a professional footballer.  At the end of every game, your coach offers you an analysis of your performance, suggesting what you did right and what you did wrong.  If you can’t accept criticism, then you won’t be able to use your coach’s words to improve.

In particular, criticism offers us a perspective on our behaviour.  it is an opportunity to use communication from others to become aware of improvements which we might otherwise miss.


VULNERABILITY – The main reason we don’t like criticism is because we try to protect ourselves.  Criticism feels like an attack.  Not only are we under the gaze of someone else, but they are pointing to our inadequacies.  Instinctively, we respond by fighting back, or by running away.

DISTRUST – We may not trust the source of the criticism.  It may be a person who doesn’t seem to us to be qualified to offer a view.  Or it may be a person who displays inconsistency, so that we can’t get a stable perspective.  If we don’t trust the person, then we will also be suspicious of the criticism itself.

CHILDHOOD – Some of us may have experienced childhoods where criticism accompanied other kinds of abuse or violence.  Criticism triggers a defensive response, because it reminds us of those people and situations.

REPUTATION – We are also aware of our reputation.  If criticism spreads, it may make it harder for us to remain credible in our jobs or our relationships, because others will be aware of our faults.

EGO – We are programmed to please and impress others.  This gives us a sense of control and power over our social world.  Sometimes we call it the ‘ego’.  Criticism carries a suggestion that we have not pleased or impressed others, threatening our ego, our feeling of control and power.  Our self-esteem can collapse.


Here are some suggestions for ways to handle the situation when others criticise us.  There is no single formula for everything, as situations differ, but these are some of the options we have:

  1. WE DON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO GOSSIP – We often hear things indirectly, when others report to us what someone else has said.  If we want to, we can go directly to the person and ask them if it’s true.  But otherwise, it may be best not to join indirect communication battles.
  2. WE CAN UNDERSTAND PEOPLE – If we truly understand the person who is criticising us, then we have a chance of finding any useful opportunity in the communication.  Others are not always fair or proportionate.  If we spot the unfairness or bias, we can allow for it, and then see more clearly any wisdom left in the criticism, without feeling stung.
  3. WE CAN PROVIDE BOUNDARIES WHERE NECESSARY – It may be necessary to assert a boundary where someone is plainly using criticism as part of a power game we don’t consent to.  If we are genuinely being threatened, then it may not be a time for appreciation of the finer points of wisdom.  A simple assertion that ‘that’s enough’ may save us a lot of time and energy.
  4. WE CAN ADMIT WHERE WE CAN AGREE – If someone is calling us lazy, perhaps we agree with them!  (It’s just that the criticism makes us feel exposed.)  But they are only criticising our past actions.  If our future actions are different, the criticism ceases to apply, as we will have changed.
  5. WE CAN ASK QUESTIONS – Instead of defensively accusing others back, we can try asking them why they think those things of us.  This shows that we are not afraid of trying to understand.  It may also lead to useful clarification on both sides.
  6. WE CAN CHOOSE OUR MOST TRUSTED CRITICS – Instead of listening to the whole world, we can choose whom we listen to most, and how we listen.  Perhaps a good critic is one who knows us, has values we respect, has a sense of moderation in what they say, but is not just a ‘yes person’.  This ensures the criticism is tailored, appropriate, well-judged, and challenging.


What does all this mean in terms of behaviour?  What distinguishes those who cope with criticism, from those who don’t?


When we don’t cope well with criticism, we are like this:

  1. We are motivated by self-defence rather than self-improvement
  2. We are terrified of exposing ourselves as vulnerable
  3. We distrust others
  4. We need to please, impress, and be in control
  5. Our ears are always burning for gossip and rumour
  6. We find it hard to understand others and empathise
  7. We have an unstable sense of personal boundaries
  8. We seek disagreement not agreement
  9. We ask few questions of others
  10. We have no wise inner circle of advisers

When we do cope well with criticism, we are like this:

  1. We are motivated by self-improvement rather than self-defence
  2. We are OK with showing our vulnerabilities (in the right context)
  3. We exercise trust with good judgement
  4. We have a good balance between self-confidence and humility
  5. We are not fazed by gossip and rumour
  6. We give effort to understanding what others are trying to say
  7. We have good personal boundaries where necessary
  8. We seek agreement not disagreement
  9. We ask questions and seek depth of understanding
  10. We have a wise inner circle of advisers


In short, when we cope well with criticism, we focus on self-improvement and understanding others.  We are willing to show vulnerability and trust where appropriate, but we balance this with good personal boundaries when needed.