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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 May 17, 2019

    This Is What Happens When You Move Out Of the Comfort Zone

    This Is What Happens When You Move Out Of the Comfort Zone

    The pursuit of worthwhile goals is a part of what makes life enjoyable. Being able to set a goal, then see yourself progress towards achieving that goal is an amazing feeling.

    But do you know the biggest obstacle for most people trying to achieve their goals, the silent dream killer that stops people before they ever even get started? That obstacle is the comfort zone, and getting stuck there is bound to derail any efforts you make towards achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.

    If you want to achieve those goals, you’ll have to break free from your comfort zone. Let’s take a look at how your life will change once you build up the courage to leave your comfort zone.

    What Is the Comfort Zone?

    The comfort zone is defined as “a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance.”

    What stands out to me the most about that definition is the last part: “using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance.” How many successful people do you know who deliver a steady level of performance?

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    The goal in life is to continually challenge yourself, and continually improve yourself. And in order to do that, you have move out of your comfort zone. But once you do, your life will start to change in ways you could never have imagined. I know because it’s happening right now in my own life.

    Here’s what I’ve learned.

    1. You will be scared

    Leaving your comfort zone isn’t easy. In fact, in can be downright terrifying at times, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly normal to feel a little trepidation when you’re embarking on a journey that forces you to try new things.

    So don’t freak out or get overwhelmed when you feel yourself getting a little scared. It’s perfectly normal and all part of the process. What’s important is that you don’t let that fear hold you back. You must continue to take action in the face of fear.

    That’s what separates winners from losers.

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    2. You will fail

    Stepping out of your comfort zone means you’re moving into uncharted territory. You’re trying things that you’ve never tried before, and learning things you’ve never learned before.

    That steep learning curve means you’re not going to get everything right the first time, and you will eventually fail when you move out of your comfort zone. But as long as the failures aren’t catastrophic, it can actually be a good thing to fail because …

    3. You will learn

    Failure is the best teacher. I’ve learned more from each one of my failures than I have from each one of my successes. When you fail small, and fail often, you rapidly increase the rate at which you learn new insights and skills. And that new knowledge, if applied correctly, will eventually lead to your success.

    4. You will see yourself in a different way

    Once you move out of your comfort zone, you immediately prove to yourself that you’re capable of achieving more than you thought was possible. And that will change the way you see yourself.

    Moving forward, you’ll have more confidence in yourself whenever you step out of your comfort zone, and that increased confidence will make it more likely that you continue to step outside your comfort zone. And each time you do, you’ll prove to yourself again and again what you’re really capable of.

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    5. Your peers will see you in a different way

    Whether we want to admit or not, people judge other people. And right now, people view you in a certain way, and they have a certain idea of what you’re capable of. That’s because they’ve become accustomed to seeing you operate in your comfort zone.

    But once you move out of your comfort zone, you’ll prove to other people, as well, that you’re capable of much more than you’ve shown in the past.

    The increased confidence other people place in you will bring about more opportunities than ever before.

    6. Your comfort zone will expand

    The good thing about the comfort zone is that it’s flexible and malleable. With each action you take outside of your comfort zone, it expands. And once you master that new skill or action, it eventually becomes part of your comfort zone.

    This is great news for you because it means that you can constantly increase and improve upon the behaviors that you’re comfortable with. And the more tools and skills you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to achieve your goals.

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    7. You will increase your concentration and focus

    When you’re living inside of your comfort zone, the bulk of your actions are habitual: automatic, subconscious, and requiring limited focus.

    But once you move out of your comfort zone, you no longer rely on those habitual responses. You’re forced to concentrate and focus on the new action in a way you never do in your comfort zone.

    8. You will develop new skills

    Moving out of your comfort zone requires that you develop new skills. One of the many benefits you’ll experience is that you’ll be stepping away from the “limited set of behaviors” and start to develop your ability and expertise in new areas.

    Living inside of your comfort zone only requires a limited skill set, and those skills won’t contribute much to your success. Once you can confidently step outside of your comfort zone and learn a new skill, there’s no limit to how much you can achieve.

    9. You will achieve more than before

    With everything that happens once you move out of your comfort zone, you’re naturally going to achieve more than ever before.

    Your increased concentration and focus will help you develop new skills. Those new skills will change the way you see yourself, encouraging you to step even further out of your comfort zone.

    Featured photo credit: Josef Grunig via farm3.staticflickr.com

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