Raise your hand if you have ever received negative feedback. Now, hands up if you like it. Right—all of us hear unfavorable judgments from time to time. And if we’re honest, none of us like it. Certainly, accepting criticism is a tough thing to do.
None of us like criticism.
For those of us working to stop our hurtful behavior, this is an important subject. Many times our abusive actions come after being criticized. That was true for me.
In order to change, we have to figure out why we are reacting so strongly to our partner’s disapproval. More than knowing why, we need to discover how to think about their evaluation differently. In doing so, we can maintain control of our emotions and reactions even when we are verbally attacked.
A confidence crisis
Ever notice that some people are good at taking negative feedback? They seem to receive even harsh appraisals in stride without being affected by it much. What can we learn from them?
There is a strong relationship between a person’s capacity for accepting criticism and how positively they think about themselves. I’m not talking about arrogance—I’m talking about a solid internal sense of your own value. Arrogance is usually a person with low self-esteem trying to look and act valuable so they can convince others (and themselves) that they really are.
While we all want to be liked, we can have an excessive need for others’ approval. So much so that their complaints shake our sense of self-worth. When that happens, we react like we are fighting for our lives.
When complaints shake our self-worth, we react like we are fighting for our lives.
Often, we’re not even aware of this link between our self-esteem and trouble accepting criticism. It takes a deep look into our thoughts and emotions to realize why we reacted so strongly. Associating negative feedback to our personal value is flawed thinking.
Feedback as a gift
Consider feedback as a gift, not punishment. Resisting it keeps a person from improving. Most criticism is intended to help a person get better, especially when it is given respectfully. If we push back on others’ evaluations, we’ll soon stop hearing their valuable input because they’ll want to avoid the conflict.
We all have blind spots, especially when it comes to seeing ourselves objectively. Knowing how others view us gives us a much clearer picture of who we truly are. Our relationships, career, and personal accomplishments can all flourish when we open ourselves up to outside assessment.
Relationship benefits of accepting criticism
Accepting criticism helps our relationships because we signal to others that we care about their concerns. As a result, they are more likely to trust our judgment, ideas, and opinions. Resisting negative feedback makes others think they can never push back or question our motives or judgment. We lose our chance to get their support and cooperation because we lose their respect.
For those of us who are parents, demonstrating our ability to hear others’ fault-finding shows our kids how to be coachable. Ultimately, this helps them to develop their skills and abilities. Listening respectfully to our kids’ complaints about us shows them how to listen to ours about them.
The same is true for our partners. Receiving their grievances lowers their resistance when we want to share our grievances with them. Remember to give your partner more positive than negative feedback, even if you don’t feel it is returned.
Thinking differently makes accepting criticism easier
The path to accepting criticism well starts with thinking about it differently. Reframe disapproving words by seeing them as good coaching. Remind yourself of all the personal and relationship benefits you receive by listening openly.
When you stop equating complaints and criticisms to your personal value, your strong reactions to them will stop, too.
When you stop equating complaints and criticisms to your personal value, your strong reactions to them will stop, too. Usually just being aware of these distortions helps us think differently. Disconnecting the false association between criticism and our value reduces how threatening it sounds and lowers the pressure we feel to end it.
Not true, not fair
It’s easier accepting criticism when it’s mild and fair. However, not everyone around us, including our partner, will be so diplomatic. Sometimes we get broadsided by harsh condemnation and attacked with an unfair put-down.
Not everyone will be diplomatic.
The same principle about holding onto our internal sense of value applies. We just have to hold on to it a bit tighter. I know, it is easier said than done. I’m still working on this skill myself.
Here’s how to think about these situations. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. In most of the developed world, people are given freedom to say what they want.
However, just because someone shares their negative opinion of us does not mean we have to believe them. If a stranger comes up to me and tells me I have purple hair (I don’t), it doesn’t make their statement true. The same holds for harsh and unfair criticism—just because it is said doesn’t mean it’s true.
If it’s not true, then we don’t need to correct them or stop them from saying so. We know the truth and it is our attacker who looks ridiculous. Nothing about our value has changed, so there is no need to defend our honor or reputation.
If you’re working to increase your capacity for accepting criticism, here are some exercises that will help:
Ask for feedback. You might worry that asking for feedback makes you look weak or incompetent. In fact, it has the opposite effect—it makes a person appear confident and shows your willingness to improve.
Asking also has the benefit of allowing you to prepare for what you’ll hear. Think about the benefits you’ll receive. Remind yourself that criticism does not diminish your self-worth. That mindset will make you less defensive.
Accept what you hear. Listen and weigh what the other person has to say. Accepting is not the same as agreeing.
If you don’t concur with their evaluation, thank them and tell them you are going to think about what they said. Don’t just give it lip service, either, but really reflect on their message after your strong emotions have drained away. You may disagree initially then later decide they are mostly right.
Act on it. To the extent that you want to make changes, tell them what you are going to do, and then do it. Whoever gave you the feedback may become one of your biggest encouragers.
Does this make you their puppet? Not at all if you agree with their coaching and want to grow in that area. You might find their future criticism is softer because they won’t feel they need to roar get your attention.
Building a strong sense of your own value makes hearing negative feedback easier.
Build your self-esteem. Long term, building a strong sense of your own value makes hearing negative feedback easier. The more we have, the less we feel the need to defend ourselves or stop the criticism.
A personal relationship with God makes accepting criticism much easier in at least three ways. First, it gives us a sense of worth. When the creator of the universe says you matter to him, you matter!
Receiving God’s love changes how much importance we put on other people’s approval. No one is better able to define your value than the one who made you. He says you belong to him and are so valuable that he sent his son to die for you.
Second, when we are friends with God, we can count on him to be our defender. People can say untrue and unfair things, but God gets the last word. We are released from the need to defend ourselves because God promises that, in the end, he will right every wrong.
God’s direction is always gentle, good, and without shame.
Finally, God gives us feedback through the Holy Spirit. His direction is always gentle, good, and without shame. God’s guidance does not feel like criticism because it comes from someone who loves you and who wants the best for you.
The Holy Spirit is one of those concepts that can be difficult to understand. I’d describe the Holy Spirit as the somewhat mysterious way God communicates with us and acts on our behalf. You’re sensing the Holy Spirit when the thought, idea, or circumstance that just happened does not feel random or accidental.
Accepting criticism is a hard thing to do. Having in a personal relationship with God makes it much easier. Why not invite him to help you?