How To Deal With Criticism
A guide on not letting people into your head who shouldn’t be there
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” — Aristotle
Criticism. That word scares the hell out of so many people, bringing a gnawing feeling of dread and doubt.
Know what I’m talking about? Well, I certainly do. I used to be so afraid of it, to the point I would limit my experiences and actions simply out of fear of what people might say.
Can you imagine how small a life that would create?
Criticism boils down to a basic fear that can often get the best of us: the fear of rejection. When people are criticized, they feel rejected, judged, not part of. And, in the end, they let it affect their very image of themselves.
But criticism isn’t a problem. It’s our reaction to criticism that’s the problem.
Perceptions form realities, however untruthful they may be. People attach too much of their identity to what others think and say of them. And that, ultimately, is enslaving yourself to total strangers who frankly don’t care about you.
Most people can’t stand it. They want to avoid criticism, they want to fit in, feel accepted, and avoid trouble.
They shrink themselves into the small, suffocating shells of other people’s expectations and standards, whatever the flavor of the majority is. But, as we all know, the majority is not what we want to become, because the majority of people are unhappy, unfulfilled, and far less than they could have been.
I’ve struggled with this for a long time. Reading Eric Greitens’ wonderful book, “Resilience,” really brought this lesson home for me, along with much of the lessons I’ve learned from Marcus Aurelius’ personal philosophies. Let me share some of it with you today.
“Know this: anyone who does anything worthy, anything noble, anything meaningful, will have critics.” ~Eric Greitens
Criticism Is Inevitable — So Make It Worth It
“Some people try to live a life without criticism by shrinking themselves. They try to make themselves invisible. And you know what happens then? It’s not just that they diminish themselves, fail to live their best lives, and squander their time. All of that happens, of course. But you know what else happens? People criticize them for being invisible.” ~Eric Greitens
Whether you go for your dreams or not, people will criticize you.
With that in mind, it’s nonsensical to hold yourself back for fear of criticism. You’ll get it either way. So why not make it worth it? Why not live a life where people criticize you for your success rather than your failure?
Far better to take flak for playing it big instead taking flak for playing it small.
As Aristotle said, to avoid criticism, you must not only do nothing, but be nothing — and to truly be nothing, one must not exist at all.
Bottom line: Are you breathing? Are you alive? Welcome to Earth. You’ll get criticism no matter what path you choose.
So choose your path. It doesn’t matter what people say. Leave it behind and accept criticism as simply another inevitable facet of life, like rain, or wind, or robocalls.
Don’t try to avoid criticism. Instead, live.
Look Into the Minds of Your Critics — Who Are They Really?
“You can’t escape criticism. You can’t please everyone because many people are not pleased with themselves. People who hate something in themselves are often harshly critical of others. And people who hate something in themselves find it hard to see honor in someone else.” ~Eric Greitens
Most people put so much weight on what other people say. They let it define their actions, their beliefs, their very future! They act as if the words of strangers are more important than the words they say to themselves.
But what are these people like? Who are these people, mostly strangers, and are they the sort of people you’d take life advice from anyway?
Putting so much weight on the approval of others can be harmful. And, as Marcus Aurelius discovered, the more you understand what people are really like — that they aren’t the perfect, all powerful judges you subconsciously make them up to be — the less you need their approval.
“Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame the ones who make mistakes they can’t help, and you won’t feel the need for their approval. You will have seen the source of both — their judgments and their actions.” ~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Know that when people criticize you for doing what’s right, or chasing your dreams, or winning an award, or achieving something, it’s likely not you that’s the problem, but something in their own heads.
A Pathological Sign: Criticism
You can sometimes tell what people lack by what they criticize.
Criticism can be a pathological sign of something being off in the critic’s own life.
It’s a hint that we’re not doing what we know we must do.
I used to be a perfect example of this, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
The people and things I used to criticize the most were the ones I was most jealous of. They reminded me that I was not taking action towards something I knew I wanted. And so, in inaction, the spirits of frustration, jealousy, doubt, dissatisfaction, and fear ultimately gave rise to petty criticism.
It flourished not from some point of lofty superiority, but from mere desperation and dissatisfaction.
Here’s another thing I discovered about it: The more action I took towards those dreams, the less critical I felt towards people who were already living them. Why?
Because deep down I knew I was on my way . . .
So when people criticize you, consider this: they’re not perfect either. Their reason for criticizing you may have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.
