A few months ago, I left my previous job on a sour note. My boss and I did not get along very well, for numerous reasons. As with all things, it is the other guy’s fault and not mine…but if any responsibility could be ascribed to me, I’m betting it’s because I have a hard time accepting criticism.
Some people can take criticism like a pro, but it’s always been a struggle for me. A lot of that is because I’m genuinely, truly right most of the time. No, that’s not the problem – it’s that I am acutely aware of the fact that I’m right, and have a difficult time letting go of that. I don’t think I’m alone here; many people have a similar struggle. Except that when they disagree with me, they aren’t in the right. But that’s a different story.
I’ve put together this guide for people like me. People with big egos. People who are sometimes too smart or too rational for their own good. People who love to argue, because they know they’ll “win".
Our ability to deal with criticism can be a significant weakness. But with a little bit of effort, this weakness can be turned into a strength. Those of us who are right all the time are often great at analyzing things, and (constructive) criticism can be a great source of information. When handled appropriately, criticism can help us to become even more right, more of the time!
You’ll notice that I used the word “constructive" parenthetically in the last paragraph. Destructive criticism is at least as prevalent as the constructive variety, but it has only one redeeming quality: you can feel good about fighting back! But even that benefit begins to wear thin pretty quickly.
I like almost everyone I meet, but when I was living in Israel, I met one person who was full of nothing but destructive criticism (or I guess you could say he was full of shit). Unfortunately, I had to spend quite a bit of time with him, and listen to him routinely bash me about everything: how I was lazy, how I was a very negative person, and about how my blog was stupid and a waste of time. His only redeeming quality was that he loved The Simpsons, but even that didn’t stop him from “grinding my gears" and making me want to smash my face into the wall. I’m about as even keel as a person can be, but enough destructive criticism can reduce just about anyone to madness.
Therefore, this guide will only be focused on constructive criticism, and how the stubborn asshole can learn to engage with it rather than fight it.
When Is Criticism Constructive?
The first hurdle is to recognize when a given piece of criticism is constructive in the first place. Oftentimes, this will be obvious. But for the stubborn asshole, even constructive criticism can feel like an attack on our inner child. For us, criticism will almost always come as a surprise. But haters gonna hate, and there’s nothing we can do about that!
It’s completely natural to have certain cognitive distortions that make it difficult to take criticism, whether it be constructive or destructive. Understanding these distortions and how we respond to them can help us become more aware of the quality of the feedback we are receiving.
- Hostility bias. We tend to naturally assume that we are being negatively and unfairly targeted by whoever is providing feedback. In other words, they are being purposefully hostile.
- Personalizing. Even if only specific acts of ours are being criticized, we feel as though our character or personal nature itself that is in question.
- Catastrophizing. We may panic and blow things out of proportion when criticized. Perhaps it feels as though we cannot cope with whatever change may be required to integrate the feedback into our lives. (“Oh no, I’m going to get fired because my TPS reports aren’t detailed enough!")
Put simply, whenever someone gives you any kind of negative feedback or criticism, you are inclined to hear it as “You suck!" In many cases (particularly on the Internet), this is exactly what they are saying. But there most certainly are times where you receive legitimate constructive criticism, and there are ways you can tell that this is the case.
The first and most important filter you should use is to note the source of the criticism. You need to decide whether or not it actually matters what the feedback-provider thinks. Are they your boss? Girlfriend? Brother? Even people you don’t particularly care about (or need to impress) can teach you stuff and provide valuable feedback, but they most certainly deserve less of your effort or consideration.
Can you reasonably make the case that the criticizer is trying to help you, or are they just a troll? Intent matters, and is a factor in determining how much respect their opinion deserves.
Let’s say someone comments on this blog post and tells me how much they dislike it. If the commenter has meaningfully contributed to the discussion on prior blog posts, are on my mailing list, or have tweeted or shared other posts on Facebook, I should take their comment seriously. If this is their first comment and it reads “I hate you and your stoopid advice," I can reasonably ignore it.
Some other things to look out for when trying to separate constructive criticism from the destructive variety:
- It offers suggestions for improvement. Not all constructive criticism contains specific ways that you can improve, but if a criticism does, there is a good chance it is constructive. Is the criticism about you as a person? Useless. Is it about your actions? Potentially constructive.
- It isn’t selfish. If the person offering the criticism would gain personally from putting you down, that’s a strong sign that the criticism isn’t worth much.
- It can reasonably be discussed and implemented. If the criticism is about something that would be impossible to fix, or does not lend itself to a reasonable debate about its merits and demerits, you are wasting your time by listening to it. This is closely related to the specificity – the more specific the criticism, the more constructive it can be.
- It affirms your values. If spending time with your family is a fundamental value of yours, and someone tells you that you don’t call your siblings often enough, you should probably call them more.
