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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Winston Churchill

I have a very tough time being criticized, corrected, or accused—of even the smallest mistakes—and I react very angrily. I’ve wrestled this instinct under control in a professional context, more or less, but I have more trouble with it at home. All it takes is for my daughter to make a mild comment such as, “You forgot to remind me to bring my library book,” to set me off. “What do you mean…it’s not my responsibility…I didn’t know Wednesday was Library Day…” etc., etc.

More and more, I see the connection between perfectionism, control, and anger. How I struggle to keep my sense of humor and light-heartedness!

Some Strategies that I Try to Use to Accept Criticism

If I manage to use them, they never fail me, but I don’t always manage to put them to work.

1. Listen to What a Critic Is Saying

I really listen and try to understand that point of view. I don’t just nod while, in my mind, formulating my retorts. Accept just criticism.

2. Don’t Be Defensive

This is the toughest step for me. With my writing, for example, I always have to take a deep breath before reading an edit letter or meeting with an editor to remind myself, “I welcome criticism. This person is helping me. I’m eager to hear how to improve my book/article/post.”

3. Don’t Expose Myself to Criticism from People I Don’t Respect

I pay a lot of attention to criticism from people I respect, but I try to shield myself from criticism from people I don’t know or don’t respect, because I fear that I’ll react, even though it may be unfounded. When I get trustworthy criticism about my writing, I act on it, but I try to avoid reading drive-by snarkiness. Bad is stronger than good, and I fear that I’ll change my writing in response to some person’s thoughtless comment, in ways that won’t make my work stronger. I need to stay creative, openhearted, adventuresome, and honest, and if I feel defensive and apologetic, I won’t maintain those elements.

4. Delay my Reaction

Count to ten, take a deep breath, sleep on it, wait until the next day to send that email—any kind of delay is good. A friend told me her rule: when she’s upset about something that happened at her children’s school, she won’t let herself do anything about it for three days, and usually she decides that no action is better than action.

5. Admit my Mistakes

My father gave me an outstanding piece of advice when I got my first real job. He said, “If you take the blame when you deserve it, you’ll get the responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true. Difficult, but true. In my experience, until someone in a group (or in a family) accepts blame, everyone stays very anxious and focused on fingering the person at fault. Once I raise my hand (if appropriate), then everyone else can relax. And then we can all focus on what needs to be done.

6. Enjoy the Fun of Failure

Fact is, trying new things and aiming high exposes me to criticism. I remind myself to enjoy the fun of failure—to try to re-frame failure and criticism as part of the fun. Otherwise, my dread of criticism can paralyze me. Once, when I told my husband that I was upset because I’d received a mean comment here on the blog, he said, “Remember, this is what you want. You want to put your ideas out there. Not everyone is going to be nice.” That made me feel better.

The discussion of criticism reminds me of a passage from Stephen Spender’s autobiography, World Within World:

To overhear conversations behind his back is more disconcerting than useful to the writer; though he can perhaps search for criticism which may really help him to remedy faults in style. But he should remember that the tendency of reviewers is to criticize work not for what it is but for what it fails to be, and it is not necessarily true that he should remedy this by trying to become other than he is. Thus, in my own experience, I have wasted time by paying heed to criticism that I had no skill in employing rhyme. This led me to try rhyme, whereas I should have seen that the moral for me was to avoid it.

This passage is a good reminder that criticism should help us do better what we want to do and to be more wholly ourselves, and criticism that doesn’t serve those goals isn’t helpful.

What am I overlooking? Have you found any other strategies that work for you?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. Gretchen is also on Facebook and Twitter.

*Photo by amboo who?.

August 20, 2012