How to Grow a Thick Skin and Handle Criticism

Does even constructive criticism cut you to the core?  Savvy Psychologist offers 12 ways to develop thicker skin and make the most of negative feedback.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #45

Just living in the world opens you up to criticism, but doing anything in the public eye, from writing a blog, to performing stand-up comedy, to coaching your kid’s soccer team, will invite judgment and criticism.  And doing anything truly innovative will guarantee it.  

So how to brace yourself?  This week, by request from listener Carolyn, here are 12 ways to deal with criticism.

How to Deal with Angry Criticism

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You’ve pissed someone off, or someone is pissed already, and now they’re letting you have it:

Tip #1: Dig for the softer emotion beneath their anger.  Angry criticism almost always means the critic feels hurt in some way.  We’ve talked about this on the Savvy Psychologist podcast before, but it bears repeating: Anger is a secondary emotion. It’s a reaction to a softer primary emotion underneath like hurt, shame, guilt, or humiliation.  People get hurt first, and then they get angry.  .

But when you listen beneath the anger for the softer emotion, it’s much easier to feel sympathetic toward the critic.  And while it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who’s wrapped their feedback with prickly barbs, try to think about what button you might have pushed.  And then, do this:

Tip #2: Be noble.  Kill them with kindness.  Well, maybe not kill them, but throw them off balance by being nice and non-defensive.  Unless your critic is truly evil, he’ll hem and haw and maybe even apologize when you unleash a barrage of nice.  Handle the situation in a way that you imagine someone both confident and poised would handle it.  Once you’re through the woods, congratulate yourself both for handling it head-on and taking the high road.

Tip #3: If you’re just the messenger, agree with the critic.  If you’re getting panned for something beyond your control, align yourself with the critic. "I know, you’re right.  It stinks that the meeting has to be rescheduled. I wish it had worked out better, too.”  Redirect the anger away from you and toward the situation.

What not to do?  

Tip #4: Don’t get defensive or blame others.  Defensive arguments don’t come across as logical or reasonable - you’ll just seem tiresome and difficult.  And blaming is even worse - it just looks pathetic.  Resist throwing someone under the bus.

How to Deal with Negative Feedback

Next, what to do with negative feedback that’s not angry and is presented fairly and professionally.  This is often the hardest to hear.  It stinks to hear that your idea, performance, or talent isn’t up to par.  

Tip #5: It’s not what they say, it’s what you hear.  This is the big one.  Interpretation has a lot to do with this.  If a comment or criticism has truly seared you or thrown you into a multi-day crying jag, the critic must have pushed a button.

If you find yourself nodding and smiling on the outside but dying inside, ask yourself “What does this comment mean about me?”  Likely, your answer won’t have anything to do with what your critic said.  For instance, perhaps your critic said “Your resume wasn’t quite what we’re looking for right now,” but you took it as, “I totally screwed up that interview; I’m never going to get a job.”  Notice that those are two completely different statements.  Avoid over-interpretation and speculation - they’ll just make you feel lousy.

Tip #6: Consider that the critic might be wrong!  A colleague of mine recently criticised another for focusing too much on taking care of patients and not enough on research.  The target of the criticism was devastated, until she realized it was just his opinion.  From her point of view and values, he was just plain wrong.  Realizing she could reject his criticism was empowering for her.  When it’s your turn to hear criticism, remember: Just because someone says it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Tip #7: Criticism might mean you’re a misunderstood innovator.  Perhaps folks just aren’t ready for your work.  Almost every true innovator has stories about collecting reams of negative feedback before finally breaking through.  Consider that the critic may not see you or your revolutionary ideas for what they’re worth.

However, also consider...



All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.