What to do when criticism gets ugly

I got a very critical email last week.  It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t constructive, and it hurt.

I’m co-presenting a three-part telecourse with my friend and mentor, the very wise Gail Larsen, author of Transformational Speaking, If You Want to Change the World, Tell a Better Story.  We created the class based on her work.  She’s never done a telecourse before; I’ve done lots of them.  She’s got a powerful body of wonderful work that needs to spread further; I wanted to help with that by sharing my experience with it.  Together, we created a plan.

After the first class, we received a flood of warm, encouraging responses.  Word of mouth led others to sign up even though the class had started.  Gail and I were over the moon.

Until we got one email that got personal.  Very personal.  And it was directed at me.  Gail was wonderful and inspiring, the writer opined; I was not. And the writer explained, in unkind and pointed words, exactly why she thought I should basically shut up for the rest of the course.

My focus tunneled down, laser-like, to the hurtful words in that email.  I felt the energy drain from my body as my mind raced, scattering in a thousand directions at once.  I forgot all about the positive messages.

One of Gail’s powerful Transformational Speaking principles is to “use your authentic power with those who can hear you, rather than the force of argument with those who can’t.”

Obviously this person hadn’t heard me.  Logically, I knew that.  But telling myself to fuhgeddaboutit wasn’t enough.  I needed to work though the sting and the hurt of her words so I could show up for those who could hear me, without flinching, without holding back, and without being riddled with self-doubt.

I’m fine now.  In fact, I’m stronger and more committed than ever.  Here’s how I got there:

Admit what’s happening inside. 

I started by just admitting it–she’d gotten to me.  Her words stung.  I was hurt, upset, distracted, angry. Old memories spiraled up.  I felt deflated, worried, ashamed.  It was personal and I was taking it personally.  I didn’t like it, but that was the truth.

You can start there too.  Whatever it is, admit it.  Admit exactly where you are and start there.

Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be upset, that anger doesn’t help or to just get over it. Don’t try to be wise or enlightened when you really want to crawl in a hole and hide or you’d like to anoint your critic’s face with thick cream pie, preferably in a very public location.

If you stuff your feelings down, they’ll surely pop up later, surprising you like some giant cosmic game of whack-a-mole.  Usually at a very inconvenient time and place.

So, just admit you’re human and that you’re hurting.

Get in touch with your full reaction.

What sensations are you feeling in your body?  Feel the pressure, vibration, movement, density, temperature, location, direction of your sensations. Racing, swirling, stuck, bubbling, churning—whatever they are, feel them.  Curiosity helps at this point.

And stay with it.   In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says it takes about 90 seconds to fully process our uncomfortable sensations and emotions. But 90 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re not used to doing this.  So stay with it.  Keep feeling what’s present in your body.  Often it’ll completely resolve in a very short time.

What are you thinking?  Let all those worrisome, shame-ridden, and nasty eye-for-an-eye thoughts rip.  Write them all down.  Go ahead.  They’re just words.

Here’s where The Work of Byron Katie can help you realize that the worst thing that can happen is happening in your own mind.  Start with the most painful thoughts and work them through with Katie’s entire process until you can face your critic’s words with neutrality.

Get some wise support if you need it.

This is where your coach, your shrink, your trusted advisor, or your imaginary league of superheroes can help.  Call on them.  That’s what they’re for.

Remember to BMW (bitch, moan, and whine).

Get some unenlightened support, too.  That’s what friends are for.  I told a couple of trusted friends about what the critic had said.  They supported me lovingly, unconditionally, and without reservation. One friend’s response was delightedly over the top—filled with passionate outrage and laced with insults like “poopy-head.”  Reading her email, I laughed hard and immediately felt better.

Defend, justify, and explain yourself.

Write a letter to your critic justifying the choices you made, the words you uttered, the colors you painted with.  Defend yourself. Explain.  Justify. Set the record straight.

