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Understanding Criticism

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 4th 2012

Understanding CriticismTo be really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it's very difficult to take criticism. Rather than all the successes we have had, criticism sticks in our minds the most. We obsess over it. We feel ashamed for having been criticised. We feel dumb, stupid and inept because of it. We also react defensively to negative feedback. We feel judged and reject what we are being told. We get angry and, like children, say, "yeah, but..." Rarely, do we see criticism as constructive or helpful information and an evaluation to improve performance. Why is this so?

Part of the problem has to do with the way criticism is passed along to us. Generally, it is thought that the best way to evaluate and give negative feedback is to first heap praise. Euphemistically, it's "building someone up for the big let down." The "big let down," following the praise, is the flood of negative information.

Studies show that we are able to listen to and integrate small amounts of negative information at one time. Given in small amounts, we are able to accept these judgments of our performance. When given in small doses, we are able to think about the criticisms, mull them over and digest the information for later use. In addition, studies show that praise is more effective when it is given after the criticism rather than before it and also in small amounts.

You may be asking yourself, "well, what has this to do with me?" The answer is, "a lot," because we are often in situations where we criticise someone. As a parent, husband or wife, boss, or friend, there are times when getting or receiving this information is inevitable.

For example:

"I'm reminded of the time, many years ago, when my wife and I were newly- weds. My mother in law was shocked when I criticised a dish my wife had prepared for dinner. She thought I should just eat and either be quiet or praise it. The trouble was, I knew that if I said nothing, I would get the same dish again. Just to clarify, I liked the dish but not some of the ingredients that went into its preparation. My wife knew then, as she knows now, that I love her cooking. She wasn't upset with me and even agreed about the amounts of some of the spices she had used. She has always been able to direct criticism toward me during those times when I needed feedback because I was unaware of something I was doing."

Nevertheless, it is difficult to receive negative feedback even under the best of situations. We seem to soak up and remember the bad much more than the good. There is a way to counteract that tendency. Keeping a log of good things, happy outcomes, times when praise was received and returning to that log to remind ourselves of those things, reverses the tendency to react badly to criticism.

As a parent raising small kids, it should be remembered that they do better when they are given a correction that is limited and accompanied by something positive afterwards. Heaping on a mound of corrections is never effective. The kids just will not hear it.

What are your experiences with criticism?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
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Why does negative feedback hurt? - - Apr 5th 2012

In the 1960’s I learned to be a computer programmer.  That was before personal computer, monitors, and mice.  All that software was back then was a series of instructions, written in order.

It was very hard the first few times I submitted my programs and got back a list of my errors.  First were the “syntax” errors, where the instructions that I had written were not formulated correctly, which meant that the computer could not interpret them.  I would feel embarrassed and inadequate and like the computer was criticizing me.  It was hard to submit another, corrected set of instructions.  But eventually, after I had had several programs to actually work, I accepted the process of finding errors.  I even started looking forward to the list of errors, as well as the final success of my programs, because I knew that finding and getting the errors out was an essential part of getting the program to work.

After I had been doing this for a few years, I had a job working to convert a large program written a language for one mainframe computer to a form that would work on another mainframe.   Two other people were working on different parts of the conversion.  We all got our parts to work independently, putting in “dummy” calls to parts of the program that the others were doing.  One weekend we all got together and tried to get the programs to work all together.  Of course, as expected, it didn’t at first.  As we were talking about the problems, I noticed that we talked about our programs as if they were us.  For instance, “Oh, here, I’m doing A instead of B, and then I call you and you do C.”  But there was no embarrassment or criticism.  No “ego” attached to the notion of “Oh, I see here that I’m doing A instead of B”.  And when someone else pointed out something that was wrong with somebody else’s program, the response was “Oh, thank you for finding my bug.”

The only way any of us would succeed was if the entire conversion was successful.  We all respected each other and had different specialties and so being informed of errors was just a part of the way to get the project to work.

It occurred to me later that “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could talk about their own personal errors with the same lack of anxiety or embarrassment.”

Generally we can’t, though.  I’m not entirely sure why.

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