Criticism, Defensiveness, and the Opportunity to Learn

Does being told that you did something wrong upset you. I know it used to be very difficult for me. Receiving criticism can leave you feeling vulnerable, incompetent, embarrassed, and a variety of other negative emotions. This is largely because we live in a society that values being correct and stigmatizes being wrong. There is pressure to always have the right answer in order to fit in, seem smart, and succeed. However, I have found that, because most people feel this way internally, they tend to be understanding and empathetic when other people are candid about their mistakes and open to learning from them. The majority of employers I have spoken to do not judge an employee by the mistakes they make, but by how they respond to those mistakes and improve.

While the negative feelings associated with being criticized are powerful, overcoming them is important because receiving, internalizing, and responding to criticism is how we improve. How can we know what we are doing wrong if no one tells us? How do we know what we need to improve on if we don’t know what we are doing wrong? We can’t!

The first thing to understand is that being wrong is a natural part of being human. We make mistakes. Stephen Hawking makes mistakes. Bill Gates makes mistakes. Even Albert Einstein made mistakes. If these geniuses make mistakes, you can be sure that we all do. Keeping this in mind can help stave off the instinctual defensiveness often arise. Holding back our defensiveness allows us to listen to the concepts behind the criticism and accurately evaluate them in reference to our perception of our performance.

Here are the steps I try to follow:

  1. Remind myself that I am not the only one to make mistakes and doing so is not the end of the world.
  2. Remind myself that the criticism I am receiving is a blessing because it offers me the ability to learn and improve.
  3. Listen to the criticism.
  4. Ask questions to clarify your mistake.
  5. Ask questions to clarify what course of action the person believes you should take to improve.
  6. Thank the person for the opportunity to learn and improve.
  7. Think about the criticism and the steps that you are going to take to fix the problem.

As a note: You will likely not feel that all the criticism you receive is accurate. And it might not be! The important thing is being open to admitting that you did something wrong or that you could have done better. Additionally, receiving criticism, even when you disagree with it, can help you begin a self-examination of your actions, progress, and results. By doing this you can determine the things you believe you do well and the things you need to improve on continue on your journey of personal development.

All of life is a learning experience. When you are 10 and when you are 50. We all have the ability to improve and should actively seek to do so on a daily basis. Being the best you that you can be gives you the greatest opportunity for success.

Alejandro Esquino