How to Deal with Criticism

Everyone deals with criticism from time to time, but when it interferes with important aspects of your life, it might be time for some change. Sometimes a healthy dose of sarcasm or an elaborate story about how you’ve been hunting colonies of zombies in the mojave desert will do the trick. But if those seem inappropriate or unsuccessful, John Bradshaw’s book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, has techniques on how to respond to those passive aggressive remarks and direct attacks. He believes there is no value in criticism, he defines it as the subjective interpretation of one person based on that person’s experience and grounded in their personal history

It is important to NOT defend yourself, that is to not become defensive and try to justify your convictions. By engaging that person in a game where you’re bound to lose, sometimes the best thing to do when facing a bully is to withdraw from the situation. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up your pride, it means rejecting the shame they’re trying to toss your way. Joyce Meyers compares criticism to a poisonous snake and asks, “when someone gives us this poisonous snake, why do we accept it and carry it with us when it’ll only continue to hurt us?”

Bradshaw suggests these techniques he calls The 8 C’s: Clouding, Clarifying, Confronting, Columbo-ing, Confessing, Confirming, Comforting, and Confusing.

Clouding: Instead of struggling to fight off the impact, let the statement pass through you like a cloud. Provide vague statements that acknowledge “the truth” or the possibility of the truth in the critic’s statement. Maybe next time your mother calls to lecture you about your recent financial decisions and says, “You took out too many loans. You’re gonna be in debt for the rest of your life” You answer, “You’re right, I may have taken out too many loans.” And she might say, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?” And you simply say, “I’ll find a way to pay off those loans.”

Clarifying: It lures out the real issue at hand by exposing their cruel intentions of infecting you with their shame. The criticism is either purely subjective or a critic’s attempt to purge and disguise their own shame by sending it to you. To figure out the real issue at hand, you need to ask for clarification. Regardless of what they say, asking for clarification forces the adult part (oriented towards logic and objectivity) to reveal their repressed feelings or exhaust their judgment.

Imagine your friend says, “You’re not gonna wear that shirt, are you?”

You ask in a neutral tone, “What don’t you like about this shirt.”

If she says, “It looks cheap.”
You ask, “What is it that you don’t like about cheap shirts?” or “What is it about cheap shirts that bother you?”

Confronting: This may trigger rage in your critic, in these circumstances, it’s best to be calm and assertive. Say, “I’ll be willing to talk to you after you’ve calmed down” and leave. Bradshaw also recommends several guidelines to follow. The first is use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. By using sensory-based behavioral terms like “I sense, I feel, I want, I interpret,” you declare responsibility for you perceive. It may sound intimidating, but you’ll need to look the person in their eyes. For some people it helps to stare at a spot between the person’s eyes instead. Bradshaw used a confrontation with a relative as an example. Even though he had worked on managing that critical voice in the back of his mind, sometimes it would surface. He suggests working on countering that voice with some affirming statements like, ” I am celebrating life with a fine new car.” or “I deserve to indulge myself once a while.” His relative had made a criticizing/patronizing comment about his new and expensive car. He turned to his relative and said, “When you make comments like that, I’m under the impression that you feel bad about my good fortune and it has somehow triggered your shame. I’m sorry you have that shame, so I’m gonna send you a copy of my new book on healing shame.” After that, the person gave him a long, defensive lecture about sensitivity, insisting that he was misunderstood. The relative said that he was indeed very happy for him, that he deserved it. Bradshaw agreed, and drove off.

Columbo-ing: Inspired by the antics of the tv character, Detective Columbo deflects insecurities projected. Columbo appears to be messy and incompetent, but he is actually a master of insignificant details and identifying concrete information. For those who don’t know, Monk (the popular tv detective) is the contemporary version of Columbo. When you “columbo” your critic, you play dumb and ask a lot of questions. You say, “Now let me see if I’m getting this straight, you think I should stop styling my hair this way. What is it about my hairstyle that you don’t like?” When he answers your question, you go through the same routine. The goal is to get to the bottom of it, to expose his subjectivity and false pretext. The criticism is usually about his toxic shame and not about your hairstyle.

Confessing: This response is useful if you have clearly and undeniably done what you are being criticized for. If you spill the milk, you say, “Yes, I did spill the milk.” Simply make an acknowledging statement. Don’t add comments like, “how stupid of me” or “I can be so clumsy sometimes.” Acknowledging the mistake is a way to keep us focused on our healthy shame. We can and will make mistakes, we don’t have to apologize for them, as they are an inherent part of the human condition.

Confirming: To be used when talking to a parent, or any critical person for that matter. For example, If you’re talking on the phone, and you sense the impending criticism, place your hand over the mouthpiece and say aloud to yourself, “I will not take your offense. Your criticism is not about me, but about you.” Repeat this statement over and over. You can also anchor this positive statement, by visualizing yourself standing tall, looking confident, and looking the other person in the eye as you say it aloud. As you feel the strength and power, anchor this experience by touching a thumb and finger together and holding the touch until you feel the power of confirming yourself. Later on, when sitting in your boss’ office or in some context where you are being criticized, you can channel your frustration by touching your thumb and finger together to hear your own confirming voice as you face the authority figure.

Comforting: Unintentionally harming another person is an inevitable part of life. If you inadvertently violate another person’s boundaries, acknowledge the intrusion by making reasonable amends. Allow the other person to express her feelings, and be comforting by practicing active listening (by sincerely restating and rephrasing what she says in order to reduce misunderstandings and conflict.) It avoids triggering a shame spiral that attempts to blame or defend yourself. Let’s say your car was blocking the driveway while you’re away from the house (while walking the dog, for instance), when you return, your roommate is annoyed and frustrated. The person says, “I’m late for my interview, you should have asked if I needed to use my car.” You can say, ” I sense the urgency in your voice, I’ll go move my car right away” or “I know it can be frustrating sometimes.”

Confusing: This tactic is usually used as a last resort geared towards non-intimate relationships. Confusing is a way to get someone off your back, or when you feel vulnerable and you can’t seem to confront or clarify. In confusing, you either use a big word or an imaginary word out of context. Those SAT vocabulary words will finally come in handy. For example, a co-worker scolds you for taking too much time during your lunch hour. You’ve been through this issue with this person before, and don’t feel like going through the same futile disputes. So you look at him and say, “Man, the traffic was oleaginous today.” Using an unfamiliar word, or word out of context, is often a real stopper. You can see the puzzled look on the other person’s face, his mind is now trying to figure out what you just said. You simply smile and walk away. Incorporate the silly and playful parts of yourself. You can feel some satisfaction as you see the critic pause in confusion. Confusing the other person allows you to maintain control, and grants you a moment of enjoyment rather than defensiveness.


  • These techniques are suggestions and won’t necessarily work in every situation, so learn several ones to stash in your arsenal.
  • Keep these techniques in mind by posting them on a wall, a mirror, your computer, or even as daily reminders on your cellphone
  • If one technique doesn’t work, practice refining it or try another.
    Be assertive, show ’em who’s the boss…YOU.

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