Three steps to make yourself bulletproof to criticism

Skip the Small Talk Bulletproof to Criticism Blog Post

I used to be awful at receiving critical feedback or anything I perceived as rejection. I was so bad at it that it led me to quit things I otherwise enjoyed. I went to musical theater camp as a middle schooler and got turned down for big parts for two summers, so I quit. As a dance team member in high school, I had to hear about how I could improve on a regular basis, so I quit. The pattern pervaded pretty much all aspects of my life for years.

It wasn’t until I started volunteering at a suicide hotline that I learned how to take feedback well as I was exposed to truckloads of feedback that was all painful for me to receive; callers regularly hung up on me, other callers insulted me, and some others, in their most vulnerable moments, told me that I wasn’t enough to help them. It destroyed me until my emotional exhaustion forced me to change my approach to feedback. Once I changed the way I dealt with feedback, I became capable of so much more than I ever had been before-- it gave me the superpower of doing things I was bad at for an extended period of time. And doing things I was bad for a long time at was how I got good at really hard things, like picking up phones at a suicide hotline, starting an organization, and having tough conversations in my own life. What made all those possible was my ability to persist even while I was awful at them.

Of course, skillfully responding to feedback is easier said than done. When you’re feeling distressed in response to critical feedback, your brain may be crying out, “I need to feel validated!” Or, “I need to believe I’m a good person!” Those thoughts are perfectly okay, and you absolutely should address them later. When you’re receiving tough feedback or a boundary, let those feelings come up, and do what you can to accept that this might be uncomfortable and imperfect for a little. Then:

1. Reward the person for telling you.

Setting boundaries and offering criticism is usually hard for most people, and a simple expression of gratitude can turn an awkward experience into one that brings you closer. Even if hearing other people’s boundaries and criticism is your least favorite thing in the world (which it certainly used to be for me), you absolutely need to do what you can to make the people in your life feel comfortable being honest with you about feedback if you hope to ever be close to them, and a simple “thank you,” or “I’m glad you told me this,” goes a long way.

For example, if your roommate says, “You never pick up after yourself,” try starting off with something like, “I’m glad you let me know my mess was a problem for you,” even if the way they’re telling you about it isn’t ideal. Another example: If you ask someone on a date and they say no, a simple, “Thanks for letting me know.” is a great start.

2. Take action, or commit to taking action

This makes it clear that you respect their opinion or boundary. You have a lot of valid options when it comes to making it clear that you respect what somebody else just told you, so feel free to experiment with this. Here are some examples:

  • If someone tells you the event you’re holding isn’t diverse and that’s a problem, you might say, “Thanks for telling me. I hadn’t noticed that, but I think you’re right that it could benefit from more diversity. I’ll look into more ways of doing that in the future, and I’m open for input if you have any ideas.”
  • If you ask someone for a hug and they say, “No thanks,” you might respond with  a simple, “Thanks for letting me know” and smile and wave while saying, “Hi,” instead. The action is likely enough to demonstrate that you’ve heard and will respect their request.

  • If someone says, “You just don’t get me,” you could say, “I’m glad you’re telling me how you’re really feeling, and I’m sorry that I’m missing something important. Would you feel comfortable telling me more about what this like for you so I can try to understand?” The question is a great way to genuinely demonstrate that you’re invested in “getting” the person.

Even if you disagree with the feedback you receive, offering some sort of solution to their concern can make all the difference. For instance, if your roommate says, “You always leave your dishes in the sink,” and you know it’s not you because you were out of town, you can say, “Thanks for telling me that instead of letting it simmer-- I actually wasn’t in town this week, so maybe we should chat with our other roommate to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

3. Once you’re away from the situation, rebuild your sense of stability.

This can be anything from talking to a friend about it to writing about it to treating yourself especially kindly. Receiving feedback or boundaries can be tough, no matter how small it seems. It’s useful to remember that your needs still matter, that it’s okay to feel hurt, and that your value as a person remains static no matter what. Nobody is perfect, and you’re in the process of learning to be imperfect more skillfully. And that takes courage and strength.

Taking care of yourself in the wake of some hard feedback is the easiest part to skip. DON’T. This is the most important step. This is the step that makes it possible to open yourself up to feedback again. This is the step that builds your resilience so you can do steps one and two again.

This is also the step that I had the good fortune of receiving in my training at the suicide hotline; no matter how big or obvious the mistake I made, somebody more experienced than me would tell me that the mistake I made was understandable, even when human lives were hanging in the balance. Hearing that from somebody else helped rebuild my sense of self. It was the missing piece that finally, after decades of being awful at feedback, allowed me to re-evaluate how I could make others feel heard. I realized over time that even when others weren’t available to help me rebuild my sense of self, I could offer it to myself. And it’s what I still do every time I feel a little discombobulated in response to feedback.

How are you at receiving feedback? Have any more tips on how to respond to feedback?