The Easy Guide to Dealing with Criticism (Includes a Mental Exercise) 

Sooner or later, you will have to expose yourself to criticism. You will have your paper graded, your clothes praised or ridiculed, your speech applauded or booed, your book top-listed or chopped to pieces by a critic’s verbal sword. That’s life. You cannot live in isolation. 

Dealing with criticism looks different depending on which side of the assessment you are on.

We are protective of your rights to criticize others and reluctant to accept criticism.

This imbalance can be overturned in one’s favor by glossing over the sharp contrast between the receiver’s and the giver’s end. And the motivation to harness the advantages of criticism is found in the honest look at how you spend your energy. 

Be the Lighthouse of Your World

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume it is good to use your energy on self-improvement and bad to waste it on criticizing others.

I say “assume” because it’s easy to say: “Point the focus internally”, but the genuine representation of your persona and self happens in a social context. Inevitably, others are included.

Hence, the true whole of your personal self contains tiny reflections of others that come into interaction with you. That makes for one complex web of interactions, a web that can be a fertile ground for the poisonous arrows of criticism or a spot for making connections.

Who will shed light when the majority is concerned with finding shadows? It can be you.

All Criticism is Subjective

Criticizing others frequently contains some amount of negativity, regardless of how objective the critic may think they are.

There are more or less objective evaluation systems, such as performance feedback spreadsheets, but they are often misguided by subjective experiences and faulty humans. 

In the area of art, literature, music, or other hazy areas that don’t have lots of mathematics included, criticism is even fuzzier.

It is more an opinion than fact, a question of likes and dislikes. There is partially some truth to the saying you know good music when you hear it, but if this saying were completely true, all people would listen to either rock, reggae, jazz, or classical music, and not form the concoction of various music tastes. Therefore, liking or disliking something is invariably painted with personal colors. 

Why Criticism is Good

People have the right to have different tastes and opinions, so critique is, in fact, desired. Once you understand this, you will know that criticizing others tells you a lot about yourself. All world includes countless opinions of people who think they know best. Would you give away your own opinion? Then why ask others do the same? 

Your particular dislikes are a part of your personality.

In psychological projection, disliking others is an indicator of what we don’t like about ourselves. As Carl Gustav Jung says:  “We always see our own unavowed mistakes in our opponent.” 

It’s easier to embrace your critics when you understand that their dislikes tell you more about themselves than they tell you about yourself.

But it’s not enough to understand this mentally. To find life under criticism bearable, even inspiring, those mental insights need to permeate from surface level to the bones.

The following mental exercise will help you not only grow your criticism backbone stronger but also pick up the most valuable lesson from this article, and that is how not to waste your life on living other people’s lives by criticizing them.

Poisonous Arrows. Tennis Balls, and Bread Loaves (Visualization Exercise)

“Imagine that you are standing in the middle of open space, alone. There are people around you, ordered in a circle, but they are far from you. You feel exposed, alone in the center. 

That open space can be a wide meadow, a stage with a wooden floor, or a spacious conference room in a huge corporation. It can even be a social media post – it’s not that important. The important element is to feel the aloneness in contrast to the people that surround you. 

Imagine you have your piece of work, art, speech, or what have you, in your hands, and that you hold the thing that needs to be criticized like a small baby close to you. You love it, you’ve invested so much into your baby, you care for it. 

And when you let go and reveal yourself before the circle of people and the moment for criticism opens, the people stretch their bows and shoot poisonous arrows towards you.

This is how they share their opinion.

Hundreds of arrows reach you. The pain of the arrowheads pierces through your skin, they wound your blood vessels, blood flows, and a sharp pain goes as deep as through the center of your heart.

Now, remember that those arrows are someone else’s opinion, a product of your imagination, and have nothing to do with the worth of your work.

You take one by the shaft and you pull it with ease. And as you notice that it isn’t that sharp and strong, you blow once with your lips and all arrows fall from your body like from a dandelion seed head.

Your skin is healed and seamless. Where once blood was gushing, there is now shiny, smooth, rosy skin, full of health and life.

The pain subsides. As you expose yourself for the second time, all criticism takes the shape of a tennis ball.

Hundreds, thousands of tennis balls fly towards you. But you notice they’re not as hurtful or as strong as the arrows. Some of them are thrown at you with a lob pass and you are able to catch them before they hit you. Many miss you, even more change the trajectory as they head towards the center where you stand.

Stop for a moment and see what is really happening. Those are not balls. And they’re absolutely not flying aggressively. All of a sudden, they have turned into something else.

They’re just small loaves of bread, soft and round, and people are passing them to you for you to examine in detail. 

Look at other people’s opinions and criticism like you would inspect a loaf of bread that you intend to put in your mouth. You wouldn’t just eat anything that comes your way, would you? Treat criticism in the same way. 

Opinions are bread loaves. They’re not poisonous arrows or tennis balls. Examine the crust, smell the loaf, press it to check its resistance and fluffiness. Break it to see its crumbs. Is it sticky? Don’t rush to put it in your mouth.”

How to Handle Criticism that Goes Both Ways

Similarly, you shouldn’t automatically accept all criticism.

Shake it through the sieve of your opinions. Be critical to criticism.

Only if it’s worthwhile, elaborated, well-intentioned, timely, and impersonal, take it more seriously.

Be selective with the bread of criticism, eat only the best French croissants or whole-grain bread with nutritious seeds. As you understand that you don’t need to take all criticism in, it loses its deadly force.

The Mirror Mathematics

The main point of this article is to become aware of the critic that lies in you and that criticizes others. If we go back to the beginning paragraphs, you’ll remember that time spent criticizing others is better spent on improving yourself. 

The principle of the wasted energy can be explained with mirror mathematics, or, more precisely, with vectors, quantities that have a direction. 

If you’re handing over criticism, you’re projecting. You are directing arrows that would have been taken by you to others.

What will happen if you switch the mirror facing you? 

Change the direction of the arrows and the tennis balls you shoot to others. Don’t live other people’s lives. Don’t waste energy on criticizing.

Choose your battles wisely. 

Get inspired by the things you don’t like about others and turn them into things you like about yourself. When you share feedback with others, pass a load of bread in a friendly way and treat everyone with respect, regardless of how far you may be with opinions.

Giving and Receiving Feedback 

The therapeutic way of giving and receiving feedback includes talking about how the feedback receiver’s actions have made the feedback giver feel.

It is always about the “I”, never about the “You”.

When you gain practice to turn the light towards your shadows, you will engage with them instead of projecting them outside. As others do the same, their verbal poisonous arrows will lose their strength, and you will connect and relate from a more authentic position.

You can dedicate all that saved energy into self-development. If you are prone to excessive criticizing, imagine how much you can do with all that newly found energy!

Featured Image Credit: Jeff Cadestin on Unsplash

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