Being critiqued or constructively criticized, is part of life and can help us in our pursuit of self-improvement. Receiving and processing criticism well is a important skill. Such feedback helps us to learn about ourselves, to have healthier relationships and to master the work and pleasurable activities that matter to us.

Never promised you a rose garden

Those giving the criticism can make it easier or harder for us to hear it, depending upon how they deliver it. In the ideal world, the person offering the critique sandwiches the criticism with a sincere, positive comment both before and after rendering the critical comment in the middle. “I love your enthusiasm in the classroom. I’d like you to give the others more of a chance to participate. Keep up the good work.” The delicate piece, the criticism, is presented simply, succinctly, gently, kindly, positively, respectfully, lovingly. In the ideal world.

But in the real world it doesn’t always play out this way. Sometimes, rather than being wrapped with a yummy appetizer and sweet dessert and presented on a silver platter, the criticism may be packaged and delivered quite poorly. There may be no soft introduction on the front end and no reassurance on the back end, and the center may be an overstated, harsh, disrespectful attack on the person rather than the behavior in question. “Would you stop raising your hand and speaking out of turn!? You are so rude and selfish!”

We can ask the people in our lives to refine the way they deliver criticisms, but we don’t need to wait for them to do so. There are two steps we can take to receive even poorly delivered criticism well. They are not easy, but that’s okay because we can do things that are hard.

The game plan: Translate and verify

First, we can translate the critical attack into its respectful language. “How would this criticism sound if it were presented well?” “What would it look like if I delete all of the toxic words, images and implications and distilled it down to a simple, respectful piece of feedback?” Then try to respond emotionally to that innocuous version rather than to the toxic version that was given. Accurate criticism can be a true gift and we don’t have to reject it just because it was poorly packaged.

The second step is to then verify whether this piece of feedback is accurate or not. It’s much easier to consider the feedback if it is first distilled into a simple, non-judgmental piece of information. If the other person doesn’t distill it before delivering it, we can distill it before ingesting it. “This person seems to be saying that I may react impulsively at times.” Try to calmly consider whether you think this is true or not. If you think it’s true, you can work on slowing down. If not, you can discard the feedback, or save it for further consideration.

Finally, the most difficult part of receiving criticism is that we fail to make the distinction between the behavior and the person, the performance and the performer, the sin and the sinner. It is best to have a policy of never judging the person as essentially good or bad. You can leave that part up to your higher power. Start by refusing to entertain the possibility that you might be a “bad person,” even if others seem to think you are. Work to strengthen this psychological core within yourself so that your basic self worth is never in question. Then you can entertain all kinds of feedback from others, which may or may not be accurate, without reacting defensively or with self-doubt.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of saphatthachat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.