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Dealing With Criticism: 5 Tools to Develop a Thick Skin

“When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” ~Miguel Ruiz

Have you ever opened a spring-loaded email? You know, the kind with a nasty barb inside that hits you like a punch in the gut?

My business partner and I had recently launched our new podcast, and he had forwarded me an email he’d received from a viewer.

“Just watched Episode One,” the writer said. “GREAT idea! But WAY too much talking. Want specifics, not Melissa’s self-indulgent blathering on about the creative process…”

Ouch. My vision blurred at this point, and the rest of the missive was lost on me. A hot flush prickled my skin from head to toe.

I recognized this feeling. It was something I’d been doing my best to avoid since early childhood. For much of my life, fear of criticism had kept me small and timid, hiding under my shell. Over the past several years, though, I’ve been stepping out of the shadows, playing bigger, putting myself and my work out in the world more boldly.

I knew it was only a matter of time before critics started lobbing nastygrams my way, and thankfully, I was prepared.

If you want to live a big, bold, creative life, one of the first orders of business is learning how to deal with criticism.

The more you step out into the spotlight, whether literally or figuratively, the more attention and feedback you’re going to get, and not all of it will be positive.

As kids on the playground, we chanted that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” but words can and do hurt. They have the power to destroy us if we let them.

How, then, do we armor up against criticism?

Here are five tools that will help you grow a thicker skin.

Tool #1: Separate fact from interpretation.

When I opened that nastygram from the podcast viewer, it would have been easy to interpret it as defining a core truth about me.

Instead, I reminded myself that her assessment wasn’t objective truth; it was merely her opinion. I might not like her opinion, but ultimately it has nothing to do with me, or with objective reality.

In the same way, if I organize a workshop or offer a painting for sale, and nobody buys, it’s easy to leap to thoughts like “My work sucks. I suck.”

The fact that I didn’t make a sale doesn’t actually tell me anything about me or my work, however. All I really know is that this particular offer wasn’t compelling to this particular audience at this particular moment.

Separating fact from interpretation can help prevent you from sliding down into a rat hole of “I suck.” And it can even help you make tactical decisions going forward: if this audience didn’t buy, maybe I want to change my messaging, or maybe I want to find a new audience!

Tool #2: Find the shiny, red button.

Have you ever noticed how certain criticisms roll right off, like water off a duck’s back, but others cut you to the core no matter what you do?

In elementary school, when the boys tried to taunt me by fiddling with my last name, Dinwiddie, and calling me “Dumb-widdie,” it was annoying, but it didn’t really hurt. Nor did it stick, because I had a core belief that I was smart. There were no fears or beliefs about myself for the insult to hook into.

On the other hand, for many years whenever someone called me selfish, it flattened me.

Somehow 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 my husband’s needs, he declared that I was selfish. Even when my friends and family reflected back that I was loving and generous, those early beliefs were like a big, shiny, red button with a hair trigger that got pushed really easily.

For years, the tiniest comment that I was acting in my own self-interest threw me into a frenzy of self-doubt and anxiety. As a result, I bent over backward for others in an attempt to prove that I wasn’t selfish.

No wonder an accusation that I was “self-indulgently blathering on” stung me so badly!

The criticism isn’t actually the problem here; it’s the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

When we can notice which criticisms wound us the most deeply, it shines a light on what our beliefs are. Not only can this help us to find neutrality again, with this outlook, criticism can actually become a valuable tool for self-growth.

Tool #3: Reframe criticism as positive fuel.

Years ago, when I was a beginning calligrapher, a master teacher invited me to show him my portfolio.

I was scared to hear his critiques, until he assured me, “I’m simply going to tell you how you can make your work better.” Suddenly, instead of being terrified of his feedback, I was hungry for it.

Alas, not all of our critics will be so gentle and well intentioned. It’s not always easy to practice neutrality, but the more we can shift our mindset to look for the lesson beneath the venom, the more even negative comments can be useful to us, and even empower and fuel us to keep going and make our work better.

Tool #4: Ignore anyone on the sidelines.

That said, sometimes feedback isn’t useful at all. TED speaker and best-selling author Brené Brown has received comments on her videos such as, “If I looked like Brené Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too.”

This kind of insult has nothing to do with the work in question. It’s designed to hurt, not to help, and it has nothing useful to offer.

