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Do Yourself a Favor… Learn From Criticism

Don't let the narcissistic injury of criticism get you down. Learn from it.

Often criticism is experienced as a narcissistic injury. We deflect or minimize it as we try our best to maintain our self esteem. Sometimes we lash back by being highly defensive and killing the messenger. Maybe we need to reflect on criticism more thoughtfully with an observing ego and learn from it instead.

Of course some criticism is offered in a mean spirited and hurtful way. But often it is not. Without appropriate corrective feedback we can’t improve ourselves. It is critically important to know the difference between helpful corrective feedback and the more destructive mean spirited criticism that aims to hurt. Perhaps when criticized we need to take a long deep breath, count to 10, and ask ourselves as objectively as possible if there is any truth to the criticism and what can be learned from it.

I find that it is harder and harder to offer corrective criticism to people. As a college professor and psychologist in clinical practice I have little choice but to give corrective feedback and criticism. After all, I need to give students grades in courses, exams, term papers, and so forth. Often I have students who get upset if they didn’t do as well as they expected on a test, term paper, or other college class activity. Sometimes it feels like no one in their lives has ever told them that they weren’t perfect in every way. Sometimes they lash back by offering a nasty review of the course on the internet. Actually, it is sad to see at least some students simply unable to accept any corrective feedback. To be fair, most students deal with criticism reasonably well but there are always a few who take great offence at corrective feedback. They take it as a narcissistic injury and just can’t learn from it.

Furthermore, when it comes to criticism I think that so much is in the delivery. Can you offer and accept feedback with graciousness, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to be honest yet respectful?

Sometimes harsh criticism can be motivating. For example, when I was in college, one of my psychology professors told me that while I had excellent grades I wasn’t actually very smart at all relative to the other students and that I should give up on my quest to go to graduate school for a PhD in psychology. He encouraged me to be a social worker since the educational demands would be lighter in his view and was more consistent with my lower level of intelligence relative to my peers. I don’t think he was mean spirited and actually in many ways I thought that he was correct. I was a student at Brown University, a competitive Ivy League school, and I came from a local working class family where hardly any relatives went to college and many were high school drop outs (including my father). I had a thick RI accent as well (which just doesn’t sound very intelligent relative to a British accent for example). Most students were smarter than me but I always got the top grade since I worked harder than anyone. Most of my classmates came from privilege and weren’t as motivated as I who saw quality education as a ticket out a life of hard manual labor. This professor’s comment made me work that much harder. Although I ignored his advice I am grateful for his criticism and have used it to motivate myself for 30 years.

So, don’t let the narcissistic injury of criticism get you down. Listen to criticism. Reflect on it. Take it seriously and thoughtfully. See what you can really learn from it. Try your best not to get defensive and certainly don’t kill the messenger. Use it to your advantage to be better in all that you say and do.

So, what do you think?

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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