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How to cope with criticism

Many of my clients find it difficult to be criticised. It is often seen as an attack on their personality, on their human being. They get the feeling that the other person is hurting them and as a natural response they jump into a defence mode, trying to protect themselves.

Yes, criticism can be seen as a threat. You rather be seen as the person that does great things and is admired by everyone. But in your unconscious mind you are afraid to be exiled from the organization or team you work with. Also, criticism is of often associated with the loss of something we love.

And as a result we do not feel well mentally and sometimes even physically bad. And we keep on worrying, almost obsessing about it. When it lasts long, it may have a negative impact on our self-confidence.

In reality, criticism is most of the time not about you, as person, but what you have done. Being criticised can be done in two different ways:

  • Positively: which is seen as feedback and that is encouraging. It helps you to do a better job.

  • Negatively: it devalues and is deleveraging.

Here is an example:


"I know you are too stupid to do this."


"I am sure, if you get some training, you can do this."

See criticism as something positive. If you are stressed, irritated, however, any feedback you get will come across as negative criticism, because emotions play a critical role.

As long as people criticise you, people care about you. So, it is not to hurt you, but to support you in becoming mentally stronger.

Compare criticism as looking at a video recording about yourself. It may be a confrontation, because you see your own “strange” habits, shortcomings and dark side, but it shows you what could or should be changed.

There are many reason why people are criticised, but the two main categories (sometimes a combination) are:

  • Behavior and attitude

  • Making mistakes

With regards to behaviour and attitude, criticism is predominantly opinion based, unless if what you do is against the law. Your behaviour is different than expected or not conform particular standards or accepted manners. This does not mean that you are wrong. Maybe you have a very good reason for being different. When people criticize you, it sometimes is a form of ego defense, because they may feel devalued. In that case is their problem, not yours. Do you want to compromise?

With mistakes, I mean the human mistakes. The criticism is more fact based, because it can be measured, equated to previous outcomes, compared with agreements and standards, etc.

There are plenty of reasons why people make mistakes but the 6 main ones are:

  • Lack of knowledge (cognitive). Including thinking you know better and taking risks

  • Lack of understanding (dynamic affective). This includes affective instability, emotional inertia, and emotional differentiation

  • Lack of skills and competences (motoric)

  • None or little attention, meaning no focus/concentration resulting in forgetting things or doing things wrong

  • Time pressure. Deadlines that makes it hard to do the job right, too much on your plate

  • Not following rules or procedures

Criticism on mistakes depends on the type and severity of the mistake. Some mistakes are easy to correct and there is no damage. If you are quick to fix it, nobody will notice or your colleagues don’t care about it. Other mistakes are big and have a major impact like a damage, financial loss, reputation blow, angry customers/suppliers, relational issues, etc.

For many people it is difficult to admit that they have made a mistake and they do not accept the criticism. They rather blame the other person. However, it may very well be that their brain is pre-occupied (a cognitive bias) resulting in a subjective assessment.

How to handle criticism?

There are many powerful things you can do when you are confronted with criticism. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Stay calm and don’t react immediately. Self-control is always important. Avoid that your emotions drive your behavior

  • Take time to listen carefully and actively. Paraphrase what you have heard. It shows that you are sincerely interested in what people tell you and you will understand what kind of criticism it is: opinion or fact based (or a combination)

  • Ask incisive questions to find out if there is something else in the background that is related to the criticism

  • Being criticized can have an impact on your self-confidence. Make a list of all the good things you have done. Actions that were appreciated by other people. What is the ration 'bad' vs 'good'

  • Feel confident to explain your view on the issue. And if you doubt, ask someone else for a second opinion

What can you do to avoid criticism?

  • Make clear agreements on what needs to be done or how to behave, before you start

  • Set milestones or write procedures as guidance to check and measure performance /progress

  • Make a checklist to make sure you will not forget anything

  • Involve other stakeholders in your work. Co-create or ask them to review

And please remember: mistakes and failure are great learning moments!

If you would like to know more or would like to get coached on how to cope with criticism, please feel free to contact me. There is so much more to tell you.

It will make you more successful and a happier person.

Thank you for reading

Joost Drieman

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