How good are you at dealing with criticism?

A while ago I completed Tara Mohr’s programme for women Playing Big. A topic that we explored, and a chapter in her book Playing Big: A Practical Guide for Brilliant Women Like you, is Unhooking from praise and criticism. It really got my thinking about the role of criticism in my life. The central tenet of the chapter is that ‘playing big’, (striding towards realising our fullest potential) is based on movement. Fear of criticism is one of the things which can constrain us from moving forward.

I wonder how often you’ve thought about the impact that fear of criticism has on you? How do you respond to criticism or the thought of it? Do you play safe and stick with the things you know you do well? Does it stop you stretching into new areas of your work and life?


An analogy Tara Mohr uses is one of a paintbox. It took me to that wonderful place of having one as a child. All those wonderful  blocks of colour lined up waiting to be used.

If we imagine those colours as representing  our full potential when we play big we are painting with the full spectrum. However when we try to avoid criticism we rule out a whole set of colours. We only use those that are familiar to us.

Conflating critique and criticism.

Something which has helped me is thinking about the difference between critique and criticism. Lets take a look at how they are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something.

Criticism: The expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.

Similar and yet, oh so very different.

If I look back at my experience of being on the receiving end of criticism (and I use that word because that’s how it felt) I can see how easy it is to mix them up. My experience has varied from receiving the supportive, developmental kind to the no holds barred, take yourself off to a darkened room and lie down kind.

All part of being a researcher?

Whilst everyone acknowledges that such experiences go with the territory of being a researcher there is very little discussion about the potential impact this can have or strategies that can be developed to support us. In my experience, when the topic comes up in conversation it tends to be treated with much bravodo and ‘me too’ stories.  Whilst these are perhaps comforting and reassuring, they are not the most helpful way of moving forward.

The key words to reflect on here are ‘the detailed analysis and assessment’ ….. which implies objective constructive feedback and ‘the expression of disapproval’ which is a personal value judgement of something or someone. It is so easy to turn the critique of our work into a criticism of us.

Feedback from article reviewers which conclude unsuitable for publication or on a report we have written becomes ‘you see I knew my work wasn’t good enough to be published’ or ‘I know I’m not very good at writing’. Rather than, OK, it doesn’t fit with this journals requirements. I can use the feedback to help me revise my paper. I can think about where else it can be submitted.. 

The ease with which this happens is increased when the feedback we receive feeds into our inner critic. When our inner critics cage is rattled it wakes up and is great at saying things like: you are not good at what you doyour idea isn’t very good, keep it to yourself’ ………….

Maybe it’s time to start exploring this issue a little more. For those of you who are interested, you might find this YouTube video from Tara Mohr a good starting point. The video is aimed at women and focuses specifically on our relationship with praise and criticism.  It takes you through the reasons why she feels that women are hooked on fear of criticism and seeking praise. She also gives some suggestions for how we can redesign our relationship with both. It lasts for 30 minutes so this is something you will need to make some time to listen to.

But I found it really helpful in challenging how I think about this topic.