As Marcus Aurelius once said, learn to look past their judgment, and look into their minds:
“Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of — and how judiciously they judge themselves . . . Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. To suppose that their disdain could harm anyone — or their praise help them.” ~Marcus Aurelius
The bottom line is that we can choose to not let people’s criticism become our problem. As Buddha taught, if someone offers you a gift, and you don’t accept it, it belongs to the person who offered it.
So Marcus Aurelius might have said in his stoic manner . . .
“Someone’s criticizing me. That’s their problem. Not mine.”
Don’t Let the Fear of Criticism Kill Your Future
“Anyone who does anything worthy attracts critics. Begin anyway.” ~Eric Greitens
Don’t let fear of criticism stop you from starting. So many people don’t try because they’re afraid of what others will think!
People will criticize everything! Even charity! Even acts of heroism and selflessness, people tear into. What does that mean? Based on a lesson I heard from one of my professors, it’s a mathematical law:
“The Normal Distribution of Assholes”
Bottom line: in any given population, there will be people like that. Ignore them like you would any other unremarkable fact of existence.
When you let go of that fear of criticism, you set yourself free to start doing. Everything is easier because it now lacks the burden of those fearful expectations.
Marcus had one word for it: tranquility.
“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. Not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving.” ~Marcus Aurelius
What You Say — Not What They Say
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us — or a wise human being, even — and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions — instead of our own.” ~Marcus Aurelius
Our self-talk matters far more than what other people say about us. Yet most people put more value on what someone else says rather than what they have to say about themselves.
They outsource one of the most important things in their lives:
Do you want how you see yourself to be a product of other people’s opinions? Should your identity be nothing more than a perception of someone who isn’t you?
Or, will you take control of your identity, not letting what other people say, not letting their criticism, define who you are?
There’s a balance in this: to find the truth in the middle. But never take it to the extreme of overvaluing what others tell you about you.
Our duty, as people in search of our heroic selves, is to not let criticism belittle our efforts. But to be strong, steadfast, and focus not on what people say, but on what we ourselves do. Right thoughts, right intentions, and right actions.
I’ll let Eric ram home the point on this one:
“Are you going to let what someone might say prevent you from doing what you must do?”
Constructive Criticism Isn’t Always Constructive
“Everyone likes to say that they are offering constructive criticism. But you know what’s really constructive? Work. There are simple standards for measuring the worth of people’s critiques. Do they actually care about you? Do they just talk at you, or are they willing to sweat with you? Have they put any effort into what they are saying to you?” ~Eric Greitens
Critiques are easy to throw at people, and a lot of people like to give out so-called constructive criticism like candy. But what’s it worth? Everyone’s offering it to you — so you must learn to find the ones that are actually worthy of your attention.
There is one kind of person, Eric argues, whose criticism is to be valued above all others:
“Someone who cares about you, sweats with you, and corrects you when you need to be corrected is one of the most precious things in life: a true friend.”
Be picky of whose criticisms you let affect you. Evaluate who’s giving it: is this someone who wants what’s best for you, is this someone who cares, and are they actually putting effort into helping you grow?
The person giving the criticism is just as important as the criticism being offered.
You Will Have Enemies — Accept Them as Part of the Game
“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats.” ~Victor Hugo
You have enemies. Everyone does.
Now focus on what you’re here to do. Ignore them. Get down to business.
Life is too short to waste it worrying about what your enemies are thinking, doing, or saying. That is merely giving them power over you. That is merely sacrificing a piece of your wonderful life to them. Imagine how your enemies would rejoice knowing that you burn away your very life out of fear of them! Instead, give them what they deserve:
Your mature and honest obliviousness.
Free up your mind by not worrying about your enemies. Know them, of course, don’t be naive, but do not let them infect your focus! Focus is one of the most important tools of all.
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people — unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.” ~Marcus Aurelius
Criticism doesn’t have to be the end of your ambitions — but for so many people, it is. The fear of criticism, not even criticism itself, has starved so many dreams and killed so many futures.
You don’t have to be one of them.
Always remember these things:
- Criticism is inevitable.
- Your critics are only human, and their criticism often has little to do with you and everything to do with them.
- No matter what you do, as long as you grow and surpass who you were yesterday, you will face criticism from those who refuse to change.
- You don’t have to let what people might say stop you from doing what matters.
- It’s not what they say about you that will affect your future most, but what you say about yourself.
- Be careful whose so-called constructive criticism you take to heart.
- You will have enemies. Don’t let them take up your thinking. Instead, focus.
Criticism is just another part of life. As countless lessons of history have shown, one must push through it in order to keep walking the path of their destiny.
It doesn’t have the power to stop you. Only you have the power to stop yourself.