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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.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #45

Tip #8: Maybe your critic has a point.  The flip side of the misunderstood genius is the slacker with potential.  Sometimes criticism might just mean your work isn’t your best effort yet.  Maybe your presentation is sloppy, or your idea not well-thought out enough.  Seize the criticism as a wake-up call.  Some extra polish may make your work shine.  Thank your critic and get to work.

Tip #9:  Mine the criticism for advice.  Ask any successful person about his or her early days and you’ll get stories of spectacular failure.  In Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, he writes that he stuck every rejection letter on a nail in the wall of his bedroom until it would no longer support all that weight.  And then?  He replaced the nail with a spike and kept going.  But on those rejection letters he also got some handwritten scribbles of praise and advice, which kept him going even as the spike continued to fill.  Likewise, hold on tightly to the tiny bits of guidance and admiration swimming in your negative feedback.  A compliment, even wrapped in rejection, can go a long way.

What if You're New to Criticism

What if you’re a people pleaser?  Or an overachiever used to hearing nothing but praise?  In short, what if you’re a newbie to criticism (and scared of it to boot)?  

Tip #10: Re-imagine yourself as a gritty survivor.  Or a weathered grande dame.  Or a man of principle. (You get the picture.)   Many of us who are thin-skinned spend a lot of energy making sure everyone likes us.  Maybe we’re a good girl or good guy who’s never really stepped out of line.  Or maybe we’ve been sheltered and have simply never been through the wringer.  Regardless, avoiding criticism is exhausting.  Rethink your idea of yourself so you’re more open to criticism.  And rethink criticism as an indicator that you’re doing important work or a sign that you’re truly grown up.  

How to Deal with Insults

Next, what about straight out insults, like from internet trolls or those folks who were just born on the wrong side of the bed?

Tip #11: Consider the context.  A listener asked me how to deal specifically with critical internet comments.  Well, a wise person once said, “The comments section is the bathroom wall of the internet.”  I love this comparison.  In both cases, you’ll find a gem once in a while (like when Savvy Psychologist readers and listeners post their insightful thoughts), but oftentimes it's just careless commentary.  Also regarding the comments section, discredit anything anonymous.  Those comments really, honestly, are not about you - it’s a performance for the troll’s friends or an insecure little power trip for himself.

Tip #12: Remember that the criticism says more about the critic than it says about you.  A critic’s judgmental remark doesn’t mean the remark is true; it means the critic is judgy.  Likewise with catty, entitled, or selfish criticism.  The only person these remarks degrade is the critic.

A final note: Basically, the only way to avoid criticism is, as the old saying goes, to “Say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.”  And that’s no fun.  So instead, collect those critical comments, stick them on that spike, and keep on chugging.

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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 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.