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Arm Yourself with the Skills to Cope with Criticism

Nobody likes to be criticized, but it can be particularly difficult for individuals who are self-critical and/or socially anxious. Self-critical individuals often have high levels of unhealthy perfectionism. They frequently have ongoing internal dialogues that are harshly self-judgmental. Having someone else be critical can then act like salt to the wound and trigger feelings of shame and/or anxiety at being exposed as deficient. Individuals who are self-conscious and socially anxious are fearful of being judged and often avoid situations where they are at risk of being evaluated in some way.    

When judged, there is a tendency to be so focused on the judgement aspect that the validity of the criticism is not questioned. In the moment of being criticized all that is felt is the sense of shame and discomfort at being found lacking.

Remember that not all criticism is valid, so do question it. One needs to also question whether the criticism serves any purpose at all, even if it is valid. Most importantly, even if the criticism is valid the delivery needs to be respectful. Being deficient does not justify being disrespected. Everyone makes mistakes and has deficiencies, including the person who is being critical. Accepting that you are as human as everyone else will help you to view yourself as being a worthy person regardless of your deficiencies.

Arming oneself with effective skills will allow one to face criticism with fortitude. Done in baby steps and a self-encouraging attitude, it is very doable. The more the skills are practiced the less the criticism stings and the more empowered you become.  

Responding to criticism and diminishing the associated distress:

Criticism can present itself in different ways in our lives. Here are some ways in which one can respond to criticism:

1. When the criticism is valid, constructive and respectful in delivery it may still cause one to feel upset and anxious to some degree. To cope it would be helpful to stay focused on what the other person is saying, while you calm yourself by taking some deep slow breaths. It is likely that as the minutes tick by you will be able to focus more on what is being said and recognize that this is not an “attack”. When calmer, you will also find yourself in a better position to ask for clarification and, if the helpful criticism is not completely valid, explain your position.

2. Remember that in instances where the criticism is not fair and your behavior is within your rights, it is appropriate to clarify and explain without offering lengthy excuses or apologies. Defending yourself and not accepting unfair criticism in whatever way you see fit is your right so long as it is done with respect. This is what assertive communication is all about.

For example, if a co-worker were to say you were a tardy person when you were late to work on a rare occasion you could respond by saying “being late occasionally does not make me a tardy person.” This is likely to be challenging initially. The trick is to set small goals when you start and to say more as you become more comfortable. So, the initial goal may to speak up in situations that are less anxiety provoking and to simply object. For example, saying “I don’t agree” to a someone you are fairly comfortable with, maybe all that you aim for initially.

Do give yourself credit for taking those first steps of speaking up, even if it is brief and the situation is not too challenging. Remember to not beat up on yourself if you do not speak up in more challenging situations as you move forward in your journey to becoming more assertive. As the distress in such situations begins to decrease you will be able to move towards addressing more challenging settings.

3. When the criticism is invalid, unnecessary and given disrespectfully, it would very naturally trigger considerable distress. At such times, it would be good to follow the strategy of focusing on calming yourself initially. This can vary from doing slow breathing exercises, to counting backwards or focusing on something extraneous to distract yourself from the unpleasant situation.

If you find yourself in a situation where your emotional response is intense, leave the situation if possible and go to a private place, where you can take some time to calm yourself before returning to the situation. You also have the option to respond to the criticism by saying that you would like to think about what has been said and talk about it later. It is okay to not respond immediately, to take your time to reduce distress, figure out the best course of action and respond when you are ready. It is important to give yourself permission to respond later and not be hard on yourself for not responding immediately, especially in the earlier phases of skill building.

4. Sometimes, in the case of manipulative and emotionally abusive persons the intention of the criticism is get you to react and get upset. In such cases ignoring or not reacting would be the best way to go.

5. Agreeing with bullies is another strategy that can knock the wind out of their sails since it demonstrates that you are not taking them seriously. Typically, such individuals nitpick and point out deficiencies or mistakes that everyone makes including themselves! So, agreeing to the mistakes and deficiencies is no weakness but an attitude of “I have these deficiencies and make these mistakes, so what?”

6. Sometimes unhealthy criticisms are indirect. They can be conveyed through facial expressions and body language. At other times criticism are veiled and implied. In such instances, it would be good to ask for clarifications. For example, if someone were to state that they dislike your line of work or profession without addressing you directly you could ask them to explain what they mean. This causes such people to experience the discomfort of explaining their passively aggressive statements and not repeat these kinds of veiled attacks.

7. When people make blanket judgmental criticisms, it is also good to ask for clarification. For example, if a friend were to say that you are always selfish, asking them to specify the instances that demonstrate your selfishness would help create room for clarification and problem solving.

8. When one is being criticized in the presence of other people a big part of the distress is associated with the sense of being shamed in the presence of other people. The criticism then takes on a collective quality where the judgment causes one to feel isolated into a shamed corner. However, the reality is that it is the person who is displaying the unkind behavior who gets judged for bad behavior by others. The person who is the target of disrespectful behavior usually gains the support, of those who witness such behavior whether the criticism is valid or not.

Learn from it or let it roll off your back.

Hilary Rodham Clinton once said, “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”

This can be easier said than done. If you have difficulty dealing with criticism, you are not alone. Nobody likes criticism or dealing with it. However, negative feedback can be valuable teachers too. Sifting the worthwhile from the toxic feedback and learning how to deal with criticism will allow you to be well-armed in the battle of life. The more you practice and hone your skills of dealing with criticism the easier it becomes to stay strong and remain self-accepting.   

Arm Yourself with the Skills to Cope with Criticism

Suma Chand, PhD

Suma Chand, PhD, is a Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, St Louis University School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She is on the Public Education Committee of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and serves on the Board of Directors for the National Social Anxiety Center.

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APA Reference
Chand, S. (2018). Arm Yourself with the Skills to Cope with Criticism. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Oct 2018 (Originally: 2 Oct 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.