How to Overcome the Fear of Being Criticized

Here's how to see feedback as a learning opportunity instead of an obstacle.

Courtesy of Andrii Yalanskyi / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Andrii Yalanskyi / Shutterstock

Many of my clients deal with fear of criticism and it pervades several areas of their lives. At work people fear criticism from their managers and colleagues so they keep quiet and don’t share their opinions. They play it safe. At home people fear that they’ll be criticized by their spouse or partner so they don’t speak their mind. They back down when they sense conflict. In friendships people often don’t set boundaries because they fear doing so will lead others to think they are selfish and they’ll be criticized as a result.  

Whatever the setting, it’s this fear that keeps people stuck. By not speaking up and sharing your ideas at work, you’ll never advance. People won’t know your thoughts and will have no reason to recognize your worth and to promote you. It’s safe to remain quiet. But being safe certainly doesn’t get you any further than you are right now.

Had Steve Jobs been afraid of criticism, he never would have expressed his gutsy technologically advanced ideas and we wouldn’t have all the innovations that Apple has brought us. At home people fear they’ll be judged or criticized. It creates an unhealthy dynamic in the relationship where fear of criticism holds one person back. The result: They stay stuck and come to accept this unproductive status quo. In friendships, people are sometimes afraid of being criticized and ultimately rejected by a friend if their views are different so rather than express them, they just agree with their friend in order to keep the peace. This fear of being criticized leads to resentment and will ultimately make the friendship intolerable for both.

Here’s how to deal with your fear of criticism:

Focus on what you believe in and what you did right. Be careful not to take to heart criticism or let it define you. If valid, it’s a learning opportunity. If it isn’t, then it’s a reminder that your ideas hit a nerve and can potentially be polarizing, or maybe an opportunity to re-evaluate your approach or message. Stay focused on what’s most important: your views and beliefs.

Speak your mind. Don’t be deterred by opposing views or criticism. Doing so is avoidance and that will make you weaker, not stronger. Don’t let others define you. Know what you believe in and stand firm. In my 2012 New York Times opinion piece, I took a chance and expressed my views, even though I knew they may not be well-received by colleagues. I did it because I truly believed in what I said.

Accept the notion that there will be some people who love you and others who don’t. It’s hard to please everyone. Diverse opinions are what ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Change your self-talk. Instead of thinking, “I can’t deal with this” or “Maybe they are right about me”, think, “I am strong and can roll with the punches” or “Others don’t define me, I define me”.

Wait before responding. Your initial response to criticism might be emotionally-laden and likely will not help you to handle the situation in a healthy way. Pause, take a deep breath, and wait. Then when you have a clear head formulate a response.

Move on. Thank the person for the feedback, tell him or her you’ll give it more thought, and then move forward. Don’t dwell on it. Dwelling will only hold you back.

Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days by Jonathan Alpert.

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