The ability to hear criticism and process it in a healthy, positive, and constructive manner without suffering a loss to your self-esteem is a superpower. And that superpower can be yours.
Receiving criticism gracefully and processing it constructively is even more impressive when the person giving the criticism is doing so in a toxic, condescending, or mean-spirited tone.
It would be wonderful if everyone in your life would see you and understand you the way you feel you should be viewed and treated. It would be great if everyone was polite, gracious, kind, and supportive. That, however, is not the real world.
The truth is that life is challenging, and we must navigate through a life full of people with various personalities, perspectives, life experiences, and interests. Not only that, but our world is full of people with varying levels of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
And we must interact with people carrying different levels of baggage and pain — just as we are.
We can’t control people or circumstances, but we can manage how we respond and react to the people and circumstances in our life.
And since being exposed to complaints and criticism is a part of life, it’s important we learn how to receive and process that criticism in a way that’s healthy and, if possible, helpful.
Be open to criticism, not abuse
Many years ago, I was a junior-level manager at a trade association in Alexandria, Virginia. And I made a mistake. Actually, since I was rather new on the job and very early in my career, it was not the only mistake.
One of the association’s volunteer leaders, who was known for having a temper issue, wasn’t very gracious in how he handled my error. Instead, I get a voicemail with him yelling obscenities and threatening physical violence!
His voicemail didn’t just threaten violence against me, but he loudly screamed that he was going to come “tearing down into the office” and there would be “blood and guts everywhere.”
Obviously, if I knew then what I know now, I would have forwarded that voicemail to my boss with a request that it be reported to the police. I would have also recommended, in writing, that this person be removed from any leadership position in the association — if not kicked out of the association altogether. And I would have insisted he not be allowed to contact me again.
And honestly, looking back, I believe my employer would have supported me and taken swift action against this individual. But I never gave them the chance.
I deleted the voicemail, called the person back, and apologized. He was much calmer on the phone and he graciously accepted the apology and actually seemed impressed that I called.
Still, I look back on that moment with disappointment in myself. Yes, I had the “courage” to call him back, but not enough courage to realize I didn’t deserve to be treated like that.
Unfortunately, at the time, I was both inexperienced and insecure. Even though the mistake was minor, and it wasn’t entirely mine alone, there was a part of me that felt I deserved his tirade.
Sadly, this is now many victims of verbal abuse feel. Because of deep insecurity, a part of them (perhaps a big part) feels they somehow deserve abuse. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s not true.
You do not deserve abuse.
You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. You will, at times, mess up. And sometimes your mistakes may be serious. And therefore, you will occasionally deserve criticism. And you need to be able to accept criticism.
But you don’t deserve abuse. No one does.
Guard your heart, not your brain
In my teenage years, I enjoyed watching reruns of Star Trek. The original series came out in the late 1960s, and I was too young to enjoy it during its original run. But I became a big fan in the 1970s and 80s. And it was common in Star Trek that, when the Enterprise entered a dangerous situation, Captain Kirk would order: “Shields up!”
If you receive an angry text or email or find yourself in a challenging conversation or tough meeting, you will instinctively want to put up your defense screens. You’ll want to protect yourself from being hurt.
Self-preservation is a normal response, and that includes protecting our emotional and mental health. This is especially so for those who have experienced bullying or verbal abuse in the past.
The key is to protect your heart and your soul, but not necessarily your brain.
Obviously, if we were talking about protection against a physical attack, you want to protect all of you — including both your head and heart. But in the context of receiving criticism, you need to keep your mind open for the sake of learning.
If you really want to protect yourself from harm, it’s important that you understand the cause of the outburst that’s coming your way. You need to understand what led the other person to react the way they did. You need to know the triggers.
And the only way to learn what you need to learn is to keep your mind open and your brain working — while you protect your heart.
If you become “shut down” emotionally or too quick to dodge, dismiss, or deflect any and all criticism, you jettison any opportunity to learn.
It’s important that we not only learn from our mistakes and how we can do better. It’s also important that we learn from the expectations others have of us. Don’t close off your mind to learning. That will only hurt you in the end.
Focus on substance, not image
We put up our mental and proverbial defensive shields because we want to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Again, it’s natural that we do this, and we should protect our hearts, but we must be careful not to obsess too much over our image.
People who are emotionally wounded or insecure often worry about what other people think about them. When we do this, we focus more on projecting an image as opposed to working on our substance.
I remember being at a work meeting many years ago, and I was asked a question. I should have known the answer. And I knew that everyone in that room knew I should have known the answer. But I didn’t.
In a split second, I decided to bluff my way through the meeting. I guessed at the answer. And I guessed wrong.
Fortunately (for the meeting but not “fortunately” for me), my boss was there and corrected me. Actually, it was my boss’s boss that was there.
I was quite embarrassed.
And I should have been.
Rather than admit I didn’t know and then learn from that mistake, I chose to guess. It was inappropriate and unprofessional. I deserved a serious reprimand, but the CEO (my boss’ boss) was gracious and let it go. He knew I realized my mistake.
It never happened again.
Obviously, you should put your best foot forward. You should present your best “you” to the world. But that’s just it. You need to present “you” to the world.
And if the real “you” does not know something, then in almost every situation, it’s better to admit that and then go get the answer than it is to try to guess or bluff your way through.
The reality is that the people in your life are going to think all kinds of things. That’s on them. You can’t control their thoughts and you shouldn’t let your identity or self-esteem be based on other people’s moods, emotions, or ruminations.
Don’t base your self-esteem on what other people think of you. Base on self-image on who you really are at the core of your being.
Be authentic. Be real. Be a person of substance.
Clarification beats combat
Finally, when dealing with criticism, seek clarification and not conflict.
Conversations are opportunities for authentic communication. Don’t go out of your way to battle people. Instead, strive to learn from them. Engage others politely and constructively.
If someone gets upset with you and starts venting, then if you’re protecting your heart, you can invest some time to just listen. Give the other person a “safe space” to vent. And then you can ask questions to clarify their meaning.
As much as is possible, without sacrificing your own mental and emotional welfare, you can seek out clarity on where the other person is coming from. You can learn from any mistakes you may have made. And you can learn how to minimize any “triggers” in your interactions with that person — or similar parties — moving forward.
Learn what you need to learn, but remember some battles are not worth fighting. In fact, you might say that’s the case with most battles. Indeed, I’ve found that most battles can probably be avoided.
Be intentional and thoughtful with how you invest your time and energy.
Stand up for yourself when necessary, protect your heart always, and never take abuse. But only perfect people are above correction and criticism.
And since none of us is perfect, those of us who are able and willing to sort through the noise of life and learn what we need to learn in order to move forward are those who will best position themselves for personal and professional success.