4 Strategies to Handle Criticism Well

Let's accept a fact -- not all criticism is valid. Do not let your brain fool you. Just because words are published online does not mean they hold any merit. Here are four strategies to handle criticism well.
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I have been publishing journal articles in the field of psychology for over 15 years. Despite publishing over 150, I would guess that my submissions have been rejected about 70 percent of the time. What that means is that I have consumed vast quantities of whiskey and picked myself up from feelings of self-doubt and despair many times. One of my mentors in graduate school told me, "You are going to be successful, not because you are the smartest, creative person in this program, rather you are too passionate to stay still and when you get knocked to the ground, you jump back up faster than the rest of us." And now I tell my students that one of the best things they can learn is how to handle feedback well. It's an art form and a skill that we can all improve on.

Let me offer three strategies. They are not the only strategies, just three that happen to be useful.

1. always look at the person doling out the criticism. Is the critic a creator or a destroyer? We live in an age where everyone gets a platform online. No longer do you need the right pedigree or degree. No longer do you have to be picked from the sideline to join the game. No longer do you need any evidence of intelligence, imagination or creativity. No longer do you have to look at the object of your criticism in the eye. You just need an internet connection and buttons to push.This is fantastic. But there is a downside when it comes to the vitriol in the world....

Let's accept a fact -- not all criticism is valid. Do not let your brain fool you. Just because words are published online does not mean they hold any merit . Is the person criticizing you have a biased agenda? A financial or even more pernicious, psychological conflict of interest? Look for patterns in their behavior. Are they chasing after the same person all over the web? Do they put just a little bit too much time and effort into attacking your work or that of someone else? If so, be skeptical. Google them. Are they curious, looking to improve the work or simply interested in pointing out holes? The latter is easy. My elementary school kids can find holes in the work of distinguished architects and scientists. Sometimes the criticism being doled out should be ignored.

Let's not be politically correct. Some questions and critiques are inane and devoid of value. The best criticism is constructive -- there is a motivation to better the work. Never forget this excerpt of Teddy Roosevelt's 1910 speech "Citizenship in a Republic":

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Know which comments to sweep away like water off a duck's back. Vitriolic comments will be sticky -- as our brains are more responsive to threats than rewards (evolution isn't always pleasant). The critics themselves might try to get under your skin. But ignore them. They are no different than a toddler who screams so that somebody knows their needs are not being met. Everybody tries to quantify their worth. Sadly, critics who are not creators quantify their self-worth by how many likes they get on a social media post or amazon review. Try your best to feel compassion for these characters. They probably lack other outlets for their desire to get attention, affiliate with others, and feel a sense of meaning. Feel compassion but ignore the content.

Listen to creators who try to build on what you created. Create a wise council of people you trust and respect. Listen to them. Even better, have a conversation with them.

2. It is important to create psychological space between you, the creator, and the work, the product. When you don't do this, you are going to live an unnecessarily tumultuous life. We can learn to create distance between the thoughts and the thinker, the feelings and the feeler. This is called defusion. It is different from trying to ignore, hide from, conceal, or rid unwanted thoughts and feelings. You are not your thoughts. You can disagree with your brain just as you do with friends who give you bad advice every once in awhile ("come on, so you failed that test, turn that frown upsidedown silly"). You are not your work. Don't allow yourself to hate yourself or be in love with yourself because of your work. Recognize it as one of many things you do, even if it important, meaningful, and an ideal venue to express your strengths and gifts to the outside world.

3. Everyone has biases and issues, and this means the content of your work will not be right for everyone. And it might be the timing in that someone is simply not ready for your message. If you want to produce great work, not just good work, this means you are going to cause friction with well-established belief systems. Aim for no more than 80% likability for your work. Any more and you probably aren't pushing far enough. In my career, I have received emails and reviews from people that were honest -- the work didn't resonate with them and they pointed out why others might feel differently. I love this kind of candid feedback where they point out exactly what didn't work. I learn from them because they are trying to improve my understanding of the work and the various audiences out there.

All three of these strategies are easy to write about and harder to implement. This is especially true in the online world where people can be anonymous, stalk you, and say anything they want without any repercussion. Sometimes I wish I was a writer in Paris in the early 1900s when you read your work in a tavern and people had to stand, look at you in public, and say their peace. There was an opportunity for a give-and-take where everyone was accountable for how they speak, how they criticize, and how they listen.

4. Keep a rainy-day folder. We all receive tons of positive feedback for our work, even from people unrelated to us. Don't just smile, compile these emails and letters (damn do I love handwritten letters!) into a physical folder that you can access easily. Set up a folder in your email account and place every email from someone impacted by your work into it. And on those days when a manuscript you worked on for three years with your team is not only rejected, but ridiculed by reviewers, open up those folders. It will remind you that most readers, workshop participants, reviewers, and everyday blokes are benevolent and a few of them will go out of their way to make contact because your creative work matters. Trust me on this advice. Start your rainy-day folder today.

When you are a critic, aim to help people produce better work. Be an informal collaborator. Leave a legacy of generativity.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self -- not just your "good" self -- drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to www.toddkashdan.com.

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