How to Take Criticism Well

Criticism used to upset me. And because it was so upsetting, I was afraid of criticism, so it created more anxiety in me than was necessary. I figured if I could change my reaction to criticism so it didn't upset me so much, maybe I wouldn't be so anxious about the possibility of getting criticized.

I found a way, learned it, practiced it, and what do you know? It worked. Since it reduces anxiety, I thought you'd be interested in knowing how I did it.

I was reading a book called Heart of the Mind, which has a strategy for handling criticism. There's another version of the same strategy in the book, Change Your Mind - And Keep the Change. The strategy entails using dissociation. In neurolinguistic programming (that's what those two books are about), dissociation means being outside your body in your imagination. Being associated means looking at the world from inside your body.

To illustrate the difference and make it very clear what I'm talking about, right now imagine what it would be like to get up and go to the bathroom. Stay where you are, but imagine you are in the bathroom, walking back to where you really are. Can you see yourself sitting here reading this web page? Can you see what you look like? Can you see the position of your body? That's being dissociated.

Now imagine you're still looking at yourself reading this book and someone comes up and interrupts your reading to criticize you. You're standing there watching the other person criticize you, but you are outside the scene, watching what the other person looks like and seeing what you look like from outside your body, dissociated. Can you see that it wouldn't bother you as much that way? Since you feel separated from the situation, you feel somewhat distanced from your feelings. That's the first key.

I just ran across an example of someone spontaneously using this key to relieve suffering more significant than criticism. Viktor Frankl said one day he was suffering very badly in the concentration camp. They had to march out to a remote area and it was very cold. They of course didn't have much clothing on and they were desperately underfed. Frankl had thoughts going through his mind about things that were important to him at that time. If he got a little piece of sausage in his soup tonight (as sometimes happened) should he trade it for a piece of bread? Where could he get a piece of wire or string to replace the little piece that he'd been using as a shoelace? And on and on.

Frankl felt disgusted with the fact that he had to think about such petty things. He was a psychiatrist before the Nazis took control. He was disgusted that these petty thoughts consumed his mind in his daily struggle for survival. So he forced himself to think about something else, and he spontaneously dissociated. He pictured himself in front of an audience lecturing about the "psychology of the concentration camp!"

"All that oppressed me," wrote Frankl, "became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself."

Dissociation is very effective for distancing yourself from emotional pain. The strategy from Heart of the Mind uses dissociation. I took that strategy and modified it a bit. I memorized my modified strategy, which I'll describe in a minute, and then I was ready to practice. Klassy (my wife) helped me by telling me real criticisms that were gradually more and more difficult to hear while I took my time and went through the steps one by one. It took us about an hour and a half. By the time I was done, even the very hard-to-hear criticisms didn't bother me at all. I went through my strategy many times during that hour and a half. Here is the strategy I used:

1. Into the Fort
First I created a safe place in my imagination. A ladder appeared in front of me. I climbed up into a solid steel fort surrounded by armed guards. It felt totally safe. In the fort was a television monitor and a printer. The scene on the screen was the place I was in actuality. But I didn't see the scene from my own eyes. It was from an upper corner of the room, like a surveillance camera.

In other words, my boss walks up to criticize me for showing up late for work. As soon as I recognize a criticism is forthcoming, I imagine climbing up the ladder into the fort and seeing my boss and I on the screen. So just to be extra clear, on my screen I see both my boss myself from a vantage point out and away from the two of us, as if there was a camera across the room pointing back at us, and I'm viewing the scene from that vantage point across the room.

2. Printer
In the fort, I couldn't hear what my boss was saying. I had to read it. This is a further dissociation — auditory dissociation. So I use auditory and visual dissociation. The reason I added this is because the two things that seemed to trigger the most negative emotion in me was the look on the person's face and the tone of their voice. Having to read the message removed the tone of voice.

3. Anything Useful
So I'm looking at the monitor seeing my boss talking to me. I read what he's saying. Having removed myself from the immediate frontal onslaught, looking at myself from the side and reading the message, I took away almost all of the feelings I normally associated with that kind of communication. I had a neutral feeling — not a negative feeling, not a positive feeling. Just kind of detached and observing. Then I evaluated the criticism as information to determine whether this information was useful to me or not. And this is the beauty of the strategy. You can gain information. A lot of criticisms, even when they are said meanly, contain information that could be useful to you. Some people, in order to avoid the pain of criticism, learn to simply reject all criticism. They aren't bothered by criticism, but they reject any information it might have contained.

This method protects you from having to feel the pain, but doesn't block you from gaining the information.

It's a little awkward at first because it's new and you're not used to doing it that way. But after a few times, it starts to feel more natural. And the fact that you don't have to feel the pain is wonderful! I remember toward the end of our training, Klassy was throwing some harsh, genuine criticisms at me and they didn't bother me at all. And the fact that they didn't bother me made me so happy! I was free! It felt like I'd been clapped into prison my whole life — limited, hemmed in by the fear that I might be criticized and have to feel the hurt and upset. Suddenly the jailer was gone and the door was unlocked. I was free!


The important thing is to dissociate and to see the criticism as information. The specific way you do these two doesn't matter. The strategy I put together is one of hundreds that would work just as well. Ask the question, What do I want? Given my goals, is this information useful?