If there are some cases when a criticism can be useful, and other cases when it does no good at all, how do we sift through feedback to determine what to pay attention to, and what to ignore?

Brown likens nasty, unhelpful comments to the insults screamed down from the stands at the gladiators fighting in the arena below. It’s easy to yell that someone else can’t fight their way out of a paper bag when you’re sitting safely out of harm’s way.

So ask yourself if your critics are offering opinions that are truly useful to you. Are they metaphorical gladiators, fighting alongside you in the arena? Or are they potential recipients of your work?

If your critic is neither of the above, it’s likely they’re trolls hanging around on the sidelines. Ignore them.

Tool #5: Find a thick-skinned role model.

Did you know that Dr. Seuss, whose books sold millions over his lifetime, had his first book rejected at least twenty times? Thank goodness he persisted!

It’s easy to think that being on the receiving end of criticism means something is wrong with us, but the truth is, being criticized is a hallmark of doing cutting-edge, important work! Countless people who are now known for amazing things were criticized or rejected at first.

Think of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinem. Whether or not you like their work or what they stand for, you have to admit that these women each touched a nerve in our culture, and have gotten a ton of criticism as a result. Yet they never gave up.

The next time someone lobs a bomb your way, think about someone you admire who kept forging ahead, despite their critics. You might even want to post their picture, or quotes by them, by your workspace to inspire you to keep going.

There you have it—my five favorite tools for handling criticism. Hopefully these will help you grow a thicker skin!

About Melissa Dinwiddie

Melissa Dinwiddie helps people turn their creative taps to "on," and transform their lives from grey to full color. She blogs and podcasts at Living a Creative Life, where you can get a FREE printable poster of her 5 reminders of why creative play is a world-changing act.

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  • Hi Melissa – Sorry that you experienced that sort of attack! Honestly, when someone resorts to language such as “self-indulgent blathering”, it’s about them, not about YOU!

    Personally, I’d just thank them for their feedback and move on. Granted, it’s a lot easier to say this as an outsider than as someone who’s experiencing the attack.

    BTW, I LOVE your artwork. You have a lot of talent and I wish you lots and lots of success.

  • Lily Krantz

    Melissa, I love your post. You offer such great steps for coping with criticism. It’s so helpful to remember that our reactions to criticisms are often a reflection of deeper issues going on within us. Conversely, those who are dishing out the criticism also have their own issues. When we take all this subjectivity out of the equation, criticism can certainly be an opportunity rather than an attack. The hardest thing and what I work on is reducing my reactivity so that I can breathe, remember that I am worthy of love despite my faults and assess whether the criticism offered has the potential to be helpful.

  • Great post Melissa!

    Sorry you had to experience that, I think she really liked your podcast and wanted more, I guess she just didn’t know how to express her “suggestions” better 😉

    I totally agree with you on using criticism as tool for self growth.

    “It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled.The credit belongs to the man in the arena”

    Thanks for sharing this great post 🙂

  • Karen O.

    Excellent post! I wholeheartedly agree that we can’t let the behavior of others destroy our inner peace. I wish people would contain their criticisms to content and not make it a personal attack. I received a scathing response to a comment I made on a friend’s Facebook post, where a perfect stranger decided that, based on the two or three angry sentences (yes I was angry in my comment) that I was unhappy in my job and needed to find another line of work!! If she wanted to respond to the content of my message I would have had no problem with it, but for her to judge me based on a few sentences was absolutely insulting!! People just never fail to amaze me, but developing a thick skin and letting go of what we can’t control is certainly wise advice.

  • Thanks for your comment, Ed! I agree: that particular comment was definitely about THEM, not about me. The challenge for each of us is to remember that in the moment! 🙂

    Thanks for checking out my art, and your good wishes! 🙂

  • That’s it exactly, Shameless Inspiration: reducing reactivity. It’s a lifelong practice, and a worthy one. 🙂

  • Thanks, Janice! I think that’s something we all can work on: getting better at expressing ourselves, so we benefit others without hurting them.

