It’s hard to take time out of our harried lives to engage in activities from which we can learn, stretch and grow. The best ways to do so often involve taking risks, which can be scary, so another culprit kicks in: fear of criticism and its henchman, the human brain.
It turns out that the way our brain is wired plays a part in our predisposition to not only feel but dwell on a fear of criticism. Studies show that even happy people are four times more likely to remember negative criticism than praise and that negative feedback is processed more thoroughly than positive feedback. The extent to which negative events impact us is so great that research from psychology professor Roy Baumeister shows it takes five positive events to make up for the psychological effect of just one negative event.
So, our wiring works against us, creating another natural enemy to our willingness to invest in experiences that will help us grow (besides time). But that’s no cause for despair. Here are six ways to overcome a fear of criticism.
1. Know that anything worth doing attracts admiration and criticism.
Would you rather be judged or ignored? These are the consequences of life’s great binary choice: whether to make a difference or not. Faced with this decision, surely taking on some criticism seems acceptable. If you want to “dent the universe,” as Steve Jobs once challenged, you’re going to take dents in your armor here and there. No one said it was fair.
In fact, one of life’s great imbalances is the fact that what others risk by criticizing is miniscule compared to what you risk by putting yourself out there. But don’t let that stop you. Don’t ever let that stop you.
2. Be clairvoyant about avoidance.
When it comes to criticism, a strategy of avoidance is more damaging than you might realize. Aristotle once said, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing and be nothing.” You must realize that avoiding criticism is what makes you weaker, not the criticism itself, and that such avoidance means you are withholding your gifts from the world. Don’t let your fear of criticism outweigh your desire for success.
3. Seek improvement, not approval.
When you adopt this philosophy, you’re drawn to criticism as a cradle of insight instead of steering away from it as a source of rejection. Consider what is constructive about criticism, find the nugget of truth in it and let it elevate you to higher standards. Don’t think of it as exposing flaws but instead as helping you make new self-discoveries. Let criticism feed you, not your insecurities.
4. Consider the intent of the criticism.
Criticism is either intended to help you or hurt you. Identifying if the former is true can be freeing. The latter isn’t easy, but remember this: Such criticism is often more about the other person than you. That person may be projecting his or her own fears or inadequacies. Unfortunately, some people have a nasty habit of tearing others down when they are not being built up themselves. Compartmentalize that kind of input for what it is.
For the hybrid situation where it’s meant to be helpful but isn’t, view the criticism as merely giving you information about the inclinations and perspective of the giver.
For the nastiest of it, live by this saying: “Ignore the boos. They usually come from the cheap seats.”
5. If you can’t control the sting, keep it from swelling.
Even with the best of mindsets, that initial moment when we’re receiving criticism can still sting. How you react from that instant forward can mean the difference between the sting persisting and swelling or quickly abating. The key is not to be overemotional or to overreact. The vast majority of the time, the criticism is not meant to be a personal attack; it’s not about you, it’s about your work or your behavior.
Most importantly, you control the pain from criticism when you remember the following: You can’t change the words that were spoken to you, but you can change the meaning you give to them. You can rise above any words.
6. Decide who gets to criticize you.
Not all criticizers are created equal, and some shouldn’t even have a seat at the table. Set criteria for those who make the cut, and mentally dismiss the rest. Mentors are a particularly good choice for those on the short list, because they can provide practice receiving criticism in a safe environment, making it a less frightening experience over time.