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3 Ways to Overcome the Fear of Criticism

Pointing

In College, people saw my calm demeanour and inclination to study and called me boring.

At work once, I came back from vacation to be raked over the coals by my boss for the “embarrassing” way I’d handed a project over to her (just 1 out of 17) and told me I should be ashamed of myself.

And a 1-star review on Amazon that says “What a great name for such a lame book” doesn’t exactly light me up with joy.

While criticism is frequently unwelcome, there can also be things to learn and ways to grow. What’s worse than the criticism itself, is the fear of it.

The fear of criticism is what leads us towards people-pleasing and needing praise. If someone praises us, then we’ve successfully avoided criticism. Phew.

The fears we have around criticism—both our fear before the fact (i.e. what if I get criticised here?) and our fear when it lands (i.e. what does this mean?)—drives behaviour that erodes all confidence and self-trust.

So just how do you deal with the fear of criticism? How do you take something so seemingly painful and strip it of its ability to drive limiting behaviour? How can you remain confident in your capability and sense of self in the face of criticism that’s levelled straight at you?

Here are 3 ways.

1. Don’t go inwards

Living in fear of being criticised is a little bit like living in fear of being eaten by a whale. You kinda like whales, they’re all sea-dwelling and kinda graceful, but hell, if there’s a chance one of them is going to eat you then it’s for the best that you steer clear of Newfoundland.

This kind of thinking pulls your world inside you, making you justify self-protection because it’s dangerous out there.

It’s the same when a piece of criticism lands on your plate. It hurts. It’s hard for it not to, because it’s about you. Right?

Well, not entirely. You don’t know what’s in the head of the person offering the criticism. Maybe they’ve had a shitty day, maybe they’re just transferring pain or anger from somewhere in their own life and you just happen to be there. Or maybe they think they’re always right and that nobody else can touch them.

Criticism is an observation based on someone else’s perception, and it might be as reflective of “truth” as a penguin at the zoo thinking that your pink skin and funny hair makes you look a bit like Miss Piggy.

You’re not obliged to take the criticism and internalize it if it doesn’t serve you to do so, just as you’re not obliged to take a fear around possible criticism and make it yours.

Instead, ask yourself, “What would it be like to let go of this?” and see what opens up for you.

2. Don’t conflate it with your fear of not being good enough

Criticism feels a lot like rejection doesn’t it?

Bad appearance, horrible attitude, shitty performance – when someone criticises you it’s like they’re saying, “This thing about you? It’s not good enough.”

Rejection is what we fear; criticism is the vehicle for it.

Criticism hits that nerve that thinks you might not be good enough after all. It touches that part of you that thinks you’re not worthy of love and belonging and it stirs the fear that you’re fatally flawed.

These parts of you are like an exposed nerve, and when criticism comes your way it’s easy to feel that twang of hurt and turn it into evidence for you being not good enough. And then you just want to disappear.

Criticism is external. Fear of rejection and fear of not being enough are internal. The only reason to connect the 2 things is to confirm your worst fears about yourself.

Instead, ask “How would I respond to this if I was unconditionally whole and already good enough?“.

3. Check in on denial

We finish on a tricky one that probably warrants 5,000 words all to itself.

There may be times when a piece of criticism levelled at you touches on something you’re in denial about.

Let’s say, for example, that I continued to believe that I have a full head of luxurious hair. Then along comes George who says, “Hey baldy, need some polish for that?

Fucking George. Who does he think he is coming over and saying that garbage to me. What the hell planet is he on? Baldy? Why I oughta…

The next time I see George, it’s likely that I’m going to be particularly sensitive to what he says. Maybe I go in on the offensive right off the bat, or maybe I dial up my defences. Regardless, the fear and hurt about what George said is driving my behaviour while all the time I’m pushing away the undeniable fact that my hairline strongly resembles a retreating ice shelf.

Point is, nobody likes to be found out or exposed, especially for something they’re in the habit of pushing away out of embarrassment or shame.

Your level of commitment to a project or a relationship. Your efficacy in a skill you’ve been faking. Your level of honesty with regard to who you are at your core.

The level of fear in this “exposure” can be immense.

Chances are someone who’s in this place knows, at a deep level, exactly what’s going on and exactly what they’re in denial about.

