How To Handle Criticism
As a prospective actor and drama student, being criticised is a pretty familiar feeling to me. Personally, criticism is often very difficult for me to deal with, and often I overthink it and end up in a sobbing heap on my sofa. Pathetic? A little, but no matter how useful the feedback is, it can still hurt and be very easy to take personally. Taking criticism about your appearance or behaviours that isn’t even constructive can be an even longer and more painful process that ends in you crying into your cup of tea (if you’re anything like me that is). Handling criticism is something that you get better at with age, and although at the ripe old age of twenty I have definitely NOT refined my technique, I do believe that there are some questions you have to ask yourself when this happens.
Does this person’s opinion really matter to me?
If we’re talking academics and careers, of course you want to listen to your tutor or your boss. It’s what they’re there for. They know what they’re talking about, and even if they don’t, they are the ones marking your work or keeping you in employment. It’s probably a good idea to take note.
If it’s the loud mouth on the pavement opposite yelling to tell you that those leggings make your bum look fat, (because let’s face it we’ve all been there), it is a) probably not true and b) pretty irrelevant to your existence in the grand scheme of things. Do you know them? No. Will you ever see them again? Probably not. Their opinion of you is based on a few seconds of sight, and therefore irrelevant. If it’s a friend or colleague, you’re in a bit more of a grey area. It’s up to you to decide whether you really value their opinion or not.
It’s a simple philosophy; if it’s not from a person whose judgements matter to you, you don’t need to pay attention, although it’s obviously a lot more difficult to put into practice when the sting of a critical comment hits you, and I know I’m certainly not very good at it. Before you work yourself up into a state, stop. Take a breath, and decide.
Is it personal?
So if the person’s opinion is valid, excellent. Congratulations on your already impressively mature handling of the comment (and well done for not having a nervous breakdown). Now replay the comment again. What did they actually address? Your bum is a topic we’ve already discussed and eliminated (as lovely as it may be), but comments about your appearance in general can be daunting. Being told by a loved one that I look like I’ve gained a little weight or that my hair looked better when it was blonde has never been particularly useful. Being the impressionable lass that I am, I did take note and get a gym membership and a hairdresser’s appointment. It’s only a couple of years on that I’ve realised I really miss my previous red-chocolate colour, and that those things should have ultimately been my decision, not theirs. Your looks are personal to you, and if you’re fine with them, those around you should be too. This can also be applied to back-handed compliments such as “Oh you look so much prettier without your glasses on.” That’s great, but I need them to see. So could you not?
Offensive comments about your personality can be even more difficult to cope with, as they target an intrinsic part of who you are. Hearing that a peer or co-worker thinks that you’re the spawn of Satan is unacceptable on their part, no matter how angry they are. Personal digs are rude, unprofessional and not to be listened to. It might be that they are using it as a way of venting their frustration at a more tangible problem, such as your professional conduct or a mistake that you may have made. If so, wait until a time when they can calmly and coherently explain the problem to you and allow you to fix it. Until then, try not to let it bother you. As the saying goes, you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar (not that I really understand why you would want a swarm of bees buzzing around your business). In this scenario, make like a bee and wait for the sweet victory of honey.
What can I do about it?
If you’ve got to this point in your thorough and calm analysis of the critique (well done you), then the likelihood is that there is something that you can do to immediately correct the problem or to work towards preventing it in the future. Excellent. For example, if you’re always late and your boss or teachers have called you up on it, there is obviously nothing that you can do about your previous lateness but apologise. The important thing now is to try to stop it happening in the future by taking simple steps such as changing your alarm to a song that energises you, promise yourself something nice for getting up in the morning (buying my favourite cereal for breakfast tends to do it for me), packing your bag the night before. All of these are really easy things to do, but without someone pointing out the problem it can sometimes slip our minds to do the obvious thing.
So what can you do with a more complicated criticism? Say your peers point out to you that you don’t contribute enough to group discussions and meetings. Seemingly simple on the surface, just speak up more. But first you have to figure out why you stay quiet, (a lack of confidence in big groups, not fully understanding the topic etc.) and then come up with a solution. Maybe you can attend university societies or evening classes that interest you and equip you to work better with others or spend some time with a trusted associate and have them explain the work to you in detail.
The important thing is that the solution is in your hands, and you have to decide what works best for you.
Am I handling this with a healthy attitude?
This is probably the most important question to be asking yourself and definitely the one that I get wrong time and time again. Your attitude to criticism is really important if you want to deal with it successfully. If constructive, you ultimately want it to positively affect you and not cripple or disengage you.
By actively doing something about it, you already eliminate one really unhealthy attitude, which is that of total indifference. By distancing yourself from the problem, you obviously save yourself a lot of emotional energy, but if you don’t care, the likelihood is that you won’t change anything. If you deal with professional and academic criticisms like this, you might find yourself with a reputation for being uncooperative and difficult to work with. Sounds simple and it is, just make sure you invest enough energy into improving whatever it is that’s being brought up.
The reality of it is that most of us don’t have control over how much we care, and more often than not care far too much about things. It’s a question of where you place this care. Getting angry with the person criticising you is of no use whatsoever if they’ve raised a valid point calmly and constructively. All anger does is give you someone to rant about and leave you with cartoon steam escaping your ears. Equally, getting upset and stressed about it can be very demoralising. Believing that you can improve is very important (cue emotional Hans Zimmer style music). Self belief offers more options and open doors, rather than a tensed mind and reluctance to try things for fear of failure. So what if something you try doesn’t work? You’ve lost nothing, and you can move on to the next thing. If it ever gets a bit stressful, have a breather and remind yourself of a few things that you’re already very good at. You’re not a failure just because you have one or two things to improve on. You’re just human.
When you do find whatever it is that works for you, allow yourself to be proud of it. We as a society are pretty rubbish at celebrating the small achievements, instead we’re always focussing on the next big improvement that we could be making in our lives. Be nice to yourself and don’t beat yourself up. At the end of the day, responding to any criticism is not worth sacrificing your overall happiness. Enjoy the opportunity to improve something small about yourself if you can. No matter how long it takes, you will feel pretty good when you get there. Just make sure you stay calm on way. To continue our well-crafted bee analogy, be the queen bee and not a stressy little buzzy worker bee. Ain’t NOBODY got time for that.