It’s unlikely that you’ll carry around a checklist of these items so that any time you receive criticism, you can methodically assess whether it is constructive or destructive. But just reading through this post and keeping these guidelines in mind, you should be able to make fairly accurate snap judgments about whether a piece of criticism is worth listening to or not.
You may still disagree with the content of a piece of constructive criticism, but it is important to acknowledge it rather than dismiss it outright. And when someone provides you with constructive criticism, it may be helpful to reframe the encounter as the other person trying to help you, no matter how much of a d-bag that person is and no matter how wrong they are.
The Stubborn Asshole’s Mindset For Taking Criticism Well
Now that you know how to tell whether criticism is constructive or not, what is the right way for you to think about receiving criticism?
The first thing to keep in mind is that constructive criticism is one of the most valuable sources of feedback that helps you identify your own weaknesses and areas of improvement. Even the most stubborn of the stubborn assholes knows that they are not perfect, no matter how damned close to perfect they may be. When you argue with people as much as I do, for instance, every once in a blue moon you find that you are wrong about some very minor detail. Of course that isn’t the case right now, in whatever argument you happen to be having at the moment. But you can at least be your gracious and humble self by recognizing that there is some possible world, some alternate universe where you ARE wrong.
In addition, you must never take constructive criticism (or any feedback, for that matter) personally. You are the shit, no matter what other people may say. If you do take it personally, you’ll be too busy plotting your revenge on this person to get any value whatsoever from it. Don’t attack the attacker – remember, you are a better person than they are, so there’s no need to stoop to their level.
Keep in mind that providing feedback to another person can be difficult too. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind that they may be nervous or may not be expressing their own criticism well. I should have kept this in mind at my last job – my boss told me (a little too late, unfortunately) that he felt he had done a very poor job of explaining to me his criticisms, in part because giving feedback made him uncomfortable. This was a big takeaway for me; we could both be “right," but miscommunication can make us talk past each other instead of about the same thing.
You’re Receiving Criticism – Now What?
When someone criticizes you, you need to know how to react appropriately.
The first and most important thing you can do is to be aware of your emotional reaction to receiving the piece of criticism. In the short term, it can be very difficult to control your emotional response (things like meditation can help you develop this control over the long term), but there are situations where you really shouldn’t express your emotions visibly. You may want to punch the criticizer in the face, but even if they deserve it, this is usually a bad idea. Don’t punch them in the face; just notice your strong desire to do so. Nor should you become visibly angry, cry, deny it, or blame others. These things can come later.
If you start feeling an angry or emotional reaction to a piece of criticism, try to get either 24 hours before addressing the criticism, or at the very least a few moments to take some deep breaths and calm yourself down. You simply will not be able to handle criticism properly while under the influence of strong emotions.
But if you do have a strong emotional reaction to the criticism, consider for a moment what this means. Chances are, if you are feeling hurt by it, that’s because you already believe it to some degree, right? There are many exceptions to this, but if you didn’t believe it at least a tiny bit, you should be able to dismiss it outright. And if you already partly believe their criticism, why would you fight back?
Exercise: Imagine that you are insecure about something that you aren’t actually insecure about in real life (for instance, I could imagine myself being insecure about being overweight, which I am not). Now picture a situation where you receive a criticism such that this insecurity would be relevant. How would you feel in that situation? How would you react to the criticism? Given that you don’t actually have that insecurity, how would you react to that criticism now?
Perhaps after running through this exercise and pondering it a bit, you’ll be able to handle criticism less emotionally. You can recognize that if you get upset about a piece of criticism, that just provides some evidence that you believe the criticism to be at least partially correct. And since you are a stubborn asshole who doesn’t believe the criticism to be correct, you can’t really get upset about it.
Once you’ve got your initial emotional reaction under control, there are things that you ought to do to make the most of constructive criticism.
- Actively listen. Ideally, you should be paying close attention to what the other person says. At the very least, you need to do a great job pretending – but usually it’s easier to actually listen. Make sure you understand what they are saying – whether you agree or disagree – before repeating back to them a paraphrased version of what they said, and then getting into a discussion about it. More info on active listening can be found here.
- Ask clarifying questions. Do this instead of verbalizing whatever excuses are surely coming to mind. Your goal is to find out as specifically as possible what their criticism is – this way, you can either learn something from the experience if they’re right, or you can validate yourself if they’re wrong. When your excuses are phrased as questions, it can let you air your concerns while sounding as though you appreciate their criticism. It also allows you to gather more evidence that the criticizer is out to get you, if they truly are.