So the task here is to be gently aware of what’s down there. To gracefully and non-judgementally acknowledge what’s true without it being a statement about your self-worth. It’s only through a loving acceptance of what’s true for you that you can take the fear out of any criticism levelled at it.

And maybe that’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to criticism—that it loses it’s power to make you afraid if you already know yourself and trust that you’re good enough.

What’s your experience with criticism? How do you struggle with it, or how do you manage it?

Comments

  1. S B Cheek says:

    You say; “To gracefully and non-judgementally acknowledge what’s true without it being a statement about your self-worth. It’s only through a loving acceptance of what’s true for you that you can take the fear out of any criticism levelled at it.”
    That’s why I love Don Imus.. in the morning WABC radio NY.. I listened to him for many years going to and at work 4 decades ago and he is still on, and if you were angry with the boss,, you were not by the time work started. He could give it square to any person but loved them all… But it made one feel better after it is off your chest.. (Imus did that).
    BUT why must we deny our fear?.. of being FIRED?.. it’s happened.. starving, It can happen… family rejection and not just physical attacks but personal and emotional infringements and removal of happiness. Jews had the fear of Nazi’s and discrimination with good reason at all levels. Yes I love myself I can say,, I am a Jew.. I am this and that.. I am fired, poor, homeless, familyless, I am not doing what I should.. I look bad… It’s all my fault…. no…. No.. wait a minute;
    I am not a quick thinker, I always wished I was.. some thoughts took 30 years I should have used the minute the attack was made. Some replies could result in physical attacks. And initial and ongoing attacks are made by WHO? Selfish people.. mentally ill, demanding in stuck situations one cannot avoid. About five stiff drinks might be one way to” lovingly accept “My” condition”.
    Confidence to hand it right back seems the only answer to me now. Why should some people be B M O C (Big man on campus). Don’t let it slide one second… some of these people feed off of superior controlling, feeling good to point out that; you are inferior, even in a so called Joking way, get their digs, nag, gossip, etc. Almost impossible to hand it back.. “I cannot be so cruel as the tormentor.. to cause pain or any loss to another, as I have lived, in my life”, one finds that.. and: It was purely by accident.. I handed it back once. I was attacked half asleep.. it was a knee jerk response… and IT STOPPED. One form of that attackers actions stopped! They are afraid….? They are afraid! They are more afraid than you think. Much more. I have taken enough. It stops now. I may have to walk to keep my property, freedoms, pleasures if you (the attacker) won’t listen. And I will be happy by myself if need be.. even happier feeling the freedom from all the restrictions you (the attacker) put on me. It is like a drug to some people, to put you down.. feels good and it gets worse. So I say.. STOP!!!! NOW, before a few seconds go by. “Yes.. I may be bald.. and you are fat”. Bet no more bald jokes on you. Someone can give a silent treatment but I can lovingly give it back. It will be a cure. One wife tells me “it’s been years but my husband will never answer the phone when I call him.” STOP, do not call him for six months I said. I assure you he will answer the phone after six months. Some attack people will not learn. Some manic people need the chemical high of verbally or physically placing a nice person like you beneath them… and feel good once.. must be right to them, they need that. I don’t think many will change and from what I can see they are so selfish as to not see another’s point of view or needs. I feel for the children of such mothers and fathers. But then many children learn this way of life and believe for life in their parents views. Perhaps that parent is your boss attacker, but such an influence on a child is so unfortunate and upsetting and permanent in many cases. I see those people holding their kids away from people they attack, brainwashing them, and I say, they do not love you and I even question if they love their kids. Selfish is an epidemic now, as is mental illness. Realize it and one can negotiate safer paths in one’s life.

    • Steve Errey says:

      You’re right that the “Big Man on Campus” people are that way because of their own insecurities and fears. They do that stuff because they don’t know a better way to do things. Sometimes it might be appropriate to say “Enough”. Other times it’s about letting go and walking away, knowing that their words and deeds aren’t about you.

  2. Great post!!

  3. Criticism is hard to take when my confidance Is low, but when I’m in great shape I remember it’s about them not me. Now I just gotta detangle my confidance from stuff I can’t control.

    • Steve Errey says:

      The difference in how you take criticism depending on how confident you feel is the core of it Margie – it proves that you have this kind of confidence. So, what’s a way you can connect with that more often?

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