    And I LOVE that quote. 🙂

  • Thanks, Karen! I’m sorry you had that experience on Facebook. There are a lot of wonderful things about social media, but it also makes it very easy to offend someone, often without intending to. Even more reason to grow that thick skin! 🙂

  • Talya Price

    We all have to deal with criticism at some stage in our lives. As bad as it might sound, I believe that bullying is very essential in life, as long as no one is physically hurt because of it. But bullying and teasing in someway teaches you that not everyone is going to like you no matter what you do. You are not going to gel with everyone. That is just how the world works. Be true to yourself, love yourself 100%. When you do that it becomes easier to develop a thick skin. That is what parents should be teaching their children. Just my two cents.

  • Carol

    Excellent inspiration – I liked this so much I copied it into my “Evernote” file of inspiration – beginning to end, including your name, so that I know who helps me when I most need it. I too have always been afraid of criticism, and those things that hurt me most deeply were carried around with me, mulled over time and time again. This article will help me let go of those things, I am sure! Thanks for your help. PS – can’t stand those trolls who post hurtful things either with or without intent – Aaargh!

  • Lauren P.

    This post struck a chord with me because I can easily find myself caring all too much what people think, and playing it safe to avoid dealing with criticism. I’m reading this at the perfect time, as I’m reflecting on my tendency and consciously choosing to move past it. Well written and great tips. Thank you!

  • I’m the same way, Lauren — I’ve had to work (and am still working!) on letting go of caring about what people think. I’m glad my article came at a good time for you. 🙂

  • Aw, that’s terrific, Carol! I’m so glad my article inspired you! (You made my day. 🙂 )

  • So true, Talya — no matter what, you are never going to please everyone! Even if you’re “#1 in Your Field,” there will be people who just don’t dig you. Learning to be okay with that is so important! And I agree — this should be instilled in children from early on.

  • June

    Thank you, this is exactly what I needed. I love the way you separated what we need to look at within ourselves from simple noise from others. I am dealing with constant criticisms from some colleagues who are jealous of the fact that my bosses like my work. It is an exhausting battle that noone should have to fight, but certainly it has kept me on my toes to make sure I do good work, and I’ve learned to not let nastiness get me (although I still have to be careful about their back-stabbing). Thank you so much for your insightful article! I’ve bookmarked it so I can read it whenever I need it!

  • You’re so welcome, June! I’m glad my article was helpful. 🙂 Best of luck in dealing with what sounds like a challenging work situation.

  • Maggie DiStasi

    What a thoughtful, meaningful and wise post – thank so much for taking the time to write these tips down and share them with us, and for being so honest along the way!

  • Jester2012

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a while and it was a much needed read for me.

    I play it off that I have thick skin but eventually certain words sink into me like venum. “fake” “victim” “child” being only a few.

    But I am happy to read that a few of the steps you have listed I have already begun implementing in my own way and the ones that I did not I now have knowledge of thanks to you.

    I am now looking for a poster of Winston Churchill to post on my wall.

    Thanks again for the great article !

    -Charlie

  • Ha I know all about that big red button. I used to have one standing on my head saying “press me!”. In my case, it was a weakness that I worked and worked on until one day I had turned it around. The core belief about the weakness disappeared. As long as you’ve got a weakness, there are people out there who will press it unfortunately.

  • JJ

    I want to read this EVERYDAY! Immensely thankful you posted this!

    “So ask yourself if your critics are offering opinions that are truly useful to you. Are they metaphorical gladiators, fighting alongside you in the arena? Or are they potential recipients of your work?

    If your critic is neither of the above, it’s likely they’re trolls hanging around on the sidelines. Ignore them.”

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Criticisms can indeed be some of the biggest lessons & growth for an individual, but I’m not so sure, BULLYING is the right word to describe it. Personally, from my experience & seeing patterns in other people…people who have actually been literally BULLIED for an extended period of time; it really screws up with one’s mind & even the one’s who seem to have pulled through it & have become ‘successful’ by society’s standards…most people who went through such experiences, in one way or another are damaged souls & often take it to their graves; with never really shedding the true wounds that were brought along….

  • Talya Price

    Work a 9 to 5 corporate job and tell me that bullying is not the right word. Bullying goes beyond primary school and secondary school. It goes all the way to the corporate world where you would expect mature adult behavior. Have you ever worked a corporate job?