Blow your critic’s words to smithereens with your vaster knowledge, your broader experience, your superior intelligence.  Analyze the hell out of the situation.

Don’t forget your excuses.  You were under the weather, your assistant screwed up, your grandmother was hospitalized and the dog ate your homework.

Be truthful, of course, but write it all down.  Then delete the whole thing from your hard drive or tear the page into a thousand little pieces, realizing that you don’t need it.

What you needed was to hear your side and then to let it go.  It’s illuminating, cathartic, and healing.

Look again at the critic’s words, take the high road, and do what is necessary.

After you’ve dealt with the sting and your hurt, when the truth begins to sink in, look again.  Look past the personal, harsh words of your critic.  Get on the high road and decide whether you need to respond, apologize or offer a refund.  If so, do it.  In this case, Gail and I both simply thanked the person for writing and made a full refund to her.

Then, again putting the harsh personal words aside, consider whether there is a kernel of truth in what was offered by your critic.  Is there anything you can use to improve your work?

Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  The point is to look analytically, dispassionately, and to consider the possibility that there is something you can use buried in the vitriol.

If there is, extract the morsel from the mud, being careful not to drop  any of the sludge on your shoes.

If there is no morsel to be found, let it go.  ‘Nuff said.

Remind yourself that creative expression is about commitment, not consensus.

As the poet David Whyte asks, can you “live in the world with its harsh need to change you” and “look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”?

When you offer your voice or your creativity into the world, not everyone will agree with you, appreciate you, support you or like you.

Congratulations.  You took a stand for something.  You didn’t go for bland.  You didn’t water yourself or your offering down to the consistency of baby pablum.  You made a commitment, you took a risk and you let us see you.  Now look back with firm eyes and say, “this is where I stand.”

That’s what coming alive is all about

Remember, you don’t need a lack of criticism in your life; you need to express yourself authentically.

Find your courage and stay the course.

To be sure, I’ve been criticized before.  But in the past, I felt that there was truth contained in the message, something I could learn or use, or an apology I needed to make.  As Rumi said, I used the criticism to “polish my mirror.”

This time, someone didn’t like what I had to say and the way I said it.  In a class designed, at least in part, around what I had to say.

What the hell can you do with that?

I think there is only one thing any of us can do in these situations.  Silently offer our thanks to our critics for helping us see more clearly and grow stronger.  Then it’s time to move forward.

As the magnificent Ralph Waldo said:

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”

So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m feeling fine now.  Going through this process helped.  Writing about it helped, too.  It’s time to let it go and move forward.

And I hope that you find a voice loud and strong and bold enough to draw criticism, too.  And when that happens, even if that criticism is not kind or constructive, look back with firm eyes, map your course of action, find your courage, and follow it to the end.

There’s too much important work to do in the world to make any other choice.

29 thoughts on “What to do when criticism gets ugly

  1. Melinda Bossard

    Terry, Thank you so much for sharing this. When something like this happens to me I usually end up feeling bad about feeling bad. Knowing that you admitted that this hurt made me feel better. Wierd, I know. Thank you for sharing your tools for dealing with unfair criticism. I am loving your class and I am not a public speaker. Thanks to both you and Gail for working so hard to help us tell our stories.

  2. Bindu Van Camp

    Hi Terry
    I am not in your class but was in a previous class, 2 classes actually, with Gail a couple years ago (and yes it was fantastic!) I felt moved and inspired by your response here ..thank you for your wisdom and honesty and it was exactly what I needed to hear right now in my life! Warm regards to both of you and continued success as well. Thank you!

