Self improvement – How can I make myself invulnerable to criticism?

Self improvement is incomplete without certain immunity to criticism. How many times has your day been spoiled by harsh words? Perhaps your boss, parent or spouse said something and you felt terrible for a long time? Criticism can bring us down on the brightest of days. It is incredibly difficult to be self-motivated all the time. Whether we admit it or not, we all are vulnerable. One of the best self-improvement lessons I have learnt is to choose my reactions to criticism slowly & thoughtfully.

Invulnerability is bad for self-improvement.

self improvement through being safely vulnerable
Shed that weight, its not necessary

Invulnerability suggests you put up many defences to ensure you are not vulnerable at all. This can impact you negatively. Criticism is often an opportunity to learn or introspect. It is also an opportunity to keep your ego in check. What you really need is to be safely vulnerable. In this post, I share some ways of doing that.

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Healthy criticism is actually great. Have you ever met a person that criticises you all the time? I tend to ignore such people, as they are often projecting their weaknesses out by criticising everyone and everything. However, when a lot of people criticise you about something, you have got to listen. Unless of-course like Galileo you have a theory about Earth’s relative position with respect to the Sun. Indeed, there are scenarios when you are right, and the world is wrong. Alas, not all of us are Galileo. Therefore, we must pay attention and entertain a contrarian point of view.

Understanding intent is key

Criticism reveals more about the person criticising than his or her subjects. Do listen carefully. Criticism is bad when it is full of blame, and focuses on personality rather than behaviour. Suppose someone snaps at you in office, “you have no idea how to write presentations”, don’t let it bother you as it is classic blaming and it reflects poorly on the person criticising than you. It talks about what is wrong rather than how to make it right. It indicates implied contempt. Instead, if that person made a constructive comment or, “your slides are not flowing well, perhaps you should consider changing the sequence” that is actually not criticism it is useful feedback. It is the only way one can get better. You should treat such feedback like pearls collect as many as you can and get richer!

Emotional Intelligence is an important trait for effective self improvement

Emotional intelligence is about knowing yourself very well and your ability to truly understand your worth. Most people who struggle with criticism do so because they have certain insecurities about themselves. For instance, some people associate their identities with their flaws. I am really bad at public speaking, or I am not great at politics. In case of such people, when someone criticises them negatively, they think its their fault. It makes things worse and has an overall poor impact on one’s well being. This negative identity association can only be avoided by placing a high value on and nurturing your self-esteem.

self improvement through emotional intelligence
Source HBR on Emotional Intelligence

Take time to come to real terms with your achievements. Accept compliments or at least get into a habit of saying “Thanks, that is very kind of you”. Over time your self esteem will greatly improve. In critical situations, ask yourself am I being too harsh on myself? practice self-compassion.

We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.

Swami Vivekananda

Also, you will notice your self esteem is directly proportional to how your mood is, and exercise is the most natural and most sure shot way of elevating mood and keeping it steady. Once you are grounded and confident about yourself, you can build on that steady foundation through self improvement.

Criticism can be one of the best ways of building a strong relationship

self improvement through altercation
An altercation is a great way to deepen relationships

I was in a conference call many years ago. I was negotiating a contract, and I was reading out a clause to explain our position. The lawyer on the other side snapped back and said, “we know how to read, can we get to business”? This was harsh, it was critical of the way I was making a point and I admit, it hurt. I did not disturb the conversation, but after our call I dropped him an e-mail and suggested that we chat.

He reluctantly agreed to chat one-on-one, and I explained him that I was merely trying to convey differences in language of the clause, and that his sudden snide remark made me feel terrible. The concerned colleague was very apologetic and not only issued a written apology but appreciated that I didn’t get mad at him but gave him constructive feedback. Turned out, we made great progress after that.

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude

William James

Conflict management is an art, and way beyond the scope of this post, however criticism often leads to conflict. It is important to remain calm, and try to manage the situation in a logical way after you have had a chance to cool down. If you take some extra efforts to reconcile with the individual after you have had the conflict, you will find that your relationship will get stronger. The whole storming, norming, and performing phases are not just on paper. They actually work in my opinion, even in your personal relationships.

Be a great listener and genuinely show that you are not perturbed by any kind of criticism or feedback.

The best and most successful people I met take criticism, feedback, comments like a sponge. They are so composed, and calm through it all. They do not bat an eyelid. When someone is being harsh they dis-arm him / her through their disdain for emotions. Not only that, but also they are great listeners and acknowledge the critic.

self improvement through composure
Self improvement through composure and great listening

For instance when someone says, “I don’t think you can do public speaking very well” the maestro at handling criticism will calmly respond with, “I understand why you may think that way, do you want to share with me a few tips about how I can improve on public speaking”? that’s it, disarmed. What is best, is that they do genuinely take the feedback, analyse it, and become better. They will also conveniently ignore negative criticism. Be that guy or girl!

Positive body gestures can help balance the chemical response of your body to criticism

Open Arms, a Smile, shaking hands, fist bump are the types of body gestures that elicit a hormonal response at a micro level. When you greet someone with such body language and a smile on your face, you are defusing their instinct to criticise. This may not always work, but it is definitely worth a try.

 smiling
Smile is a short range criticism defuser, but please criticise this post!

Great mood can make you smile, but did you know that a smile can elevate mood as well? Smile releases dopamine and serotonin in your body which reduces your blood pressure and anxiety. A dash of humour does the same trick as well. In fact when you share a laugh with someone it is very unlikely that the person will criticise you the next instant. Even in face of harsh criticism, one should smile, and respond positively. As a result, your response is less likely to be flight or fight.

Pro Tip for self-improvement – It’s okay to prioritise optimistic people over constant negatives

Learn to spot a person, sometimes unfortunately a friend, boss or a colleague, who just cannot help but constantly be negative about everything. These people drain us of our will power and energy. They just create a domino effect that can shake all the hard earned self esteem. No matter how resilient you are, sometimes people get on your nerves. There is an easy answer to this. Avoid such people.

Abhi’s tweet

If you must deal with such people. Use a combination of assertiveness and selective sharing. Assertiveness will help set the expectations right from the very beginning. It is also okay to tell them NOT to make comments that may be upsetting. Selective sharing will ensure you talk only about what is needed, and share only what is needed – this limits exposure to the criticism. However, best possible option is to completely ignore the said individual.

Finally criticism and rejection are very similar, your reactions can very well be similar as well. I think the most important lesson is to delay our reactions and respond to these thoughtfully. Rejection as well as criticism come with many self improvement opportunities. How many will you latch on to?

References

Clive Simpkins

HBR Emotional Intelligence

Psychology Today (Dr. Steven Stosny)

Psychology Today (Dr. Leon Seltzer)

NBC News

Greatist post on criticism