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How to Take Criticism

Photo of Gala Darling by Chloe
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. ~Winston Churchill

Criticism is crucial for personal improvement. It’s the most direct way to find out what you should improve on. However, accepting criticism can be emotionally challenging. Afterall, we’re only human, who wants to hear bad stuff about ourselves?

It’s hard to not take it personally. Our instinctive reaction is to become defensive and we shut out potentially helpful and life-enhancing tips. By doing this, we miss out on what could supercharge our improvement.

So how can you take criticism without getting self-conscious and defensive?

Answer: An effective way to accept criticism is to externalize it.

When you externalize criticism, you escape the defensiveness trap. You stop being self-conscious and take criticism objectively, which lets you reap the benefits of the helpful tips that the criticism contains.

The criticism isn’t directed at you personally, but at a writer, artist, worker, developer (or whatever else you’re getting feedback for) that just happens to have the same name as you. When you take criticism objectively, your initial defensiveness fades away, simply because you’re not taking it personally anymore.

Externalizing criticism lets you extract helpful tips from even the most critical feedback. You take the bits that make sense to you and discard the rest. You don’t risk getting defensive or even feeling bad or self-conscious.

Externalizing criticism is also a shield from bad and unhelpful criticism. It doesn’t matter how much or what kind of comments and criticism you get: you look at it all objectively. You can take what makes sense to you and discard the rest.

When you externalize criticism, you can easily take and use it to supercharge your personal improvement.

5 Steps to Effectively Taking Criticism

Ready to improve your taking of criticism? Good.

Next time you ask for feedback, follow these 5 steps to externalize criticism:

  1. Wait for your gut reaction to pass before doing anything – let your emotions disappear, so you don’t take the criticism personally and become defensive
  2. Imagine the criticism is directed at someone else – some person who happens to have your name and does exactly what you do
  3. Keep your mouth shut – listen, don’t defend
  4. Discuss the person’s points – asking questions will a) help you to get even more useful tips from them, and b) externalize the criticism more (you’re seeing it even more objectively this way)

Rinse and repeat every time you get feedback until externalizing criticism becomes a habit.

(Bonus) How to even more effectively take criticism:

  1. Be confident – believe in what you do, so that even the most critical comments don’t sway your direction
  2. Have a clear goal in what you’re doing – so when you ask for feedback on it, you can take criticism to improve the key areas rather than let others dictate the direction and get lost

Why It’s So Hard to Take Criticism

The reason we get defensive when taking criticism is because we’re tied to our ego. So when someone is giving tips on how we can improve, that person is indirectly acknowledging that we’re not great at something. And our ego gets bruised.

As Dr. Leon F. Seltzer explains in his Psychology Today article on why criticism is so hard to take:

Criticism, even well-intended criticism, can be understood as a direct assault on our ego. When (however unconsciously) we’ve come to associate our very selves with our ego or point of view, then whenever our perspective is questioned, disbelieved, or disputed, we cannot but experience ourselves in jeopardy – our mental and emotional poise at once thrown into disequilibrium.

Even if it’s made clear that the criticism is not to criticize but instead show how you can improve, you naturally want to defend yourself. And when you go into defensive mode, you don’t get the tips from the criticism that could really supercharge your improvement.

So detach yourself from your ego – at least when you take criticism. Externalize the criticism so you look at it objectively, rather than as a critique of yourself (and thus your ego).

My Experience with Criticism

I used to be so defensive and self-conscious when I took criticism. But I was able to overcome those things – now I automatically externalize criticism almost as soon as it’s said.

In fact, I’ve had friends and acquaintances comment on how well I take their criticism. I’m not trying to brag but rather prove that someone who took criticism super-personally was able to escape the defensiveness trap and objectively take criticism. That helped me to gather helpful tips and supercharge my personal improvement.

Back when it was an insurmountable challenge for me to take criticism, I kept making the same mistake: I convinced myself that I could take it. I asked people to not hold back with their feedback. But as soon as the criticism started, I immediately got defensive.

My gut reaction was to take criticism personally. It’s a natural reaction for humans, after all.

However, I knew something needed to change. I was missing out on valuable tips for personal improvement. I saw how certain people took the criticism I gave them really well. How did they do it? I started paying attention.

The first thing I noticed is that almost right away they started discussing the criticism with me. They weren’t interested in convincing me why they did something – they didn’t try to defend anything. Instead, they were interested in what tips for improvement I had. They asked me questions to clarify or go further into detail on something I said.

It’s like we weren’t even talking about them but rather someone else.

And that’s when it hit me: they were externalizing the criticism.

They weren’t taking it personally. They externalized my criticism so that they could look at it objectively, taking what made sense from what I said.

So I started training myself to externalize criticism. No secret tricks here: just practicing each time I asked for criticism.

I asked for feedback and then forced myself to disconnect from the criticism. It was hard at first… okay, I failed miserably. But it got easier each time. Little by little, the defensiveness started disappearing earlier and earlier in the criticism process. I was taking it personally less and less.