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    I’m sorry if you had to go through such situations in your life at your corporate job…& its wonderful, if such experiences made you a stronger person. I do agree with you that it would be great if parents teach their kids to get thicker skin from an young age… I respect your opinion but I don’t believe everyone should be BULLIED at some point in their lives to make them a stronger person. There is a fine line between judgments/criticisms helping in an individuals personal growth vs being bullied….

  • Talya Price

    I am not saying that people should be bullied but to put a ban on bullying like these soccer moms are trying to do is completely useless. Instead of putting a ban on bullying how about raising your children to be true to themselves and to stand up for themselves. Bullying is not going to go away , just like racism, homophobia, sexism etc, is not going to go away. Learn how to stand up for yourself, believe that you are worthy of of value and stop looking externally for validation And parents stop raising weak minded children. But don’t put a ban on bullying, because that is not the solution to the problem.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    You make a lot of great points about building up a good self-esteem & confidence…. However; its not as simple as you put it… “Learn how to stand up for yourself, believe that you are worthy of of
    value and stop looking externally for validation And parents stop
    raising weak minded children.” While all these solid foundations should start at home first, I believe we as a human society, have a responsibility for making the world a better place, whether it be standing against bullying, racism, sexism, etc. One of the most likely reasons for increasing amounts of suicide & shootings at schools throughout the U.S. is prob due to many shrugging off bullying as a minor issue &/or playing the BLAMING GAME against one another! While these things may never go away, whether it be Parents/Family, Teachers, Friends/Acquaintances..each one of us can make a difference in making the world a little better whether it be through some random acts of kindness and/or standing up for someone else who may feel powerless.

    I spoke my feelings in regards to you stating, “As bad as it might sound, I believe that bullying is very essential in life, as long as no one is physically hurt because of it.” What so many people don’t realize about the seriousness of emotional/mental bullying vs physical abuse is…at many a times, physical wounds may heal; but the emotional abuse often hurts a lot more & can leave people with lingering effects for a lifetime!

  • Talya Price

    The emotional abuse does hurt however, I blame the parents for most of this. Parents need to be more responsible for their children, being a parent is a full time job, 24/7 no breaks no holidays, if people cannot handle that then they should not be parents. I see many people who should not be parent and because they bully their children. The emotionally abuse them because many of them see children as an extension of themselves and not as an individual. They try to make a copy of a copy. I have traveled to many countries and what I have found is that many people are too scared to be individual, no one wants to be different, so they conform to society to prevent themselves from sticking out, but it never works.

    Human society has a responsibility to make the world a better place you say however, I am a realist and I do not see it because many people hate who they are. Look at all this celebrity worship. I would love for everyone to get along and love each other but before that even happens, HUMANS need to accept and understand the atrocities that were put on to people in history. Because history is going to keep repeating itself no matter how many children people have, how much money they have, or how they look; I don’t care what anyone says, humans need to learn from their mistakes before they can move on into the future.

    I am finished with this conversation. And from MY experience, I have gained a lot of strength from being bullied because I learned to LOVE myself. You have your life and opinions, and I have mine. I am going to leave it at that.

    And to quote you: “What so many people don’t realize about the seriousness of emotional/mental bullying vs physical abuse is…at many a times, physical wounds may heal; but the emotional abuse often hurts a lot more & can leave people with lingering effects for a lifetime!” Tell that to my African ancestor who were put into slavery because of racism and for economic reasons, and tell that to all the people who have enslaved others.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    I understand where you are coming from…I appreciate your feedback, even if our set of beliefs are different.

  • shel

    Sorry for irrelevant reply. I am new here. Can anyone instruct me how I can write in forum? I need it badly. Thank you.

  • Amy Allworden

    I feel genuinely relieved to find this today. I’d been having mini-heart attacks all night because a piece of criticism cut right to the bone yesterday. Normally I have a good cry about it and then wallow in self doubt a few days. Your advice has helped me crawl out of my usual pattern in record time ^_^ Thanks so much!

  • Darshit Nayak

    Very nice post Melissa!
    I have seen people who are at the top in their respective fields even though they may be lightyears ahead in talent, get criticized by a certain group of people no matter what they do. It reaffirms my belief that no one can please everyone. So, it’s the purpose of doing what we do that will determine how much the criticism will affect us. If the purpose is to receive praise from everyone, nothing can help us. But if we are doing that thing just for the love and the satisfaction that comes doing it, we will be able to deal with criticism effectively. It’s difficult but certainly possible.

