‘You can’t please everybody.’ We know that, we say that, and on good days we actually believe that. But it’s funny how all our logic and confidence can crumble when we hear a critical comment from a parent, a boss, teacher, or anyone whose opinion deeply matters to us. Sometimes, we even internalize what they say, replaying their painful remarks in our heads so many times that we put ourselves down in their behalf. ‘I knew I couldn’t make this business work…Dad said I was crazy, and he was right.’ Or, a stinging comment can upset us for the rest of the day (or week!), wasting valuable time and energy as we imagine sarcastic comebacks or vent, rage, and complain to anyone who’ll listen. So how do we snap out of this and deal with criticism in a healthy and positive way? Read on.
1. It’s not always about you.
That’s right. Many unreasonable, hurtful comments say more about the critic than the person being criticized. Psychologists call this ‘projection.’ We don’t like something about ourselves, but we don’t want to deal with it—so we reflect that quality back to others. For example, someone who is insecure about her physical appearance will be more likely to make fun of what others are wearing. Or, a manager who feels threatened about his position will be quicker to point out the mistakes of his colleagues.
To find out if you were just caught in the path of somebody’s fears and insecurity, watch how he behaves around other people. Does he make similar comments, or tend to focus on negative things? Or, think about your history together. Does he always put you down, regardless of your efforts or actions?
2. Look for the intention and the message.
Let’s face it, some people are just social morons, unable to pick up subtle emotional cues or anticipate how their words will come across. Or, maybe they have trouble expressing themselves, or are uncomfortable dealing with people. They mean well, and probably care very much about others, they just…don’t know how to show it.
One good example of this is how even adults will spend thousands of dollars on therapy complaining about how their parents weren’t ‘supportive,’ even citing specific experiences: ‘He called me a slacker!’ But those parents have a different story to tell. ‘I just meant that he needed to be more disciplined, because he was wasting so much of his potential.’
Body language and vocal intonations can affect the way a message is interpreted, but ultimately we are he ones who attach a meaning to it. We can be emotionally affected, or we can choose to look for the learning experience or even the hidden nugget of insight. ‘Yes, my dad can be a jerk sometimes, but he’s right—I do tend to give up too easily.’ Once you can get past the ‘how’ and focus on the ‘what’ every criticism is a chance for self-awareness and self-improvement.
3. Be grateful for the honesty.
A friend says nice things, but your best friend will tell you the truth. Many times, the truth will hurt, but in the long-run a lie will hurt you even more. It takes a great deal of courage for somebody to say, ‘You get too clingy and emotional with your boyfriends. That’s why they break up with you.’ Yes, you want to lash back and defend yourself. But if you listen, your next relationship will be better—and you’ll thank your friend if he turns out to be the great love of your life.
4. Face that discomfort.
Why do some critical remarks sting more than others? You can learn a lot about yourself (like fears, values, and inner frameworks) by identifying your ‘Achilles’ heel.’ Very often, the comments that hurt the most are connected to aspects of yourself that you have repressed, neglected, or are simply ready for growth. For example, if you tend to be sensitive about your weight, look at your own body-image.
5. Stay away from minefields.
Don’t ask for somebody’s opinion—or even invite it—if you’re not ready to hear it. For example, if you know your Dad tends to criticize your career, avoid talking about work. Or, if a friend is a chronic pessimist who can name everything that’s wrong about a situation (and you), don’t share your dreams.
We tend to seek other people’s opinions because we want encouragement and validation. However, there are just some individuals who are naturally inclined to criticize or give ‘personal advice’ because they’re, well, know-it-alls. As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Learn from experience. If somebody shoots you down, don’t give any bullets.
6. Go to your Happy Place.
You can analyze a comment and learn from it, you can try to understand a person is coming from, but when you realize that it’s just a lot of stupid, self-centered noise, don’t waste any more time on it. Tune it out. Think happy thoughts, mentally recite positive affirmations, or just imagine them as a three-year-old toddlers throwing a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket aisle.
7. Act with kindness.
This is the hardest step of all, but it’s liberating for you. That’s because we let go of the anger and the hold of the other person on our emotions and self-image. ‘I am not hurt because I won’t let you hurt me.’ So smile. Give them a compliment. Help them out in a project. Or, if you’re not ready for that, just say a short but sincere prayer for them. They may not deserve your kindness, but they crave it. Sometimes, the people who are hardest to love are those that need it the most.