  3. Terry Post author

    Hi Melinda–The Buddha said that the “first dart” of existence is that we will suffer physical and emotional pain. The “second dart” is the one we aim at ourselves because of the first dart and second darts cause most of our suffering. “I shouldn’t feel bad for feeling bad,” is a second dart. I’m so glad you’re now aware of throwing them at yourself. I hope you’ll drop your weapons! And I’m so glad you are loving the class! XOXO

  4. Daggi

    I so wanted to join that class…but I wanted to be live there and the time difference didn’t allow for that. Anyhow, great post as usual I can relate to that on many levels.
    xoxo Much LOVE

  5. Marion Youngblood

    Terry, This is so rich and I love that you gave it to us. There are so many wonderful messages for the taking! The one that speaks loudest to me is your comment, “Remember, you don’t need a lack of criticism in your life; you need to express yourself authentically” Amen. I just got a boost of courage from you. That’s no small thing. Thank you!

  6. Jody Low-A-Chee

    Terry, know that your words were exactly what I needed to hear – and I suspect this to be true for many others. Thank you!

  7. Teresa

    Terri, I really am inspired that instead of keeping the criticism in the dark and hiding in shame and self doubt, that you actually illuminated it for all to see. It’s very healing for all of us who read it. I will remember this the next time someones stinging words or actions threaten to take me down. Thank you so much for your continued inspiration.

  8. Terry Post author

    Teresa–there’s a saying in architecture and design, “If you can’t hide it, feature it!” This experience was burning inside me so strongly I couldn’t hide it, because I know how our sensitivity can block us from our authenticity and our truth. So I just took a deep breath and trusted that if I talked about it openly, something good might emerge. I’m so glad you found it healing.

  9. Kate

    Dear Terry,
    Thank you for such a lovely post, there’s so many great juicy ways for dealing with critics here 🙂 I LOVE IT!!! – probably because i’ve been dealing with my own critics lately, and it’s flipping hard work…..Brilliant post, very helpful and inspiring.

    You’re wonderful, the work you do is wonderful, and I can’t wait to work with you again at sometime in the future – you’re awesome.


  10. Laurie T. Rosenfeld, JD,MA | Coaching for Transformative Change

    Terry, I appreciate the way you have taken something so vulnerable and turned it into a lesson for us all.

    I think this woman gave you the opportunity to share a wise teaching that is relevant to everyone who puts themselves out there — as speakers and in other realms: how to respond to painful criticism.

    I think criticism, ostracism and humiliation goes to the heart of what is so anxiety producing about public speaking: the fear of exile of some kind. And the pain is all that greater when embracing “real speaking” … when we are speaking or stepping out on something that matters deeply to us.

    I think this is a key piece of preparation for speaking … and if you and Gail offer this class again, this could be it’s own module. I think what happened to you is what everyone fears. And like most things, the anticipation is probably worse than the reality.

    In any case, thanks for working your process and showing up fully to last night’s class. It says a lot about you as a person and a coach.

    I have done many of these things at various times and it’s really helpful to have them all listed in one place.

    Thanks for initiating and co-creating this series with Gail, for facilitating the calls, for sharing your personal experience, and for all of your organization with the recordings, homework, etc. I am grateful for all that you are doing.


  11. cassie

    Hi Terry, I loved your post, its a very constructive way to deal with our critics, i’d love to read it in one of my classes, i teach nursing students & think they would benefit from your words.

  12. KJ

    Terry, this was awesome, and so important to talk about because sooner or later it’s likely to happen to all of us. It brings to mind one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes:

    “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

    I don’t think in terms of “enemies” per se, but you could substitute “critics” or “detractors” and the principle holds. It’s important for all of us to know clearly that by being in our truth, other people will not only be provoked by that but feel the need to tell us in no uncertain terms how wrong we are.

    You are totally honest about how it feels when this happens, rather than trying to rationalize it away, and your methods for working through the experience are clear and pragmatic.

    My favorite part, though, is where you talk about being able to seek for any truth in the experience that can help you “polish your mirror”. That’s something that can get lost in the instant rush of “moving towards”, “moving away”, or “moving against” the criticism as a result of the hurt.

    Lovely and much-needed – thank you!

  13. Sangeeta

    Thank you for this excellent, honest article.