After a few weeks, I learned to disconnect myself from the criticism almost immediately. The gut reaction of defensiveness passes as soon as it pops up. I don’t latch onto the criticism emotionally. It’s like getting startled: just a body reaction that passes as soon as it appears.

With the personal connection and emotion to the criticism gone, I’m able to look at the criticism and how to improve myself objectively. It’s as if I was looking at someone else who happens to have the same name as me.

Over the next few months, I kept doing the same thing to solidify the externalizing of criticism. During those few months, externalizing criticism became a habit.

Now, I don’t have to think about it anymore – externalizing criticism comes naturally.

I’ve trained myself to externalize criticism within the first few seconds. So that it’s not directed at me, but an artist that is named Oleg Mokhov. I can then look at the criticism objectively and not feel emotionally involved. I take the bits that make sense to me and easily ignore the rest.

In addition to externalizing criticism, I also trained myself to keep my mouth shut. Easier for myself and for the other person.

Unless I really need them to know something, it’s not worth the time and energy to try to defend or convince them of something. My resources are better spent creating something remarkable than defending the process. I’ll take the handful of helpful tips from that person’s criticism and focus on improving rather than defend what I’ve been doing.

How to Take Criticism

Having trouble taking criticism? Know that the useful tips can help, but you block yourself from them by taking criticism personally and getting defensive? Don’t worry – it’s a natural reaction, and there’s a solution: Effectively accept criticism by externalizing it.

You’ll supercharge your personal improvement by being able to easily get useful tips from people’s feedback. You’ll look at the criticism objectively and take away what makes sense to you, using it to improve what you’re doing. And by listening and discussing instead of defending, you’ll get even more use out of the criticism.

Now go out there and ask for some feedback. Take the criticism, externalize it, and supercharge your improvement.

* How has externalizing criticism worked for you? What other methods have helped you to take criticism? Other thoughts and ideas? Share your voice in the comments. See you there!

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About the author

Oleg Mokhov is the world's most mobile electronic musician and co-founder of the premium royalty free music store Soundtrackster.

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45 thoughts on How to Take Criticism

  1. Criticism really is an important tool if you want to improve on whatever it is you do. However, I would suggest that when we criticize other people, we do in a thoughtful and constructive way to avoid backlashes and defensive mechanisms. This is a really excellent read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best blogger I ever saw. Thanks for posting this useful article.

  2. Externalizing constructive criticism is perhaps the most important when dealing with your boss or coworker in a professional environment. As well there is a fine line between bashing and constructive criticism. This is where one must trust their gut if the source is constructive or hurtful. And for any manager they need to cautiously chose their words before criticizing. So it works both ways. But if it is a boss or elder is trying to explain something to I listen because obviously they have had more experience. Sometimes it can be hard to drop that wall of defensiveness but if you don’t you will not get the message.

  3. dealing with your boss or coworker in a professional environment. As well there is a fine line between bashing and constructive criticism. This is where one must trust their gut if the source is constructive or hurtful. And for any manager they need to cautiously chose their words before criticizing. So it tess

  4. Thanks for the great post Oleg. I feel that learning to take criticism is one of the most important life skills to learn. Like you I had great difficulty taking criticism in the past. But nowadays I have learned to take it in my stride. I am able to detach myself from the criticism because I am more focused on the solutions to a problem than my ego. As long as the criticism helps me to improve in some way to reach my goals, I have no problem listening and taking it in.

  5. Your tips there are really useful. Especially when I just imagined that it was another person that we talk about. Not about me that did that thing. So that I can easily focus on what I should do to improve me.

  6. I bow down humbly in the preencse of such greatness.

  7. Annette

    Hi, i had to learn constructive criticism in my last position. It was hard every week to be in the manager’s office to give me constructive feedback of how I was improving. It became a bashing session and after 5 meetings every 2 weeks I had become defensive and at wits end. I didn’t know where to turn. I wish I would have googled this cite prior to the last meeting and maybe I would still have my job. My mood changed and I was no longer me. My boyfriend always criticizes me about everything. He says I am not getting things done. I have done a lot of things and it is never enough for him…so he criticizes me for it. It is a constant banter and I’ve decided he’s not to be in my life because he’s not helping me to grow. I have made a lot of changes since I have read and worked on how to take criticism. Thank you for being there for the people who need the help to make their life a better place.

  8. Annie fred

    I think criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a man’s precious pride, hurts his sense if importance, and arouses his resentment

  9. Chris

    I never thought about criticism this way before. I recently had a meeting where my boss told me things that were said about me that were untrue. I was very hurt and even teared up trying desperately to hold back the tears.

    So, if I understand your premise correctly, I need to visualize that there is another me taking the punches when criticism takes shape?

    I will remember to picture myself as a tank with thick armor to protect myself from mean spirited people.

  10. Melissa

    Like heck it isn’t directed at me personally! I’m criticised for being me! For thinking and speak and act like me!

  11. Kpg

    For me, it depends upon on the criticism if it is not bad of course I accept it because criticism it help us improve in ourselves but if it is too bad well, I need to be defensive against criticism.

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