If you are human, you will be on the receiving end of criticism. Criticism can be helpful, especially if it provides you feedback for improvement whereas at other times it is tantamount to bullying. Therefore, criticism needs to be handled depending on its type (Lazarus & Lazarus, 2000).
1. Irrelevant criticism: This kind of criticism comes from an individual who is critical of everyone or everything to the extent that they would make critical comments about something that is totally out of context and not relevant to the situation. For example, you are talking to your neighbor about an upcoming vacation you are planning and in the midst of your conversation, your neighbor states “….by the way you appear to be gaining weight.” Irrelevant criticism doesn’t deserve your response and is best ignored. Say, “OK, I appreciate you letting me know” and shift back to the conversation on hand.
2. Vague criticism: In this type of criticism, you are not sure if the person criticizing you is trying to help you with a valid feedback for improvement or is putting you down. Use probing questions starting with what, where, when, how and, why to explore the person’s intent behind the criticism before you become defensive. For example, if someone important to you says, “Lately, you have been slacking off,” then ask them, “What do you mean by slacking off?” or “When have you seen that behavior in me?”
3. Valid criticism: Also called constructive criticism, this is when people offer you helpful suggestions for improvement based on accurate perception of events. The intent of the person giving this criticism is to help you. Usually, a criticism is valid if you have heard it from a person who is rational and balanced in their thinking and emotions, is knowledgeable about the subject they are giving feedback on, and also if you have heard it from more than one person. You respond to a valid criticism by one of the following four ways: acknowledging, thanking, apologizing, and disarming, i.e., agreeing to what appears accurate to you in the criticism. An example of a valid criticism is when your supervisor points out to you that you have been forgetting to copy them on certain kinds of emails.
4. Unjustified criticism: This type of criticism is not based on any facts and the intent of the person giving this criticism is to put you down, attack your character, or manipulate you into saying or doing things to meet their needs. For example, “You are an idiot,” “You are stupid,” or “By doing this, you have proven again on how incompetent you are.” Your first response shouldn’t be to retort back defensively, but to take a step back, focus on your breathing for a few seconds, slow down your thinking, and try to visualize yourself in a rational frame of mind. Having done that, the best way to respond to an unjustified criticism is to use assertive communication skills, without attacking or surrendering. You can ask more probing questions similar to those used for vague criticism or you may come up with a rational response such as, “Like every human being, I do sometimes make mistakes, but that doesn’t make me a stupid or incompetent person.” Sometimes simply walking away after saying, “Hey, do you know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism?” gives the person criticizing you the message that the problem is theirs and not yours. If the unjustified criticism amounts to bullying, then spot the behavior and tell the person to stop in a clear and calm voice and seek help from either a professional or your human resources department. You can find more resources on bullying on the American Psychological Association website (www.apa.org/topics/bullying/.
Adapted from the evidence-based bestseller The Complete Guide to Self-Management of Depression: Practical and Proven Methods.
HARPREET S. DUGGAL, MD, FAPA
Lazarus, A.A., & Lazarus, C.N. (2000). The 60-second shrink: 101 strategies for staying sane in a crazy world. Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishers.