How to Make Any Criticism Constructive
Criticism is hard to hear, because no one wants to hear that they’re doing something wrong. But criticism can be a gift, if you know what to look for.
We often hear about “constructive criticism,” which is meant to help us improve (that’s why it’s constructive). But even well-meaning criticism can feel bad, because it makes us believe negative things about ourselves.
How to Break the Criticism Cycle
Criticism makes us feel bad because we believe that if we were doing things right, there wouldn’t be anything to criticize. Therefore, criticism means we did poorly, and we believe it’s a sign of our failure.
Criticism does not mean failure.
Every final version of something you see has gone through the process of critique and editing.
Sometimes we self-edit and critique, and sometimes we ask others to do it for us, like a proofreader, a workshop group, or sending it to a friend and asking for their thoughts.
Sometimes we receive criticism we didn’t ask for, and when criticism comes as a surprise, we often feel defensive and hurt.
Each time we receive criticism, whether it’s asked for or not, we have an opportunity to learn from it and turn it into something constructive and helpful.
Taking Constructive Criticism
When faced with a criticism, get curious instead of defensive. Ask yourself some questions about it, like:
- Is this criticism true?
- Is this criticism something I need to change to improve myself or my work?
- Can I use this experience to learn something?
Is it true?
Sometimes people will criticize you and it’s something you should change to be a better version of yourself. But other times, criticism may not actually be relevant.
When criticism hits us hardest, it’s usually because we already believe a negative thought about ourselves about a similar thing. If I feel like someone is criticizing my writing, it hurts more if I already believe I’m not a good enough writer and they’re echoing that negative belief.
But ask yourself, really deeply ask, if the criticism is true.
And also ask if your interpretation of the criticism is true.
They said I’m a bad parent. Did they say that? Or did they point out to you that your car seat wasn’t installed properly? Is your car seat installed properly?
They said I’m not qualified as an expert on the subject I talk about. Did they say that? Or did they make a broad statement about your field that you took personally? Are you qualified?
They said I’m not good at my job. Did they say that? Or did you get feedback in a review on areas that need improvement? Do you need to improve those areas of your performance?
But if it’s criticism that can help you improve, here’s how to sift out the constructive bits.
Is this something I need to change?
Once you determine if something is true or not, the next step is deciding if it’s something you need to change.
They said my carseat wasn’t installed properly. If this is true, do you need to change it? Absolutely, yes. It’s a safety concern. Go fix your carseat.
They said I’m not qualified. Is this true? Make a list of the reasons you’re qualified to do your work and if you actually are qualified, move along and get back to work. If you determine that you really aren’t qualified for something, then make a plan to get what you need in order to feel confident in your qualifications.
I got a negative review at work. Is the criticism of your work performance true? If so, make a plan with your supervisor to check in on your improvements over the next several months so your next review is outstanding.
Can I learn something?
Whether or not a criticism is true, can you learn from the experience?
They said my carseat wasn’t installed properly. In this example, you learned about proper carseat installation. This is great information to have for the safety of your kids.
They said I’m not qualified. In this situation, you learned about all the things that do qualify you and add evidence to your list of reasons to feel confident when you’re facing imposter syndrome. In your research of additional qualifications, you might have also learned some easy ways to up your credentials to feel even more confident.
I got a negative review at work. In this example, it’s a great time to commit to learning new things at work to take your performance to the next level in your career. The things you improve and learn will be great for your resume too.
Being Vulnerable to Criticism
Criticism feels so uncomfortable because it makes us feel vulnerable.
Putting yourself out there into the world as a writer or artist can feel extra vulnerable and intimidating simply because it means people will critique our work.
Someone left a comment on a review of my book that I’m capitalizing on millennials’ insecurities.
This commenter is criticizing me — but is a book that targets millennials’ insecurities something I need to change? Actually, no. Because my book helps people overcome those insecurities.
This criticism gave me some clarity.
I do hope to attract millennials with insecurities to my book. Because my book is here to help them.
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However, I also received criticism that I didn’t push far enough on certain topics in my book, and this is relevant criticism that I would change next time. I was too timid and didn’t want to make waves with divisive opinions. I value this criticism and will address it in my next book, or a later version of this one.
Is There Non-Constructive Criticism?
Absolutely. Sometimes, people’s criticism truly is just bullshit that’s about them.
People who criticize you for not being part of their religion, not living up to their standards or expectations, or not trusting you to make your own choices are people who are criticizing you to control you.
This is not constructive criticism, this is a boundary violation and manipulation tactic. You’re free to simply ignore them and take distance from people who criticize to hurt you.