How to Cope With Criticism

Criticism stings, but breathing, postponing the talk, and knowing how to evaluate it can help you cope.

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You're looking a little pudgy these days. Why didn't you get that promotion? You should be doing a better job with the kids. Why isn't the house cleaner?

Criticism stings. Yes, you're going to feel deflated and defensive, and you're probably going to take it personally. Certainly, it's easier to give than receive. "No one enjoys being criticized, especially if it's unfair," says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger. "Yet how well we respond determines how our relationships go, both at work and at home. A lot is at stake."

It's possible to master the art of coping with criticism, which is important for your well-being: "If you don't learn how to deal with criticism, it'll likely elevate your stress level and compromise your mental and emotional functioning," says psychologist Leon Seltzer, who's based in Del Mar, Calif. "Like everything else, it's best not to let things get to you. That's why learning how to effectively 'process' criticism is so important to happiness and well-being."

Next time you're in the hot seat, try these nine tactics, suggest Lerner and other experts:

1. Breathe. Do what you can to remain calm. Slow your breathing and take a long, deep breath before speaking, says Lerner. When you're on guard, your nervous system quickens, interfering with your ability to appropriately listen and respond.

2. Postpone the conversation if necessary. If deep breaths don't help and you're too riled to engage in a reasonable conversation, trying to listen could actually do more harm than good. Tell the other person that you recognize the conversation's importance, but that you can't have it at that moment. Schedule another time so you can be prepared and ready to talk.

[See: How Your Personality Affects Your Health]

3. Ask for specifics. Doing so helps clarify the other person's point of view, and shows that you care about understanding where they're coming from. If criticism is vague—"You're not a good team player on the job"—request a concrete example, Lerner says. Once you more thoroughly understand the complaint, you can weigh it and decide how to respond.

4. Evaluate the criticism. Is it reasonable? Can it be acted upon? "You have to get over the fact that you were criticized and judge the criticism on its own merits, rather than reacting to it because it hurt your feelings or brought up old self-doubts that you'd rather not revisit," Seltzer says. If the criticism is valid and useful, think about how to implement it. If not, well, at least you considered it. "Either way, you dealt with it, instead of allowing it to make you feel depressed, angry, or upset," he says.

5. Don't return the criticism. Sure, there's a time to bring up your own grievances. But it's not now, when someone has taken the initiative to voice his or her feelings to you.

6. Draw the line at insults. It's time to end a conversation when it takes a turn toward name-calling or deteriorates into a personal attack. Walk away—but offer to resume talking another time. One line that will do the trick? "I want to hear from you, but I need you to approach me with respect," Lerner suggests.

[See: Can Your Mental Health Affect Your Longevity?]

7. Acknowledge the other person's feedback. "Even if it wasn't particularly constructive, you're still better off letting the person know that you took what they had to say seriously," Seltzer says. Otherwise, you risk undermining the relationship by "angrily refuting it or rushing to counter-criticize them," he says.

8. Say thanks. Even if you don't like what the other person has to say, you can thank him or her for initiating a difficult conversation. Expressing gratitude when defensiveness is expected can soothe a tense situation. In addition to calming the situation, it signals your commitment to open communication.

9. Identify your values. "The closer I am to living according to my own values, the less other people's criticism bothers me," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. If a co-worker criticizes what time you leave each day, for example, you may feel guilty or defensive. "But if you think to yourself, what are my values, and why am I choosing to leave at this time, it matters less what other people think. You've decided for yourself what's important."