Act Two: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

ninja breath

Act Two


Do you trust yourself to differentiate between good criticism and bad criticism, what’s okay and what’s not?

Does All Criticism Seem Like An Attack?

Do you react to criticism as if your village is under attack? I sure used to. When I had some of my worst experiences around criticism, when I had meltdowns, panic, when I quit jobs…my reaction, my upset and anger, soared from 0 to 100 in a split second. The hilarious part is, as I walked out, I’d feel that I’d won the battle.

Additionally, I tended to smell criticism from 100 feet; I would think that just about anything that wasn’t a compliment was, in fact, a criticism. (Compliments, oh! Those would go through their own x-ray in my brain, in which I’d try to detect shades of earnestness and try to decide whether the person really, truly meant the compliment or was, rather, trying to prime me for some kind of later favor they’d ask.)

I had no ability — no tools — for dealing with criticism. No utterance was valid, all were attacks. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t being professional, I was under attack; load guns! shoot! No, wait – aim! See, I had grown up in a household in which criticism was rampant, criticism of others and of self. And the criticism was total — that is, there wasn’t a clear differentiation between the person and their actions. So when I was criticized (or, rather, my actions were), I didn’t know the difference. And the differentiation is essential!

Good Person/Bad Deed

People are all born good; however, their actions or deeds can be poorly executed, clumsy, and terrible. Children are good beings, but can make mistakes and do bad things. (If you are struggling with the concept of people being born good, start with yourself — do you believe that you are fundamentally good?) I have a friend who uses this language with her child, “I love you, honey, but your actions aren’t okay — that was a bad action.”  It’s helpful to use language to differentiate the person from their actions. We might say to someone, “You’re a great employee, but snapping at customers is unacceptable behavior.”

Perceived Criticism

Perceived criticism is the wide and mighty gray area in which we tend to make mountains of molehills, get into arguments, storm out of rooms, fling retorts, etc. Someone might be talking about how they did something, and you start to wonder if they’re suggesting that you, too, should have done things that way. (Are they trying to tell you something? No! They are talking about themselves – ask them more about themselves, and you’ll see.)

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Navigating perceived criticism can be tricky for the self-centered aspects of our personalities, our anima and animus, to listen to others talk about themselves without thinking about our own experience. Getting practice at listening to, learning from, and hearing others express themselves will help ease your self-centeredness as well as temper any tendency to assume there’s a hidden criticism or message for you in everything people say.

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Facing perceived criticism? Ask clarifying questions!

Valid Criticism

Valid Criticism is criticism that is clean and clear. It’s hard to come by, but not impossible. Valid criticism is specific to a particular instance, a particular behavior, and is very simply stated: “Your report had mistakes in it,” “That email was unprofessional,” “You’re talking mean,” “You were late,” “This paragraph is confusing,” “I asked you to start the laundry but you didn’t,” “You’re driving really close to the car in front of us.”

It falls within the family of Constructive Criticism, which is feedback that can be fairly formal in that it includes positive and negative statements — you did this part well, and this part you didn’t do well — and is well thought-out and often part of a planned meeting. If only all workplace criticism could be constructive! Alas, managers are rarely trained in the art of constructive criticism.

With that in mind, when giving feedback, think of the “sandwich” approach, by having the filling of the sandwich consist of careful criticism, surrounded by slices of bread that are positive, affirming statements. The whole is then more easily digested. “This is wonderful, these two things are problematic, and this other thing is wonderful, too.” I have been in situations in which I asked for a couple of positive statements in the midst of criticism, in effect making that sandwich myself — so that I could digest the criticism without starting to believe I was “all” bad as I had a tendency to do.

You might bring a cake you picked up to a party, and hear someone say, “I don’t like this cake,” and feel criticized. The truth is, while that person may want to spread toxicity around, they aren’t technically criticizing you.

Translating Lousy Feedback into Useful Material

To get the best out of a lousy manager who’s trying to give valid feedback, you can run their words through an inner translator:

Boss says:     “You’ve got a short fuse.”

You inner translation:     “I’m okay. There are times I overreact.”

That’s doing you both a favor. When you translate for yourself, you can stay composed, professional, and even create a more productive conversation. You could ask, “Sounds like you’re saying I’ve overreacted at times, can you give me an example?”

Also – did you catch my phrasing of ‘lousy manager’? So, rather than that, I could say, “Manager with poor feedback skills.” See?

Note:  body language and tone of voice are major factors in how we perceive and experience criticism. Pay attention to that. If you’re confused about the body language or tone, or notice a discrepancy – say so. Ask about it. “You’re saying it was fine that I was late, but you brought it up – and you look frustrated,” what’s the story? Be open – that changes everything. You might also add, “I was late, I’m sorry for that.” (No need to over-apologize, but do take responsibility.)

