How To Receive Constructive Criticism
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
This sing-songy phrase was my youthful response to any playground bully who dared tease my friends and me in elementary school, and I carried it with me through adolescence, pretending like high school gossip didn’t sink beneath my skin. I wanted to be a tough girl, to be perceived as strong and brave. So I promised myself early on that I’d never listen to hurtful words, which wasn’t easy considering my thin skin and “too sensitive” demeanor. But I wore the phrase like an iron-thick armor anyhow, trying my best to deflect negative or unkind comments.
Of course, the armor was just for show. It only hid the truth that words did hurt and I didn’t know how to process them. My thin skin wasn’t celebrated and I believed it was a sign of weakness. I wanted to protect myself, so I warded off any and all criticism—even when it was true or coming from someone I loved. Sticks, stones, and hurtful words, constructive or otherwise—I lumped it all into the same bag. I didn’t want to hear any of it.
Only through growing up and doing a lot of internal work have I realized this isn’t a healthy way to handle criticism. If I’m honest with myself, I still struggle to accept critique, especially with an open mind and heart. I often want to play defense, put up gloved fists, and spout off all the reasons why the criticism is unfair and untrue. But this defense is usually my tell; the more defensive I feel, the more likely the criticism is spot-on.
The key has been in learning to differentiate between destructive and constructive criticism. It’s also been in reminding myself that none of us are perfect, and we are all rightfully criticized throughout life—publicly, privately, or both. Either way, criticism can be challenging, as it hurts our egos and is a humble reminder that there is always more to learn.
But here’s what I challenge myself to remember: life is a journey, and not so much a linear path destined for one moment of arrival. Instead, it’s fluid and messy, mapped by highs and lows, and moments where we get it right (and wrong). Perhaps we miss something if we avoid our mistakes and fail to receive criticism. Perhaps criticism is actually an invitation, and a gateway for growth, deeper living, and richer relationships.
Differentiating Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism
Before entertaining criticism, I suggest filtering the message through a predetermined lens. I’m a big believer in boundaries within relationships, and unsolicited criticism can do more harm than good. In this way, armor can be helpful. It’s not to keep all messages out, but rather to protect ourselves from unwarranted and untrue critiques that are solely meant to hurt us.
To identify the context of the criticism, I always pause to ask myself a few questions before letting my guard down: Who is offering the criticism? What is their intention or goal? How is their body language and tone making me feel? Does any of this ring true in my gut?
If the intention feels destructive, it’s okay to process it differently—or not at all. Sometimes people say hurtful things out of frustration, and it’s more about them than it is about us. When this happens, I remind myself that the criticism is not about me, and then I do my best to believe that. I’ll even repeat it aloud as many times as I need until I feel the truth seeping in.
One hundred percent of the time, if the criticism is constructive and meant for growth, it comes from someone I trust and respect. This isn’t to say strangers can’t offer constructive criticism; sometimes it’s actually easier to listen to someone we hardly know. But even when the feedback is coming from a stranger, it’s founded on mutual respect (and I’ve welcomed the critique). Likewise, the intention is always to help me (not hurt me), and this is apparent in their body language and tone. Most importantly, even if the words are difficult to digest, I know in my gut that they’re true.
The conversation, of course, often feels jarring, especially in the initial moments. This is why I’ve found it helpful to have a roadmap for controlling my reaction. While my bruised ego begs me to armor up, these steps help me navigate a moment that feels impossible.
A Roadmap to Receiving Constructive Criticism
And Accepting Feedback
Whenever receiving constructive criticism, I tell myself to stay soft—with the message, the messenger, and myself. By keeping an open mind and heart, we can become better listeners. Softening our spirits make us less defensive, allowing us to quiet our thoughts and be fully present to the conversation, even when the words are difficult to hear.
I also try to remember that constructive criticism is meant to enrich my life and relationships. While painful in the moment, the words are intended for growth. Receive the message with this mindset, holding space for both the initial hurt and the intended outcome.
2. Allow What Hurts to Hurt
Constructive criticism can hurt, regardless of the messenger, and it’s okay to take space after the conversation to sit with your emotions. Think about it like flushing out a wound: it stings, and often, the first step to healing is to let the wound breathe. Give yourself a set amount of time to feel that pain. And then move forward.
Try not to let your hurt emotions become tangled with the messenger. Resentment can sneak its way in, especially after the conversation is over and you’re thinking back on what was said. When this happens, remind yourself that you trust the messenger, that they want the very best for you. Remember that the criticism comes from a place of love.
3. Use the Criticism to Learn & Grow
The best thing we can do with constructive criticism? Learn from it and grow. As previously mentioned, criticism can be an invitation. This step can look fairly practical, like scheduling a session with a therapist or setting aside an hour for personal journaling and meditation. However you decide to navigate the feedback, take your time and have grace with yourself as you take actionable steps towards growth.
A final note: May we also celebrate and champion the bravery it takes to offer constructive criticism to others. It’s not always easy to approach hard conversations, but they are often necessary to enrich our lives and relationships. Whether we’re on the receiving or offering end of constructive criticism—and we’ll experience both—may we be kind to ourselves and others, ultimately offering our calls to action with love.
How have you embraced and empowered constructive criticism? Share in the comments below!
Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.