Generally, nobody likes to be told that they're anything less than great. But sometimes, the truth is necessary, even when it doesn't make you feel good. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to hear constructive criticism.
"Because we all believe that we are doing our best most of the time, negative feedback can come as a surprise and feel hurtful," says Vera Eck, MFT, a relationship therapist in Los Angeles.
But, she says, criticism can be really helpful and essential in mentoring relationships — like between a professor and student or boss and employee — as long as it's actually constructive. And truly constructive feedback is meant to help you grow and improve, not bring you down and make you feel bad about yourself.
If you have a hard time hearing criticism, you're not alone. A 2017 working paper from researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina found that people even form new social networks in their offices to avoid those who tend to give them negative feedback. It's definitely valid to feel sensitive to negative feedback, even when it's useful. So how do you know whether or not the criticism you're receiving is actually constructive? First, try to take one big step back before examining it.
"To look at this objectively, first ask yourself, is this person trying to help me or are they angry at me?" Eck suggests.
If it seems like they really are trying to help you, try to put your feelings aside and ask yourself what you can take away from what they're telling you, she says. Could you have spent a little more time on that report your boss assigned you? Or maybe you could have made more of an effort to be there for a friend?
Even if the feedback was valuable, you might still feel hurt by the way someone gave it to. If you think the person would be open to it, Eck suggests having a second conversation with them to better understand what they meant, and to try to show them that you would respond better to what they're saying if they delivered the feedback in a kinder manner.
When the feedback comes from a person in position of power, the criticism needs to be thoroughly examined.
Vera Eck, LMFT
If you think someone's criticism is unwarranted, however, Eck suggests asking yourself another question: 'Why would they say this to me?' More specifically, ask yourself why this person might say it the way they did, or why they chose to tell you when they did.
"If possible, approach the person and get more information to clear up any possible misunderstandings on either person's side," she says. "Perhaps the person didn't mean to deliver the message so harshly, and they could use feedback to correct their communication skills."
To avoid any further conflict, try using "I" statements that focus on how you view the situation, like, "I felt really hurt by what you said/the way you said it." Phrasing things that way can help you take responsibility for your own feelings while getting people to be more receptive towards your feelings than, say, asking "why would you make me feel this way?"
"When the feedback comes from a person in position of power, the criticism needs to be thoroughly examined," Eck says. "If you agree with the content, then just thank the person and make the necessary corrections."
If you feel like you're being targeted, micromanaged, or even bullied, though, that's a different story. In that case, Eck says, it's time to consider your relationship with this person, and the boundaries you might need to protect yourself.
"Is this someone you must spend time with? If so, set verbal and/or physical boundaries," she advises. "If not, then definitely consider distancing yourself, because clearly this is not someone who has your best interests at heart."