How to Handle Criticism Even When It’s Harsh or Unfair

How to handle harsh criticism

You’re angry. You’re hurt. You’re embarrassed, even humiliated. Someone has done you wrong by criticizing you in a hurtful way.

Sometimes it’s outright and sometimes it’s subtle, but criticism is something we all have to deal with.

There’s a difference between constructive criticism – such as how to improve your business or your product – and someone talking trash. Social media sometimes amplifies the way people are in “real” life. 

People comment and say things they would NEVER say to your face when they’re on social. But then again, a woman said something to my face last week that nearly knocked me over it was so judgmental and well, just cruel.

Here’s some advice how to deal with criticism personally and in your business. 

There’s a difference between feedback and insult

It’s possible that people are not actually criticizing you, they just disagree with you.

In many ways, we tend to assume we’re always right, so we treat feedback as criticism. I remember pitching a new idea to another consultant – one I liked and trusted – and she pointed out all the potential problems with my genius idea. I got defensive and rushed to get off the phone with her. It took me a while to realize she was sincerely trying to help but I was too self-absorbed to notice.

Consider the source

Who’s doing the criticizing? Is there something going on in his or her life that makes them so critical? It could be a situational thing and the appropriate response may be let it slide. Kind of like every morning at 11 am when my younger son starts to act sassy and short-tempered. He’s a BEAST. I know he’s just hangry so I let it go and get him some food ASAP.

However, there are just some people who are full of negativity and can’t find the good in anything. What’s worse is when other people get dragged into the nonsense and actually listen and maybe even believe the negative person. You just have to trust that anyone “normal” will figure out what Lady Nasty’s all about take what she says with a grain of salt.

Success means criticism

When I heard success = criticism the first time I found it to be a rather sad statement, however true. When you have a measure of success, or perceived success, people get jealous. Many people doubt their ability to do something BIG, and if they see you doing it, it reflects back on them. So they strike back by taking a pot-shot at you so they feel a little better.

Your Mom was right after all

I remember in 3rd grade when I came home from school crying because Nora (yes, I remember her name) said something nasty about me. I was inconsolable. She was a really popular blonde girl, Mom, and my best friend! My Mom looked me in the eye and said, “She’s jealous of you.” While Mom had a hard time convincing my 9-year-old self of that, I see it clearly now. Criticizing others is a classic way to make you feel better.

You’re in my space

When your competition is critical, it hurts. The idea that “this is my territory” so back off sometimes happens among entrepreneurs. Often, your success is a threat to others’ success. They’re worried about their business, and too many times they look to how you could hurt them rather than potential ways you could collaborate and SHARE some business. Their criticism comes from a place of fear and all you can really do is ignore it and NOT strike back, no matter how badly you want to. It will only make you look bad and unprofessional, I promise.

But what if it’s true?

When someone criticizes us, it points out our own insecurities. If you secretly agree that you’re not really all that talented, or whatever the topic of the criticism is, you’ll want to take a look at that. If the criticism really triggers you, it’s an opportunity to get to the root of it. Perhaps you maybe, sort of, kinda agree with the criticism. What can you do about it? Can you use it to improve? Find a way to take what’s useful to evolve – yourself or your business – without judgement and move forward.

My Dad used to tell me that times of great pain are times of great growth. I hated when he said that – I’ve grown enough, dammit. But I see his point more and more every day. Experiences of criticism can prompt a lot of pain and a LOT of internal searching. This can lead to growth and we all appreciate that.

3 reality checks to keep yourself sane

1) Let it Go: You can listen to what “people” say or you can keep your sanity. It’s your choice. Don’t forget to consider the source. Forgiveness is hard. But staying angry has devastating side effects. I love this quote from Buddha:

“Holding on to your anger is like gripping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else: you are the one that gets burned.”

2) Write a letter. One good way to accomplish “Let it Go” is to write a letter to the “offender”. I mean get it all out – slap down on the truth and the injustice you have been subjected to! Then rip that letter up and take a deep breath. It just feels good to tell your side – in actual black and white – and have your voice heard, albeit in your own head.  

Start the letter with, “I’d like to tell my perspective…” I’m serious, though, do NOT mail this letter. And did you notice I say a letter and not an email? That’s because an email is too easy to send. Don’t do it. No good can come from a confrontation.

3) The best way to avoid criticism is to stay home with the phone off, never check email, stay off social media, be silent, travel nowhere, make no friends, make no decisions, take zero action, and have no business whatsoever. That’s not likely to happen, right?

“Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” ~Aristotle

If you’re in the game, really IN it, there will be criticism. It’s the price of admission for owning a business and being successful. If you mentally prepare for negative feedback, it won’t slow you down too much when it happens. As Paul Newman said, “If you have no enemies, you don’t have character.” I’d rather take the heat.

What do YOU think about all this?