I realize now that my response to criticism before was about the criticism. Rather than paying attention to the actual content — the information in the statement — I was noticing and responding to what it all meant and how it was said and what emotions were being transmitted and whether or not I felt rejected and whether or not they felt disappointed in me. I would simply get demoralized and distressed by criticism.

All of this is a lousy response to a criticism. It may be a "valid" way of listening to criticism, but it isn't at all helpful for either me or the other person. It feels bad to me and the other person has the frustrating experience of not really feeling that their message got across. It's as if the person was trying to tell me to get out of the middle of the street because there is a car coming and my response was to stand there feeling dejected because it seems he doesn't like me because his tone of voice seemed disapproving. Imagine how frustrating it would be to him because he's trying to tell me something and I'm ignoring what he's saying and only paying attention to how he's saying it.

This strategy stops the frustration for anyone trying to criticize me, and it stopped the dejected feeling I used to get when I was on the receiving end of the criticism.

The question is: Is this useful information to me given my goals? Usually when someone is criticizing you, they are reminding you of something important to you. And if it isn't important to you, there is no need to have a negative feeling. This is easy to say, but you have to know how to do it. You need a strategy. You can't just tell yourself, Don't feel that way. Not very many people know how to change their feelings at will.

My response could be: Thanks for reminding me! I often find myself feeling thankful for criticism. I have the feeling of appreciation for being told. Here's an analogy: Let's say I've decided to stop fidgeting and I tell my friend I really want to stop, and please help me. Then the next day she notices I'm fidgeting and says, You're fidgeting. The most sane response to that would be, Thank you! But you can't really respond that way to unexpected criticism unless you are dissociated and paying attention to the content of the criticism and how it relates to your goals.


This is a method to use when you know you are going to be receiving criticism, or after someone has criticized you and it's bothering you (become dissociated in your memory of it). This is a way to protect yourself from the pain and make it easier for you to gain something from the criticism — if there's anything to gain. Sometimes there isn't. You have to really look at the criticism and decide whether you want to take it to heart or not. Listen to these:

When Fred Astaire did his first screen test in 1933, the MGM testing director wrote this: "Can't act! Slightly bald! Can dance a little!" Fred Astaire, who is probably the most famous dancer of all time, had that memo hanging over his fireplace.

When the now-famous French sculptor, Francois Auguste Rene Rodin, was younger, his father said, "I have an idiot for a son."

A newspaper editor once fired Walt Disney because he lacked ideas.

Enrico Caruso is now a famous opera singer, but in his earlier days, his teacher said he couldn't sing; he had no voice at all. And his parents wanted him to become an engineer.

When Richard Bach was trying to get his manuscript published, he was turned down by eighteen publishers. When it was finally published, Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold seven million copies in the U.S. in the first five years.

Let's talk for a minute about dissociation. To dissociate means to look at the situation from a different position. That means looking at it from another point of view, another physical location other than wherever you think you are. I think of myself as being in the center of my head, for example. So for me to take another position would be to imagine I am somewhere other than in the middle of my head. That could mean one of my hands, the wall next to me, on the moon, inside the person who is criticizing me, etc. Anywhere except where I normally locate "myself."

Just imagine it. You don't have to "project" yourself out of your body or anything wild or mystical. Just imagine you are the wall listening to two people talking. Or imagine what it must be like for the person doing the criticizing. Imagine you are over there in that person's body, looking out that person's eyes at you. Try to imagine how the criticizer feels and what their motivations are for saying it. Just imagine it. You don't have to be right.

Experiment with different points of view and see what works best for you — what allows you to take the criticism with the least pain and the most profit. You can think of yourself as outside your body. You can think of yourself as the whole universe (although perhaps that would be too abstract). You can think of yourself as the spirit of yourself from the future — yourself at age 95 — standing next to yourself now, listening to your younger self getting criticized. The options are endless. Experiment. Find points of view that serve you and use them when criticism comes your way and it makes you feel bad.

Believe it or not, you don't have to feel bad when you get criticized. I mean, you may not be good at it right off, and it may take some practice, and you may feel bad in the first few seconds, but you know that period of "mulling it over?" That's really the painful part — where you think about what they said and you get upset about it all over again. And then later in the day, you think about it again, and get upset again. This is painful. And it is unnecessary. Use this method to change your perspective. If you forgot to do it during the criticism, you can still use it for later when you are mulling it over, and it'll give you a different way to mull it over, a way that doesn't make you upset, a way that allows you to look at the criticism and actually see what's useful there, to find something you could use to enhance your own goals.

Not many people know about this idea, and it's too bad. You can make the world a better place by shouting it from the rooftops. People are so sensitive to criticism because it's so painful. And it's so painful because we take it in the face. We take it like a bazooka blast to the chest. But that's just one way to take it. There are others, and just about any of them work better than the one we usually use.

It seems like nobody teaches us how to think. Nobody teaches us that there are different ways to think during a criticism, and that some ways make the criticism painful or make it hurt your feelings or cause hard feelings between people who love each other, and yet there are other ways that allow people to take criticism without pain. If more people could do this, the world would be a better place.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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