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?