When You Have to Handle Criticism

Criticism can hurt, bruise and extinguish our hearts, but learning how to handle criticism can build new strength and resilience.

I could see the hope drain out of him as I watched both the subtle and not so subtle criticisms land upon him.

I was in a meeting with a guy I was supporting, and we were problem-solving.

Every solution he suggested was shot down. It was one little cat scratch after another. He would say a few words, and the critic would speak five hundred back.

The poor guy, I thought. I wondered what it was like when he was alone with this woman. No wonder he was depressed, anxious, and stuck.

Criticism can strangle a heart till it gives up and doesn’t try anymore. The words of a critic start to be believed as a truth in your own being. Your inner critic starts negating you. You’re on a downward spiral.

And look, some people don’t know how to give encouragement and praise. They think if they do give praise and encouragement, it might go to your head. So in a warped kind of way, they think they are doing you a service.

‘Can’t have you getting a big head,’ they say.

Criticism is a matter of the heart.

When someone is routinely criticized, it slowly becomes a matter of the heart—the seat of the emotions.

Courage is slowly sapped out of the heart, and despair begins to grow.

In the word ‘courage,’ we find the Latin word cor, which literally means “heart.” To have courage means to have heart.

Criticism sucks the life out of the heart.

What is your heart like when you have been criticized?

Does it in someway feel bruised and battered, like it has been in a fight with a schoolyard bully.

Maybe it feels exhausted like a blown-out candle. All that is left is a faint glow and some wispy smoke.

The Offer of gentleness

There is a beautiful passage of ancient scripture in the book of Isaiah that prophetically talks about what Jesus is like.

A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; Isaiah 42:3

Imagine you see a swamp full of reeds.

A wild storm, full of energy, has come through, and because they are tall and vulnerable, they have been bruised and battered in the strong winds.

They are now struggling to get themselves back to full glory and purpose.

Christ comes to the stand of reeds, and there is such a gentleness to his approach that as he walks through them, he doesn’t break a single one.

Instead, the very presence of being with them in their bruised state helps them recover. ‘You will recover, I am with you; let’s do this together.’

The second imagery is that of a smoldering wick.

A candle that was once glowing bright with light and purpose has been blown out by the energetic buffeting winds of criticism.

There is nothing left but the wisps of faint small ash floating away.

There might still be a slight small glow, hunting for oxygen to reignite, but nothing comes.

The Christ won’t come and stub it out. Jesus won’t wet his fingers and squash the life out of the struggle. Instead, with a gentleness of breath, he breathes on the embers and causes them to reignite.

With Christ, there is an assurance of both presence and justice.

Christ, who knows all and sees all, can bring truth to the whole of the struggle.

God is not a god who will add to your pain.

So often, many people feel that in their deepest pain that God is also judging them. That, along with the battering from the storms of life that God is also harshly judging them and raining down punishment.

God never adds criticism to our earthly load.

I can be assured that my heart, which has been bruised and blown out, that God won’t add to the pain.

How to Handle Criticism

So how do we handle criticism?

Firstly, in the best sense of the word ‘critique,’ there is value in having something analyzed and assessed. We can learn valuable lessons when someone is willing to give good and helpful feedback.

The problem comes when the energy changes from being helpful to being harsh and abusive. It’s an energy and power dynamic that is happening.

So here are some suggestions on how to handle criticism.

Here is an example that we can use.

The criticism is that your husband raises his voice and criticises the way you ‘always leave the kitchen a mess.’  He raises this and other issues around household tidiness all the time. He does very little to keep things sorted around the house himself but is always quick to target you.

So here are some pointers on how to handle criticism.

 1. Is there something you can learn and grow from in this?
Use this as a learning opportunity. Perhaps there is something you could do better. All of us can learn new things.

2. Consider that their criticism may be saying more about them than it does about you.

What does his continuous stream of criticism say about him? Does he know how to give nonabusive feedback? What was modeled to him about praise and encouragement? Is he stressed out from work or other pressures?

This doesn’t mean his abuse is ok or acceptable, but it might explain it. Perhaps he was the victim of harsh criticism, and this is all he knows.

So don’t take it so personally. It might not be about you at all.

3. Notice the feelings being generated in you and take note of the energy coming from them.

What feelings bubble up in you? Does something get triggered? What are the old thought pathways that you always take when situations like this happen?’

I’m so useless. Can’t get anything right …’

4. Breathe
Take a few deep gentle breaths and center yourself back in the now. Notice the thoughts and feelings and see them for what they are.

They are simply thoughts and feelings that you can choose how to act out of.

5. See the situation for what it is.
Don’t attach more to the problem than what there is.

This is a problem with kitchen tidiness—nothing more, nothing less. Don’t attach your personal value to whether the kitchen is tidy or not!

6. Don’t give like for like.
An eye for an eye makes both people blind. If you fire back criticism, you will add fuel to the fire, and the problem won’t get resolved.

7. Go pragmatic
See the problem as just that—a problem to be solved. 

Whenever I have been under attack, I like to listen deeply and repeat what I have heard them say.

‘So what I heard you say is that you want me to clean the kitchen better? Did I get that right?’

When you do this, you narrow the problem down to the real problem and away from personalization.

You might like to follow this up with further questions to shift it away from emotional high energy to a logical and constructive place.

‘What does a tidy kitchen look like to you?’
‘Can we reorganize the kitchen, so it is easier to keep clean?’
‘Can we encourage other members of the family to put away dirty dishes?

It’s that shifting out of the emotional reaction mode into a quiet, rational, and thoughtful problem-solving mode.

It’s changing the energy and power dynamics.

8. Give yourself praise and encouragement.

If you leave it up to others to give you a sense of validation and worth, then it’s going to be a roller coaster ride. Criticism is going to crush.

Instead, give yourself the praise and encouragement you need. Learn the practice of encouraging yourself.

Handling criticism is a practiced skill. You learn it by doing it over and over again. Each time you do it, you gain a little more confidence.

Criticism can hurt, bruise and extinguish our hearts, but learning how to handle criticism can build new strength and resilience.

Are You A Critical Person

Perhaps you’re the one that is always criticizing others.

Some questions for you to consider

  • Are your expectations realistic?
  • Have you listened well before handing out a criticism?
  • What is the emotional energy that is under the criticism?
  • Where have you learned these criticism behaviors from?
  • What would it be like to be as the receiver of your criticisms?
  • Are you able to give encouragement and praise instead of criticism?

Quotes to consider

  • Praise and encouragement is much more effective in changing others’
    behaviour than is criticism, but which do you use on yourself? David Riddell
  • Encouragement breeds encouragement. Be sure to give it to your spouse before looking for some yourself. David Riddell
  • Care about what other people think, and you will always be their prisoner. Lao Tzu
  •  He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help. Abraham Lincoln
  • To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Elbert Hubbard
  • Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving. Dale Carnegie
  • He who throws dirt always loses ground. Unknown

Questions to answer

  1. What happens in you when you are criticized?
  2. Why is it easier to criticize than it is to give encouragement and praise?
  3. What does it do in your heart to know that God will not join in on criticizing you?

Further reading

Does ‘Turning the other cheek’ mean I have to keep taking abuse?

David Strengthened Himself in the Lord and How You can too

How to Help Others Solve Problems in 8 Steps

How to Stand Firm when the Rotten Tomatoes are Thrown

Barry Pearman

Photo by Apostolos Vamvouras on Unsplash