I’d love to hear your take on this topic. Have you been hurt by criticism and how did you handle it? Did it spur you on or paralyze you for a bit? Or maybe both…

Be specific and share your best story, advice, and experience in the comments below.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the conversation.




17 Responses

  1. I have had my share of subtle and overt criticism. It depends on the situation and the person giving it. I have to agree with Paul Newman because my father warned me against this at a very young age. He also understood that I was a very multi-talented kid and some times became a little too protective. So, I’ve had my share of criticism. Some evasive, some bold, some just nasty. I usually step back and don’t respond, reserve the defense. Take it apart and delve deep…I mean deep (but only for a day flipping it around to test in my body if there is resonance). Most of the time, it is someone who doesn’t have a clue. Second is someone whom I didn’t ask for feedback and usually reply “thanks for sharing” and move on. But a few times during a very cruel interaction I called the person on their nasty behavior and told them outright. My space is a positive space, your opinion is just mean. And meanness is not tolerated here. please leave my booth or wherever. I have seen women be appalled at my boldness and others cheer me on. It’s a big bad world and I’m a big badass.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience Jane! It’s super big of you, to channel this negative experience into something positive for the rest of us! Impressive and notable! I’ve definitely had friends/family who are “non-believers” in what I’m doing, but I’m sure there’s more to come! I’m definitely tucking m away this post for when that happens 🙂 Thank you for being vulnerable with us!

  3. I think for entrepreneurs it’s difficult for us and we can’t turn the other cheek or stay passive about it if the criticism is unfair, and public – like posted on social media or a blog. We all need our income and just one ill-willed person – whatever their motive – can turn away potential customers. I think firm, professional responses that directly relate to the points made in the criticism that do not insult back are always the way to go. Of course if it’s touching a nerve but a strong, gracious statement tells the customer that you are serious about your business and always growing, always evolving and are humble enough to receive helpful advice with an open mind. I love your idea of writing a letter with all the emotions and then throwing it away. A great release before moving on to the professional response.

    1. Wendy, I love your perspective! Thanks so much for sharing it! You’re absolutely right that our first response is going to be way too emotional and the second spot response will be much more professional.

  4. Hello Jane,
    I was surprised to see your subject line because the past week was filled with a truck-load of criticism for me, and it seemed no matter what I did I just couldn’t change it: I just sought a friends opinion on my next line, and the feedback I got was heartbreaking lol. But I decided to let it go…then I saw your blog. Thank you, is an understatement.

    1. Ohhhhhh Samira, I am so glad this helped! Every entrepreneur on the planet has been through it so please no you are not alone! I’m rooting for you!
      – Jane

  5. I have one more technique to share. I was recently targeted with some vicious criticism that may have had a nugget of truth but was expressed in such an utterly hateful way that defies description. It literally paralyzed me for days, until I opted for a session with an excellent hypnotherapist who helped me to finally let it go. Sounds woo-woo I know, but I have found this practice helpful in other aspects of my life and was still surpristed at how helpful it was with this issue.

    1. Nancy, this is an awesome way to deal with it! Years ago, my Mom went to a hypnotist to help her stop smoking z our family was always big on woo woo. She had to go back for a few more sessions but I’ll tell you, it totally worked! Good for you.

  6. I love this message. The reality is that we all need feedback, if only just to assure ourselves that we’re moving the right general direction. But your points are excellent and worthy of being shared. I will bring them with me to share with fellow designers at FABRIC in Tempe, AZ next weekend at our very first “mutual admiration society” meeting–LOL! This will be a wonderful ice breaker–we’ve all been there. Thank you!!!

  7. After one of my first custom orders at a live event, I realized the customer forgot to write their apartment number and I forgot to confirm I had the correct address. I only had the customers email and no number to call them, so I emailed them asking for the apt number and didn’t hear back. After a couple of business days of waiting for a response, I shipped the package to the building hoping it would make it to them on time. The customer responded to my email a week later saying that they didn’t get their order and what I was doing was unethical, which shocked me. I responded to the email explaining I made a mistake by not getting the contact number or confirming the address and I tracked the package to find out their doorman had the order. After explaining the situation, the customer gave me no response, which bothered me because the situation didn’t feel resolved. I learned a lot from that first order about confirming correct information, but the criticism felt harsh, like it was coming from a place of bitterness.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Kisha. It’s amazing how a seemingly simple transaction can turn very complicated quickly!

  8. Wow! Jane this happened to me yesterday. My friend laughed and told me i would never make any real money with my buisness and i should just give up because i was wasting my life. I laughed at her, finished up the dress i was making sent her a pic with a big smiley face and thanked her, with this staement. Haters make you Greater!?

  9. My best friend has been critisizing me for no reasons. She broked up our friendship too and now she has always been attacking on my character through her social media post. It has been difficult for me to handle those unfair criticism. Thanks for this article. I needed this. Could you post some more things that will help?

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