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Taking criticism is not easy – we all know that. Whether it’s a cutting remark about our cooking, driving or work performance, it can catch us off guard and sting deep. But why exactly is this? The idea that the ‘bad’ affects us more intensely than the ‘good’ is something that’s been explored on many occasions, and studies have shown we’re four times more likely to remember negative feedback than praise. That’s certainly true for me – I could relay word-for-word some of the criticism I’ve received in recent years, but the positive feedback? That’s a little more hazy. Are we missing a trick though? Could changing the way we listen to others’ advice improve our lives? And, could critical comments sometimes create more of an opportunity for growth and learning then we give them credit for?
“Criticism is something all of us struggle with,” Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic (thechelseapsychologyclinic.com) tells me. “Humans want to feel appreciated and accepted. But we all react differently to it. Some people fully surrender to it, feeling inadequate and worthless, while others might overcompensate by becoming defensive and bouncing the criticism off.”
In other words, very rarely do we listen to feedback in a calm and objective manner. We may pretend to – but inside we’re often thinking: “I can’t believe I failed at this again” or “How dare they speak to me like this?”
It may seem basic, but the key is to remember that sometimes feedback can genuinely show you areas of your life you could improve on, says Dr Elena. Your husband saying: “You’re always on Instagram!” may bite, but if you look at his point objectively, you might see an element of truth in it – and perhaps spending less time on your phone might actually make you happier.
“Criticism can be useful if it provides genuinely helpful feedback, delivered in a kind way,” Dr Elena explains. “In these cases, it can serve as a learning experience for self-improvement.”
She advises that you ask yourself two questions when faced with criticism: What can I take from this feedback that might help me? And how can I cope with the emotional response it provokes without pushing it away?
Dealing with this emotional response is crucial. By nature we’re expressive beings, and our first reaction is often to take things to heart. But by stepping back, recognising our emotions and listening objectively to feedback, we may be able to take important lessons from the words said.
For psychotherapist and mindfulness coach Belynder Walia (serenelifestyles.com), coping with criticism in today’s society is a lot about acceptance.
“Most people understand that we all have a right to express a different perspective, and so sometimes we don’t have to agree with the criticism, or indeed make changes at all, but simply acknowledge it,” she says.
Reminding yourself that people have different values, opinions and perspectives to yourself may help change your approach to negative words and improve your emotional wellbeing tenfold. Your friend may complain that your favourite home-made curry is too spicy, for example, but this isn’t a slur on your cooking, simply her point of view.
“The way forward is to review criticism with a positive approach and open mindset,”
Belynder adds. “Accept criticism and listen with an intent to understand what it is that’s being criticised and do not take it as an attack on you personally,” she suggests. “Be honest with yourself and take the feedback on board. If appropriate, take time to reflect and understand what is expected of your own standards. If it’s beneficial, look to improve and never be afraid to ask for suggestions from your critic.” She also says it is important to remain confident within your own beliefs and self and to not let feelings of doubt take over.
“The key aspect of anything in life is self-worth,” she explains.
Dr Elena is very clear that importance needs to be placed not only on how we cope with criticism but on how we give it, too. “For me, it’s not about learning how to receive harsh feedback,” she says.
“From a psychological perspective, criticism doesn’t benefit anybody. Instead, I’d say the emphasis should be on how we can learn to give feedback in a more constructive, empathetic way, making it easier for the recipient to take on board.”
If we can learn this, then perhaps we can help support a revolution that alters the way we communicate and offer feedback. As I’ve come to realise, the emphasis should always be on showing kindness and compassion to both yourself and others.
Dealing with negative feedback
Psychologist Joanna Konstantopoulou, founder of the Health Psychology Clinic on Harley Street (healthpsychologyclinic.co.uk), shares her advice on facing criticism in different parts of your life…
Whether from colleagues or your manager, most people have received some form of criticism at least once during their career. Although many take offence, it’s important to listen to other people and take their opinions on board – sometimes criticism can be very productive and can help you progress professionally. If you are unsure as to why you have been criticised, don’t be afraid to express your opinion and ask questions for clarification.
Try not to take it too personally and let your friend know that you appreciate their comments. If you are frustrated, have a conversation with them. This will provide you with closure and will help you understand the reasoning behind their thinking.
From your partner
It is no secret that relationships can be hard work and criticism from your partner, a person who you spend so much time with, is inevitable. However, to avoid massive arguments, it’s important to stay calm and communicate effectively. You shouldn’t get defensive – instead, problem-solve and hold yourself accountable if you are in the wrong.
From your family
In the family environment, this sort of feedback often translates into a form of caring. Try to understand the motives behind the words and educate family members about better ways to express their criticism. For example, if your sister is always on your case about your low-paying job, tell her that it would be more helpful if she shared job opportunities with you instead of criticising your current situation.