How to avoid taking criticism personally

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Certain personalities may be more inclined to take criticism to heart, including early high achievers and individuals prone to perfectionism. Photo: Getty

You’ve just done a presentation and admittedly, it could have gone better. Afterwards, your boss picked it apart and asked you to re-do some of it, saying you didn’t quite hit the mark. Although you know you should see it as an opportunity to learn, you can’t help taking it to heart.

Not only is constructive feedback one of the best ways to develop in your career, mastering the art of responding to it positively is linked to higher job satisfaction. When someone criticises your work, though, it can be easy to take it personally and allow it to chip away at your confidence. So how can you avoid taking criticism personally - and use it to progress instead?

“Many of us are very identified with our professional identity,” says Victoria Stakelum - The Success Smith - is a psychologist, success coach and NLP practitioner who has researched the effects of mindfulness on emotional intelligence. “It isn't that you do a particular something to earn your crust. You are that something. It is who you are. And therefore if you receive feedback on your performance in that particular role, you are going to find it very difficult not to take that criticism deeply personally.”

The more identified with our professional role and persona we are, the more difficult we find it to take criticism in that role, Stakelum says. For a lot of people, their sense of self-worth is based almost entirely on what they do professionally.

And while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your job or being proud of what you do, becoming so wrapped up in your ‘work’ identity that any setbacks affect your self-worth can be a problem.

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Ultimately, how you feel about yourself depends on the success of your work or whether other people see you as competent, which can be a fragile place to be.

Certain personalities may be more inclined to take criticism to heart, including early high achievers and individuals prone to perfectionism.

“People that had high achievement early might include those who did well academically and were perhaps seen as 'the clever one in the family,' says Stakelum. “This can sometimes result in someone forming a pattern of expectation that they will always do well, and developing a fear that to fail or be criticised would somehow equate to falling from grace.”

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Perfectionists, on the other hand, may be afraid of saying something perceived as wrong or being flawed. “I work with many successful professionals - women in particular - who expend an enormous amount of energy protecting and defending themselves from even the slightest failure or criticism,” Stakelum adds.

“Because to acknowledge their imperfections feels like opening up a deep wound and exposing a feeling of unworthiness that they have often spent many years keeping under wraps and in some cases are not even fully aware of themselves.”

It can be tempting to lash out or get upset when you receive criticism, even if it is positive or constructive. However, it’s important to take a step back. Take a deep breath and give yourself time to process what has been said.

“One of the most effective tools for handling criticism in the moment, and indeed managing oneself during any difficult conversation, is to practice embodiment and grounding,” says Stakelum.

“What I mean by this is that rather than instinctively reacting, becoming emotionally heightened or leaping into excuses and defence, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath and use your body as an anchor into the current moment,” she adds. “By taking a short moment to centre yourself, get calm and choose your response, you avoid sounding defensive, letting your emotions get the better of you or saying something you might later regret.”

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Having taken that moment to compose yourself, try to think curiously about what has been said.

Listen and reflect on the content of the feedback and consider whether you think it is fair. After all, criticism is usually just someone’s subjective opinion and isn’t necessarily factual. Then, Stakelum recommends asking yourself what you can learn from the criticism.

“This might be a direct learning from the feedback, or it might be an indirect learning that you make about yourself based on how the feedback makes you feel, or what you notice about the agenda of the person giving the feedback,” she says. “Either way, there is something to learn.”

And finally, thinking about your work in a different light can help you make a distinction between what you do and your identity. This separation can make it easier not to take feedback as a personal slight, or a criticism of your character.

“Our language shapes our reality, and by consciously refocusing your language on what you do rather than what you are, you can gradually train your deep subconscious to feel less identified with your professional role,” says Stakelum. “This will make you far more resilient and discerning when it comes to receiving feedback and deciding what to do with it.”

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic