Accepting (and Offering) Criticism

Q:I feel that I’m generally a well-adjusted teen, and generally take things in stride. Yet I have a difficult time accepting criticism from friends and teachers, and particularly from my parents. Some even say that I overreact, but I find it hard to change my reactions. Do you have any thoughts about this?


A: Rabi Akiva described the great difficulty that we all have in receiving rebuke from one another (Arachin 16). Our weakness in this area does not seem to have improved greatly over the many generations.

In relation to your own reactions to criticism, you need to differentiate between insults and criticism. It is true that insults are hard to handle — and often involve anger or jealousy, but constructive criticism is beneficial.

If you only focus on your hurt feelings after receiving rebuke, whatever might be learned will be overshadowed by emotion and subjective reaction. Even if there is only 10 percent of truth in the criticism, this 10 percent can be helpful in solving the problem at hand.

Self-reflection is not always comfortable, but it is growth-producing. Whatever words that we hear, we hear by hashgachah pratis, and there is always something to be gained in some area, in the present or future.

When criticism directly affects your self-esteem, different attitudes need to be focused on.

If you feel a sense of being attacked, you need to focus on your positive character traits in order to preserve your self-image, and not take the criticism to heart. If you fall into a state of self-pity, it is clear that your yetzer hara has been victorious, and the mussar that was meant to elevate you has done the direct opposite.

In truth, one needs to always accentuate the positive within oneself, in order to be able to accept criticism constructively. The ability to integrate constructive criticism and yet affirm one’s essential self-worth is a never-ending striving for balance, towards which goal all human beings need to work.

As a young adult, you are not only expected to accept criticism in a mature manner, but you will also have occasion to convey criticism. Conveying negative or critical information is a difficult task, as both the giver and the receiver are in an uncomfortable position. However, if the information is imparted in a sensitive manner, the recipient may feel less of a sense of confrontation and belittlement.

One way to envision this idea is to imagine two soft pillows before you, and in between these two pillows is the actual critical comment that is necessary to be stated.

The initial “soft pillow” of communication can consist of: a) a statement giving the benefit of the doubt, such as: “I’m sure that you were unaware of this, but…” or b) a statement reflecting your need to clarify information, such as: “I think I may have misunderstood something, so I need you to help me out…”

After such sensitivity shown in such a dialogue, one can more easily insert words of necessary negativity before inserting the “second pillow” of comforting words. As one is already in a mindset of being more sensitive, the actual critical statement will be said in a softer tone, with more compassion and kindness.

The “second pillow” reflects words of comfort, and shows how one believes in the capabilities of the person. One’s “second pillow” shows belief in the problematic issue being rectified in the present or in the near future. An example of such a statement might be: “I know that this was unintentional, and I am sure there is a way that we can work this out.” In this manner, a person will feel less attacked, and be more willing to actually listen to the information being imparted.

There are times one may be criticized for taking a strong religious stance. Many great leaders who have “taken a stand” may not have been appreciated by segments of their community. Moshe Rabbeinu was criticized by Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar, and yet he continued to do the ratzon Hashem, under all circumstances. An understanding of the last line of Megillas Esther reflects the idea that Mordechai was loved by the majority of the people (but not the entire population). Yet neither Moshe Rabbeinu nor Mordechai were deterred by individuals’ negative reactions from doing the will of Hashem.

Believing in one’s abilities and potential abilities is a goal in one’s avodas Hashem. Sometimes negative reactions from others are obstacles that one needs to surmount in order to achieve a higher good. One needs to consult with daas Torah in such circumstances, to avoid one’s limited subjective reality.


Shira Frank, LCSW, has been working with children, couples and families for over 30 years. She looks forward to becoming part of your family through this column each week.