3 Ways to Overcome the Fear of Criticism

Being criticised is one of those things that makes you want shrink down and disappear, and the fear of criticism is perfectly understandable.

I've been there too. 

I've had people criticise me for being a "homebody", when they had no idea of the chronic illness I have. I've had people criticise me for pumping out self-help nonsense, when my intention is entirely the opposite. And I've had people criticise how I run projects, because it didn't fit with how they thought I ought to be running things.

Criticism can hurt, a lot, and it's that fear of being hurt that sees us doing things like people-pleasing or pursuing perfection. If I can keep everyone happy, you tell yourself, then I won't be called out and criticised.

But the fear of criticism hurts us more than the criticism itself. And if you let that fear call the shots, the impact is huge:

  • You'll aim to fit in, and you'll shape yourself to what other people want you to be
  • You won't take a stand or go out of your comfort zone, because that's where you might be judged and criticised
  • You'll spend your time trying to tick everyone else's boxes, never looking at what you want for yourself

The cost of having the fear of criticism is all too real, but how do you take something so compelling and strip it of its ability to call the shots?

Here are 3 ways.

1. Don’t make it yours

Living in fear of being criticised is a little bit like living in fear of being eaten by a whale. You kind of like whales, they’re beautiful and sort of graceful, but hell, if there’s a chance one of them is going to eat you then it’s for the best that you steer clear of Newfoundland.

This kind of thinking pulls your world inwards, making you justify self-protection because it’s dangerous out there.

It’s the same when a piece of criticism lands on your plate, or when you merely anticipate a piece of criticism. It hurts. It’s hard for it not to, because it’s about you. Right?

Well, not entirely.

You don’t know what’s in the head of the person offering the criticism. Maybe they’ve had a shitty day, maybe they’re just transferring pain or anger from somewhere in their own life and you just happen to be there. Or maybe they think they’re always right and that nobody else can touch them.

Criticism is an observation based on someone else’s experience, context and perception, and it's more about them then it's about you. It's no more reflective of truth than someone telling you that you look good in green makes you a leprechaun.

You’re not obliged to take the criticism and internalise it. Nor are you obliged to take the fear around potential criticism and make it yours.

Ask yourself, "What's the cost of making this mine?", and see if it's a price you're willing to pay.

2. Don’t conflate criticism with your fear of not being good enough

Criticism feels a lot like rejection, doesn’t it?

You look terrible, your attitude is wrong, your performance isn't good enough—when someone criticises you it feels like they’re saying, “Hey, this part of you simply isn't good enough."

Rejection is what you fear; criticism is the vehicle that delivers it.

Criticism hits that nerve that thinks you might not be good enough, after all. It touches that part of you that thinks you’re not worthy of love and belonging, and it stirs the fear that you’re fatally flawed.

These parts of you are like an exposed nerve, and when criticism comes your way it’s easy to feel that twang of hurt and turn it into evidence for you being not good enough. And then you just want to disappear.

Even just the anticipation of this happening is enough to stir a deep fear of criticism, and then you'll do almost anything to avoid it.

But criticism is external. The fear of rejection, fear of criticism and fear of not being good enough are internal.

You can't control what people might say, but you can always control how you respond to it.

If you respond to criticism by having it confirm your worst fears about yourself, then you're doing yourself a massive disservice.

Ask yourself, "What's a way I'd respond to this if I knew I was already whole and already good enough?"

3. Check in on denial and shame

There may be times when a piece of criticism levelled at you touches on something you’re in denial about.

Let’s say, for example, that I continued to believe that I have a full head of luxurious hair. Then along comes Larry who says, “Hey baldy, need some polish for that?

Fucking Larry. The next time I see him, it’s likely that I’m going to be particularly sensitive to what he says. Maybe I go on the offensive right off the bat, or maybe I dial up my defences. Regardless, the fear and hurt about what George said is driving my behaviour while all the time I’m pushing away the undeniable fact that my hairline resembles a rapidly retreating ice shelf.

Point is, nobody likes to be found out or exposed, especially for something they’re in the habit of pushing away out of shame.

The mere anticipation of being called out for something that you're in denial or shame about, is all it takes to alter your whole behaviour in order to avoid it.

Your level of commitment to a project or a relationship. Your efficacy in a skill you’ve been faking. Your level of honesty with regard to who you are at your core.

The amount of fear in being "exposed" can be immense, and the fear of being criticised for something you're in denial or shame about is utterly compelling

So the task here is to be gently aware of what’s down there.