Co-Dependency and Perceived Criticism

Growing up in households steeped in co-dependent dynamics, we tend to be confused about the cause-and-effect between what someone else feels and our actions. We were trained to think that we “cause” other people’s feelings in a way that we don’t. “If you don’t go to your brother’s game, he’ll feel bad,” was one I heard aplenty growing up — someone telling me how someone else would feel about my fictional actions.

If your mother cries that you don’t “know” her or “love” her because you got the chocolate cake rather than the vanilla with raspberry filling that is her favorite, you’re being baited. (She had an unexpressed expectation.) If she didn’t tell you to order chocolate, is it fair to expect you to intuit that was the one to get? (No.) Could you have asked? (Sure.) Did you try to get it right? (Yep.) Can a cake flavor be equated with love? (Am I really asking that question?)

With practice, you’ll be able to differentiate between what feels like criticism and what is someone stating their opinion or throwing toxic snowballs your way.

If you’re facing valid criticism, tune in.

Destructive Criticism

Destructive, or negative, criticism is toxic and unproductive.

Destructive criticism has some hallmarks:  it doesn’t contain a suggestion, solution, and doesn’t improve a situation. Destructive criticism can be abusive; if it’s criticism that sums up a whole person, such as, “You’re no smarter than me,” “You’re dumb,” “You’re lazy,” “You’re a bully,” or “You never shut up,” it’s abusive. It’s abusive if it’s used to manipulate a person — like knocking a person down a notch in order to strengthen your own position. Destructive criticism can involve the terms “always,” “never,” talking about a number of instances as a “pattern,” or passive or rhetorical statements like, “How is it that you’re the messiest person I’ve ever known when your parents are such neat-freaks?”

If you’re facing destructive criticism, you can get space, you can walk away.

If you are in a relationship in which you, yourself, are using destructive language, be willing to see that.

Ask yourself why you feel the need to resort to threatening language. Is there a power struggle? Are you holding onto unexpressed anger? What’s going on? Talk to a counselor and work on learning new language. And, similarly, if your partner is using destructive language, be courageous enough to talk to a counselor, therapist, or browse some books on anger, abuse — and self-esteem.

Take responsibility.

“You Should. . .” 

The phrase, “You should” is tricky because it involves that trigger terminology of being told what to do as well as containing, possibly, a veiled criticism.  An emotionally intelligent-sensitive person won’t say “you should” if they want to share their idea — instead, they’ll say, “If you wanted to do it another way, you could…” in those instances. If you’re irritated that another person says “you should,” the best way to do that is to model it, to adapt it to your own language.

There are times in which the person who says ‘you should’ is not intending to be critical. They may very well accept the validity of the way you did something, yet because they seeing things from their perspective, they may want to share that with you. If you’re feeling criticized in those instances, you can say:  “Interesting. Why do you suggest that for me?”

Interesting! Why do you suggest that for me?

Note the “…for me.” That part of the question can be effective in achieving a number of things:  it says you heard them, it validates their suggestion, and it re-points the idea back to your situation, to you. Say you’re talking about a hiking trip you’re planning, and you’re talking about the logistics — and that’s when the other person says, “You shouldn’t go then, you should go in the summer.” And then you say, “Interesting, why do you suggest that for me?” That gives them a chance to say, “Well, you might like fall weather, but you might get rain so I wouldn’t go any other time but summer.” Then it becomes more of a conversation, and less of a lecture. You can say, “I don’t do heat. I don’t love rain, you’ve got a point there. But I’ll take rain over hot days.”

If you value yourself and love your flawed, imperfect, and wonderful self, as well as value others, you won’t feel the need to be like them or please them.

If you’re hearing, “You should,” ask questions, and listen. Get more information. Breathe. 

Mistakes Count as Practice

This taking-criticism-well business takes time, it takes the development of your instincts. It also takes mistakes, and apology, too. We don’t always get it right, whether we’re giving criticism or the receiver of it.


If you were to skip this entire post and still get the most hidden, useful, and shiny gem, it would be to breathe.


Seriously, that’s a ninja-level tool.

Even if you can’t translate what you’re hearing, ask question, etc., that’s OK. You can breathe. Anyone can do that. Here’s how:  take in a long, slow, slow, slow breath into your nose (mouth shut) and then, once you’re full to bursting — let it out through your mouth with pursed lips, slowly, and exhale completely.

I officially dare you to do it right now.


Act 1: How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

Act 2: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

Act: 3 Making Peace with Criticism


  1. [...] of breathing to catch your breath and try to be present in the face of criticism (that was Part II Knowing Good Criticism from Bad) as well as how to evaluate whether the criticism is real or an apparition from childhood (that was [...]

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