    I like your pointing out “Remind yourself that creative expression is about commitment, not consensus.”

    As a creative person myself, I feel there is nothing more important than honouring the inner voice. We live with ourselves 24/7 and i wouldn’t want my inner voice silenced for outer gains.



  14. Kate

    Wow, without you co-creating this wonderful course with Gail, so many of us would probably never have “met ” her. So thank you, and your critic is surely coming from a wild and crazy place, just my opinion, and of course she gets to be there.

    I was with you all the way in your process until you got to “defend, justify and explain yourself.” I know you are saying to get it all down and then send it up in flames, so to speak. For some reason, though, this feels like a negative exercise to me, maybe because it would have been step 1 for me back in the day. I know we are all different, but I would love to hear your wisdom on this.

  15. Terry Post author

    Thanks for your comment and question, Kate. The process of analysis helps me slow down my racing mind, which tends to exaggerate and catastrophize (“The sky is falling! I’m doomed!”). I can then process the facts logically and precisely, and decide if there is any merit to what I’m worrying about.

    Perhaps it’s a leftover from years of lawyering, but once I do it I begin to lighten up inside. Hitting the “delete” key is very liberating.

    My description of this process was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I really do it. For me it works. If it seems negative to you or would set you back, don’t do it.

    Thank you so much for writing. I’m so happy you are enjoying the course.

  16. Beth


    Thank you for–as always–taking on a truth head-on, with compassion and smarts. So many people want to skip the part where they feel the stinging pain of others’ criticism–or they want to stop there and wallow. This is a beautiful step by step primer for handling criticism, and I shall share it with my clients. Sending you appreciation and love. EBH

  17. Betsy

    Feedback’s such a roller coaster — always. Thank you for this — I know I’ll be referring back to it!

  18. Caren

    Thanks for such open sharing! We are all human aren’t we. It’s a great reminder that even those we look up to (you) put their pants on the same way we do.

    This REALLY spoke to me. “One of Gail’s powerful Transformational Speaking principles is to “use your authentic power with those who can hear you, rather than the force of argument with those who can’t.”

    I CAN hear you!
    Smiles and light,

  19. Liz

    Am using this right now. Thank you for offering me some grounding techniques! Also I am at the point where I appreciate the analogy about pulling the morsel from the mud, and not letting any mud get on your shoes while you’re at it. Except in my personal analogy, it’s less polite than mud. ha ha ha. Thanks again.

  20. Terry Post author

    Feel free to be as impolite and as politically incorrect as you’d like Liz! Thanks for your comment!

  21. Calyx

    Wow! Thank you for sharing your insights and process. <–I had to force myself not to use all caps as I typed that. I didn't quite get through dealing with some stinging personal rejection this morning, but now I think I can take another pass at it. THANK YOU!! (Sorry, couldn't keep myself from shouting after all. :D)

  22. Ann Clarke

    No truer and wiser words…right from Terry. Thank you for being a tremendous source of inspiration for me!

  23. Karin

    Thank you Terry for sharing this lesson with us and for being a tremendous mentor and teacher for me!

  24. Leda

    Thank you Terry! I’m a March cadet (not in your group) You have helped me so much and you don’t even know it yet.

    I’m putting this in my favorite quotes box. “Silently offer our thanks to our critics for helping us see more clearly and grow stronger. Then it’s time to move forward.”

  25. Kate too

    Terry, I just read this for the second time and found it so helpful. Listening to feedback helps us grow stronger and clearer in who we are, what we are doing, what we stand for. And it’s another imperfect person offering it….some wisdom, some clarity, some projection, some what they had for breakfast that day. So I’ve learned and still remind myself often….take what is useful, and offer thanks and well wishes to the rest. Sometimes it is their business. Our job is to know the difference 🙂

  26. Terry Post author

    I love the way you put it, Kate. “Some wisdom, some clarity, some projection, some what they had for breakfast…” Thanks for your delightful perspective!

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