To gracefully and non-judgmentally acknowledge what’s true, without it being a statement about your self-worth. It’s only through a loving acceptance of what’s true for you that you can take the fear out of any criticism levelled at it.

If you're gay, you need to accept that as true. If you're getting older, you need to accept that as true. If you're treading water, you need to accept that as true.

Ask yourself what's underneath that raw nerve, and see what there is for you to accept fully and lovingly.

One thing that beats the fear of criticism...

When you get down to it, the fear of criticism loses its power to make you afraid if you know yourself and trust that you’re already whole and good enough.

That's always the goal.

How do you struggle with the fear of criticism?

  • Criticism is hard to take when my confidance Is low, but when I’m in great shape I remember it’s about them not me. Now I just gotta detangle my confidance from stuff I can’t control.

    • The difference in how you take criticism depending on how confident you feel is the core of it Margie – it proves that you have this kind of confidence. So, what’s a way you can connect with that more often?

  • You say; “To gracefully and non-judgementally acknowledge what’s true without it being a statement about your self-worth. It’s only through a loving acceptance of what’s true for you that you can take the fear out of any criticism levelled at it.”
    That’s why I love Don Imus.. in the morning WABC radio NY.. I listened to him for many years going to and at work 4 decades ago and he is still on, and if you were angry with the boss,, you were not by the time work started. He could give it square to any person but loved them all… But it made one feel better after it is off your chest.. (Imus did that).
    BUT why must we deny our fear?.. of being FIRED?.. it’s happened.. starving, It can happen… family rejection and not just physical attacks but personal and emotional infringements and removal of happiness. Jews had the fear of Nazi’s and discrimination with good reason at all levels. Yes I love myself I can say,, I am a Jew.. I am this and that.. I am fired, poor, homeless, familyless, I am not doing what I should.. I look bad… It’s all my fault…. no…. No.. wait a minute;
    I am not a quick thinker, I always wished I was.. some thoughts took 30 years I should have used the minute the attack was made. Some replies could result in physical attacks. And initial and ongoing attacks are made by WHO? Selfish people.. mentally ill, demanding in stuck situations one cannot avoid. About five stiff drinks might be one way to” lovingly accept “My” condition”.
    Confidence to hand it right back seems the only answer to me now. Why should some people be B M O C (Big man on campus). Don’t let it slide one second… some of these people feed off of superior controlling, feeling good to point out that; you are inferior, even in a so called Joking way, get their digs, nag, gossip, etc. Almost impossible to hand it back.. “I cannot be so cruel as the tormentor.. to cause pain or any loss to another, as I have lived, in my life”, one finds that.. and: It was purely by accident.. I handed it back once. I was attacked half asleep.. it was a knee jerk response… and IT STOPPED. One form of that attackers actions stopped! They are afraid….? They are afraid! They are more afraid than you think. Much more. I have taken enough. It stops now. I may have to walk to keep my property, freedoms, pleasures if you (the attacker) won’t listen. And I will be happy by myself if need be.. even happier feeling the freedom from all the restrictions you (the attacker) put on me. It is like a drug to some people, to put you down.. feels good and it gets worse. So I say.. STOP!!!! NOW, before a few seconds go by. “Yes.. I may be bald.. and you are fat”. Bet no more bald jokes on you. Someone can give a silent treatment but I can lovingly give it back. It will be a cure. One wife tells me “it’s been years but my husband will never answer the phone when I call him.” STOP, do not call him for six months I said. I assure you he will answer the phone after six months. Some attack people will not learn. Some manic people need the chemical high of verbally or physically placing a nice person like you beneath them… and feel good once.. must be right to them, they need that. I don’t think many will change and from what I can see they are so selfish as to not see another’s point of view or needs. I feel for the children of such mothers and fathers. But then many children learn this way of life and believe for life in their parents views. Perhaps that parent is your boss attacker, but such an influence on a child is so unfortunate and upsetting and permanent in many cases. I see those people holding their kids away from people they attack, brainwashing them, and I say, they do not love you and I even question if they love their kids. Selfish is an epidemic now, as is mental illness. Realize it and one can negotiate safer paths in one’s life.

    • You’re right that the “Big Man on Campus” people are that way because of their own insecurities and fears. They do that stuff because they don’t know a better way to do things. Sometimes it might be appropriate to say “Enough”. Other times it’s about letting go and walking away, knowing that their words and deeds aren’t about you.

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