How to Grow a Thick Skin and Handle Criticism

First, how to deal with angry criticism. Someone is mad already and now they're letting you have it. What to do?
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Man being scolded by his shadow
Man being scolded by his shadow

Just living in the world opens you up to criticism, but doing anything in the public eye, from writing a blog to performing your stand-up comedy to coaching your kid's soccer team, will invite judgment and criticism. And doing anything truly innovative will guarantee it.

So how to brace yourself? Here are 9 ways to develop thicker skin and make the most of negative feedback.

First, how to deal with angry criticism. Someone is mad already and now they're letting you have it. What to do?

Tip #1: Dig for the softer emotion beneath their anger. Angry criticism almost always mean the critic feels hurt in some way. Anger is what's called a secondary emotion--it's a reaction to a softer, underlying primary emotion like hurt, shame, guilt, or humiliation. First people get hurt, and then they get pissed.

But when you listen beneath the anger for the softer emotion, it's much easier to feel sympathetic toward them. And while it's hard to feel sorry for someone who's wrapped her feedback with prickly barbs, try to think about what button you might have pushed. And then, do this:

Tip #2: Be noble. Kill them with kindness. Well, maybe not kill them, but throw them off balance by being nice and non-defensive. Unless your critic is truly evil, he'll hem and haw and maybe even apologize. Handle the situation in a way that you imagine someone confident and poised would handle it. Once you're through the woods, congratulate yourself both for handling it head-on and taking the high road.

What not to do? Tip #3: Don't get defensive or blame others. Defensive arguments don't come across as logical or reasonable--you'll just seem tiresome and difficult. And blaming is even worse. Resist throwing someone under the bus.

Next, what to do with negative feedback that's not angry, and is presented fairly and professionally? This is often the hardest to hear. It stinks to hear your idea, performance, or talent isn't up to par.

Tip #4: It's not what they say, it's what you hear. This is the big one. Interpretation is everything. If a critical comment has truly seared you or thrown you into a multi-day crying jag, the critic must have pushed a button. If you find yourself nodding and smiling on the outside but dying inside, ask yourself "What does this comment mean about me?" Likely, your answer won't have anything to do with what your critic said. For instance, perhaps your critic said "Your resume wasn't quite what we're looking for right now," but you took it as, "I totally screwed up that interview; I'm never going to get a job." Notice that those are two completely different statements. Avoid over-interpretation and speculation--they'll just make you feel lousy.

Tip #5: Consider that the critic might be wrong! When it's your turn to hear criticism, remember: just because someone says it, doesn't mean it's true. Believe it or not, you're allowed to reject criticism. It's just one person's opinion.

Tip #6: Criticism might mean you're a misunderstood innovator. Perhaps folks just aren't ready for your work. Almost every true innovator has stories about collecting reams of negative feedback before finally breaking through. Consider that the critic may not see you or your revolutionary ideas for what they're worth.

However, also consider Tip #7: Maybe your critic has a point. The flip side of the misunderstood genius is the slacker with potential. Sometimes criticism might just mean your work isn't your best effort yet. Maybe your presentation is sloppy, or your idea unclear. Seize the criticism as a wake-up call. Some extra polish may make your work shine. Thank your critic and get to work.

Okay, next, what if you're a people pleaser? Or an overachiever used to hearing nothing but praise? In short, what if you're a newbie to criticism (and scared of it)?

Tip #8: Re-imagine yourself as a gritty survivor. Or a weathered grande dame. Or a man of principle. You get the picture. Many of us who are thin-skinned spend a lot of energy making sure everyone likes us. Maybe you're a good girl or good guy who's never really stepped out of line. Or maybe you've been sheltered and have simply never been through the wringer. Regardless, avoiding criticism is exhausting. Rethink your idea of yourself so you're more open to criticism. And rethink criticism as an indicator that you're doing important work or a sign that you're truly grown up.

And finally, Tip #9: Remember that the criticism says more about the critic than it says about you. A critic's judgmental remark doesn't mean the remark is true; it means the critic is judgy. Likewise with catty, entitled, or selfish criticism. The only person these remarks degrade is the critic.

A final note: basically, the only way to avoid criticism is, as the old saying goes, to "Say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing." And that's no fun. So instead, collect those critical comments, either take them to heart or gently hurl them in the trash, and keep on chugging.

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