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Handling Criticism: 5 Tools to Help You Grow a Thick Skin

Handling Criticism: 5 Tools to Help You Grow a Thick Skin

Mugato vs Rhino by JD Hancock at Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/4355523550/

    Face it, nobody likes being criticized. But unless you plan to spend your life hiding under a rock, you’re going to feel the sting of criticism at some point or other.

    The fear of that sting can keep us playing smaller than our potential, or even shut us down entirely. This puts us in a bind because whether the goal is to build a business, bring a product to market, sing an aria, or learn to paint, we often need feedback in order to refine and craft our work into its best, most optimal form.

    Learning to handle criticism, therefore, may be one of the most important skills required for success in any field.

    Here are five tools that will help you grow a thick skin:

    1. Find a Thick-Skinned Role Model

    Although it’s easy to believe that being criticized means we did something wrong, the reality is that receiving criticism is a hallmark of doing cutting-edge, important work.

    Getting a negative response means that you’ve hit a nerve; it tells you a lot more about the criticizer’s trigger point than it does about you.

    Look at Madonna, Lady Gaga, Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinem. These are really polarizing women who hit a nerve in our culture, and have gotten a ton of criticism as a result. You may not like their work or what they stand for, but the people who criticize them are definitely threatened by them.

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    Think of artists like Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, or the beloved Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). These folks were so ahead of their time they were utterly rejected at first, only to be embraced later in their careers (or after they died) when the rest of the culture caught up.

    Having a thick-skinned role model can help keep you forging ahead when the critics threaten to pull you down, so take a moment and think of someone you admire for their ‘sticktoitiveness,’ despite critical reactions to their work.

    Consciously reminding yourself of even one person who inspires you in this way can help you to remember what’s possible in life. You might even want to print out their picture, or quotes by them, to post near your workspace.

    2. Reframe Criticism as Positive Fuel

    Years ago, when I was starting out learning the art and craft of calligraphy, I was once invited by a master teacher to show him my portfolio. I was reluctant to hand it over and hear his criticisms, until he assured me, “I’m just going to tell you how you could make your work better.” With that simple statement, my fear dropped away and I was eager to hear his feedback.

    Not all of our critics will be so gentle, unfortunately, but with a shift of mindset, even the most negative comments can be useful to us.

    In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields tells a story about Rosamund Zander, co-author (with her husband, Benjamin Zander) of the book, The Art of Possibility. The Harvard Business School had sent an early draft out to readers before Zander felt it was ready to go, and readers responded with some pretty negative comments. Instead of being flattened by the feedback, however, Zander was surprised to find herself very interested in what the readers had to say.

    “I didn’t quite understand it at the time,” she writes, “but I thought, ‘If they haven’t understood what I’m trying to say, then perhaps I haven’t conveyed it as well as I could have.’ So I saw it as their comments actually gave me clues on how to communicate my ideas better. With that perspective, even the most negative reader seemed to be on my team. I was surprised at how little the ‘criticism’ hurt, that it didn’t go too deep, and realized that I wasn’t knocked over by it, but that it was useful for me.”

    Reframing criticism as something useful can empower and fuel you to keep going and make your work even better.

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    3. Separate Fact from Interpretation

    When you get negative feedback, it can be tempting to interpret it as providing factual information about you. If I submit an article for publication or enter a painting in a juried competition and get rejected, for example, it’s easy to leap to thoughts like, “My work sucks. I suck.”

    This is where it’s important to look at the facts.

    If my work is rejected, that doesn’t actually tell me anything about me or my work. All I really know is that this particular work wasn’t compelling to this particular audience at this particular moment.

    The truth is, good and bad are subjective calls. It’s not accurate to call anything wonderful or sucky; there’s only what a particular person or audience feels is wonderful or sucky.

    When we can separate fact from interpretation, negative feedback can offer valuable tactical information.

    For example, if you try to sell a product to a particular audience, and they aren’t buying, this might be a clue that you need to be clearer in your promotional messaging. Or it might be a clue that it’s time to seek out a different audience entirely!

    Separating fact from interpretation helps relieve the sting, and can allow you to use feedback to improve what you do.

    4. Ignore Anyone on the Sidelines

    There are some cases where feedback simply is not useful at all. Brené Brown, TED speaker and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, among other books, has gotten comments on her videos like, “If I looked like Brené Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too.”

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    Ouch.

    These kinds of pot shots have nothing to do with the work in question. They may hurt worst of all (they’re designed to!), yet they have nothing of value to give us.

    Brown likens comments like this to insults screamed from the stands at the gladiators fighting in the arena below. It’s easy to tell someone else they can’t fight their way out of a paper bag when you’re sitting safely out of harm’s way.

    When you’re sifting through feedback to determine what to pay attention to, ask yourself if your critics are offering opinions that are truly useful for you.

    If they’re not fellow ‘gladiators in the arena,’ or ideal customers/potential recipients of your work, they’re likely trolls hanging about on the sidelines. Ignore them.

    5. Find the Shiny, Red Button

    All of this reframing is well and good when you’re able to maintain neutrality, but sometimes that just isn’t the way things roll. Sometimes someone shoots a criticism arrow at you, and it cuts you to the core.

    For each of us, there is a particular criticism (or criticisms) that really cuts us deeply. Perhaps it rolls right off your back when someone says you’re not smart, but if they tell you you’re lazy or unprofessional, it pushes your buttons and sends you off your rocker.

    The reason a certain criticism will cut so deeply is that you already have a belief or a concern that maybe it’s true.

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    If you look at your own trigger criticisms, you may be able to cast back in your memory to when those beliefs about yourself first got laid in. The truth is, whenever we have a strong, painful reaction to something, it’s almost always because of some hurt or series of hurts somewhere in the past.

    When we get hurt in a particular way, especially by people who are very big and important in our world—like parents, teachers, or close friends—or if we get hurt in the same way enough times, we start to believe it. Then that belief becomes a big, shiny, red button with a hair trigger that can get pushed very easily.

    I got a message as a very young child that I was selfish. Then in my first marriage, whenever I wasn’t able to meet his needs, my husband declared that I was selfish. Even when my friends and family reflected back that I was generous and loving, my husband’s story that I was selfish hooked right into those stories from my childhood, so my belief that I was selfish got strengthened and blown out of proportion.

    For years, the slightest comment that I was acting in my own self-interest would throw me into a frenzy of self-doubt and anxiety. I spent a ridiculous amount of energy bending over backwards in order to try and prove that I wasn’t selfish!

    The criticism itself is not the real problem here; the real problem is the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

    The good news is that noticing what criticisms cut us the most can show us what those beliefs are, so that criticism can become a valuable tool for self-growth.

    So there you have it—my five favorite tools for handling criticism. With these tools in your box, hopefully the next criticism lob that comes your way will roll right off your back.

    Do you have any to add?

    Featured photo credit: Mugato vs Rhino by JD Hancock at Flickr via flickr.com

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    Last Updated on September 28, 2020

    How To Study Effectively: 7 Simple Tips

    How To Study Effectively: 7 Simple Tips

    The brain is a tangled web of information. We don’t remember single facts, but instead we interlink everything by association. Anytime we experience a new event, our brains tie the sights, smells, sounds and our own impressions together into a new relationship.

    Our brain remembers things by repetition, association, visual imagery, and all five senses. By knowing a bit about how the brain works, we can become better learners, absorbing new information faster than ever.

    Here are some study tips to help get you started:

    1. Use Flashcards

    Our brains create engrained memories through repetition. The more times we hear, see, or repeat something to ourselves, the more likely we are to remember it.

    Flashcards can help you learn new subjects quickly and efficiently. Flashcards allow you to study anywhere at any time. Their portable nature lends them to quick study sessions on the bus, in traffic, at lunch, or in the doctor’s office. You can always whip out your flashcards for a quick 2 to 3 minute study session.