- Demand evidence. The criticizer has the burden of proof on them, so make sure they present you with evidence justifying their feedback. Acknowledge the parts of their criticism that you do agree with – it’s too easy to focus on fighting them on what you disagree with. Figure out whether it is an isolated or recurring issue, and seek specific solutions that address the feedback.
- Request time to follow up. Actually try to make changes based on their suggestions. You can also make changes that you think would work better than theirs, even if only to prove them wrong in your own head. Either way, do something and follow up.
- Thank them for their feedback. Yes, even if you don’t agree with it. The process of receiving feedback – and this necessarily includes receiving some bad or incorrect feedback – is important in and of itself, so you ought to welcome it. If your ego gives you a hard time at this stage, just remember that thanking them for the feedback doesn’t imply agreeing with the feedback, so you are in no way “giving in" or “losing" when you thank the criticizer. Feel free to come up with as many excuses as you want (and write them down, even!), but don’t bother voicing these concerns, even when the criticizer is wrong. I know it’s difficult to swallow your pride and say “thank you for the feedback," but humility is part of what makes you so great anyways.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t hold a grudge against someone who criticizes you, especially at work. Don’t ruminate over the criticism. I’ve done this before and it sucks. This doesn’t help you improve nor does it make you feel better, whether the criticizer is right or wrong.
If you can handle this process, you can handle criticism like a pro. It’s not easy, because it means you need to at least hold the “You’re wrong! I’m right!" inside. But by maintaining your cool, you come across as the better man, as you deserve. And it’s completely worth it on the off-chance that you might actually learn something or improve in some way.
Constructive Criticism For The Stubborn Asshole – Advanced
While the process above is a solid starting point for any stubborn asshole, there are more things that you can do to make the most of any constructive criticism that is headed your way.
Here’s a suggestion: imagine that the criticism is directed at someone else besides you. Sure, the criticizer is addressing you – but maybe it’s actually John down the hall that is responsible. Don’t take this too far, of course. The idea isn’t to be delusional, but rather to disassociate yourself from the criticism and take it less personally. In other words, you aren’t actually believing that it was John who was criticized, but you can pretend as though it was in order to feel less of that initial sting. But you know what? When you are right about everything, there is even a decent chance that the criticism should more appropriately be levelled at someone else. So give yourself a break (mentally).
Now – with the sting of being personally criticized safely deflected – ask yourself: If I had come to the same conclusion as the criticizer on my own, what actions would I take now? The criticizer thinks that you (or, rather, John down the hall) don’t put enough detail into your TPS reports. The solution could be to spend an extra five minutes per day filling them out, first thing in the morning. You may be thinking this is the solution for John, but you’ve at least acknowledged the criticism and figured out how to deal with it. It sucks that you have to do John’s work for him and spend those extra five minutes yourself, but doesn’t that just further prove how great you are?
You can also reframe the criticism. Most of us look at it as a bad thing, but receiving criticism gives the stubborn asshole certain opportunities that he would not have. For instance, receiving (wrong) criticism from others gives you the opportunity to practice forgiving others for their mistakes! It also gives you a chance to challenge any people-pleasing tendencies you may have; let people think what they want! And when someone delivers criticism poorly, it gives you a chance to teach them how to treat you (“You make some valid points, but you really shouldn’t raise your voice if you want me to receive this well.").
But true mastery of the stubborn asshole method involves learning to seek out criticism for the value that it provides. Sometimes other people see things that you don’t. Oftentimes you are right and they are wrong, but there are ways to improve yourself that will only be found when someone else points them out. Even if all you learn is how to give good constructive criticism, that’s a valuable skill in itself!
I recommend finding trusted mentors to give you feedback, and to take their word more seriously than others. My old college roommate made his own “brain trust" back in the day, and I think that’s a wonderful idea! Let your best friends, your girlfriend, your family, and/or a coworker you like know that you welcome them to look at you with a critical eye. Tell them that you want them to voice their criticisms to you – and warn them that you may be resistant when it comes. But these are the people who are most likely to find accurate things to criticize, and even if you disagree at first, it may plant the seed for change in your mind.
Many people have a difficult time accepting criticism, but it is especially difficult for some people, including myself. Us smarty-pants really are right most of the time, and any challenge to this is threatening. But ultimately, we must all take responsibility for any mistakes that we have made, and the quality of the things we do in general. Handling criticism well is a valuable component of taking responsibility.
I’d like to close with some good advice from Matt Walsh over at the Huffington Post:
“Try to go about your day under the following four pretenses: 1) You are not perfect. 2) You could stand to improve in every single facet of your life. 3) People who point out your flaws or critique your actions aren’t necessarily motivated by cruelty, hatred, and animosity. 4) Some people know how to do certain things better than you know how to do them, and you should be grateful if they take the time to offer you guidance and insight into their areas of expertise."
It’s not an easy pill to swallow. But do it anyways.