  • Sunny

    helpful article, it is human nature to be critical to an extent anwayz…and life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there are assholes out there… u gave some good points how to deal with it 🙂

  • Chetan

    Very useful article. Thanks a ton, Melissa. I especially liked point no 3 and 5.

  • R

    These is the most useful article I’ve read on this topic. Usually it’s all about not letting others who don’t believe in you stop you from being creative and pursuing a goal. Those weren’t very helpful for daily life, so thanks for this article.

  • mrdavidnet98

    Having been criticised on Amazon by a number of people for a Kindle Book that was, originally, written as a kind of personal challenge I found #1 and #4 very helpful. When someone writes Worst Book Ever that is definitely a comment from the stand and also from someone I’ll never meet. The people who didn’t like my book resorted to personal interpretation with no attempt at objective criticism. It was tricky at first to deal with but I’d got 85% of the way there and your words have helped get me to 99%. Let’s face it no one will ever get to 100% will they. Thanks.

  • Five Seven

    Good news! It was a really selfless and generous act to share your insight here:)

    I’m beginning to realise that all criticism can be a useful tool for self-knowledge. If it hurts – ask yourself why it hurts – preferably instead of heading for the ice-cream and a big spoon. I have a really thin skin, but realise that that equates to a low self-esteem. If I felt good about myself then nothing anyone else said would ever hurt me. So I don’t need to stop the world being mean to me (impossible task) – I just have to learn to appreciate myself (almost an impossible task!).

  • Katie

    Thank you, Melissa for having the courage to share this story! I know I certainly will use your tips here.

  • RapmasterD

    Thanks Melissa. A difficult observation I’ve had, as I’ve been bothered by some adult teasing recently, is to pay attention to what you’re sending out. The inability to “take it” when you “dish it out” is often a great indicator to stop dishing it out!

  • Erin in South FL

    This was a great article – I felt like you were talking about me with the childhood experience… I have always taken small clerical positions that didn’t pay much or easy, repetitive tasks, because I was so afraid of venturing out of my shell and handling crisitism from a supervisor etc. My friends would always ask me “why don’t you aim higher?” I have wasted a lot of valuable time caring “too much” about what others think – especially since it is just their opinion. I print this article out and will keep using this in my life. THANK YOU.

  • Samantha

    This was a very helpful post. Thank you!

  • Ivan Schneider

    You either have a thicker skin or you don’t. It’s impossible to force a thicker skin.

  • bkjphilly

    Thank you for your article, as I’ve learned a lot. I found my way here after receiving a response to a post I saw on Instagram that I responded to. The photo was of someone who was DJing getting some very public criticism on the display behind him stating “We are never booking you again”.

    I responded with my heart, stating “that while some may think this is funny, imagined if this happened to you. I don’t think you’d find this funny” and it was responded by the original person posting “I couldn’t disagree with you more. Part of being a public person and performing in front of people is thick enough skin to endure whatever the reaction is to your performance. If a person can’t handle monumental real time criticism, then they have no place on a stage anywhere.”

    I see what the original person was saying, and I immediately started to assess myself, and how I would feel in this situation. I’d be crushed. Now, the original poster, is someone who’s in the public eye in the dance music community, and I generally like their posts. But this one got to me. As a techno DJ and dance music producer, I’m doing what I can to get my music out there, and I realize that not everyone is going to like the music I make, or play out when I DJ. So I need develop this “thick skin” so that I can just keep moving forward.

    I also work for a company that uses “fearless feedback”, which I gather is also more about criticism. Being a creative person, I put my all into everything I create. When I’m finished, it takes some time to re-charge. Again, I understand that not everyone will like what I create, but to belittle someone’s work? No.

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” resonates in my mind from my childhood. I wouldn’t want someone to talk smack about me, so it would be good if I didn’t talk smack about someone else. I also like the part of your article where you mentioned being in the gladiator in the arena, and having to choose to heed or ignore those that heckle from the stands. My brother is a sports fan, and he’s always talking about how bad our hometown teams are doing, where as I am someone who says “that’s great” if we win, or “try harder/be better prepared next time” if we don’t win.

    I apologize for the length of this reply, but I just wanted to know what your thoughts are on what I said, and while I know everyone is their own person, am I a dying breed?

    Thanks.