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    To create effective flashcards, you need to put one point on each flashcard. Don’t load up the entire card with information. That’s just overload. Instead, you should dedicate one concept to each card.

    One of the best ways to make flashcards is to put 1 question on the front and one answer on the back. This way, you can repeatedly quiz yourself into you have mastered any topic of your choice.

    Commit to reading through your flash cards at least 3 times a day and you will be amazed at how quickly you pick up new information.

    As Tony Robbins says,

    “Repetition is the mother of skill”.

    2. Create the Right Environment

    Often times, where you study can be just as important as how you study. For an optimum learning environment, you’ll want to find a nice spot that is fairly peaceful. Some people can’t stand a deafening silence, but you certainly don’t want to study near constant distractions.

    Find a spot that you can call your own, with plenty of room to spread out your stuff. Go there each time you study and you will find yourself adapting to a productive study schedule. When you study in the same place each time, you become more productive in that spot because you associate it with studying.

    3. Use Acronyms to Remember Information

    In your quest for knowledge, you may have once heard of an odd term called “mnemonics”. However, even if you haven’t heard of this word, you have certainly heard of its many applications. One of the most popular mnemonic examples is “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. This is an acronym used to help musicians and students to remember the notes on a treble clef stave.

    An acronym is simply an abbreviation formed using the intial letters of a word. These types of memory aids can help you to learn large quantities of information in a short period of time.

    4. Listen to Music

    Research has long shown that certain types of music help you to recall information. Information learned while listening to a particular song can often be remembered simply by “playing” the songs mentally in your head.

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    5. Rewrite Your Notes

    This can be done by hand or on the computer. However, you should keep in mind that writing by hand can often stimulate more neural activity than when writing on the computer.

    Everyone should study their notes at home but often times, simply re-reading them is too passive. Re-reading your notes can cause you to become disengaged and distracted.

    To get the most out of your study time, make sure that it is active. Rewriting your notes turns a passive study time into an active and engaging learning tool. You can begin using this technique by buying two notebooks for each of your classes. Dedicate one of the notebooks for making notes during each class. Dedicate the other notebook to rewriting your notes outside of class.

    6. Engage Your Emotions

    Emotions play a very important part in your memory. Think about it. The last time you went to a party, which people did you remember? The lady who made you laugh, the man who hurt your feelings, and the kid who went screaming through the halls are the ones you will remember. They are the ones who had an emotional impact.

    Fortunately, you can use the power of emotion in your own study sessions. Enhance your memory by using your five senses. Don’t just memorize facts. Don’t just see and hear the words in your mind. Create a vivid visual picture of what you are trying to learn.

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    For example, if you are trying to learn the many parts of a human cell, begin physically rotating the cell in your minds eye. Imagine what each part might feel like. Begin to take the cell apart piece by piece and then reconstruct it. Paint the human cell with vivid colors. Enlarge the cell in your mind’s eye so that it is now six feet tall and putting on your own personal comedy show. This visual and emotional mind play will help deeply encode information into your memory.

    7. Make Associations

    One of the best ways to learn new things is to relate what you want to learn with something you already know. This is known as association, and it is the mental glue that drives your brain.

    Have you ever listened to a song and been flooded by memories that were connected to it? Have you ever seen an old friend that triggered memories from childhood? This is the power of association.

    To maximize our mental powers, we must constantly be looking for ways to relate new information with old ideas and concepts that we are already familiar with.

    You can do this with the use of mindmapping. A mind map is used to diagram words, pictures, thoughts, and ideas into a an interconnected web of information. This simple practice will help you to connect everything you learn into a global network of knowledge that can be pulled from at any moment.

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    Learn more about mindmapping here: How to Mind Map to Visualize Your Thoughts (With Mind Map Examples)

    Featured photo credit: Alissa De Leva via unsplash.com

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