Five ways to deal with criticism

What is criticism?

According to Buddha’s teachings on karma, pointing out a truth motivated by kindness and skill is a positive action that leads to good results, whereas hurtful speech motivated by delusion is one of the ten non-virtuous actions that leads to a lot of trouble. If this is true, it makes sense not to criticize others unless we are sure of our motivation.

On the other hand, in terms of being on the receiving end of criticism ourselves, this is fairly routine; so we might as well learn to enjoy it.

Someone asked me to write an article about dealing with criticism so I decided to throw this question open to the experts on Facebook, feeling pretty confident that everyone’s had to do it at some point or another. Generally people don’t like it because it is one of the so-called eight worldly concerns and we’d prefer to be praised 🙂 So how can we come to enjoy the inescapable, or at least not mind it so much?

How do you feel about being criticized? The early Kadampas would say it was the best thing that could happen to us; but who finds it easy …. ?!

Who is criticizing us and how?

If it is people we trust and we know they have our best interests at heart, people find it easier to respond positively and learn. Eileen Quinn answered: “If it is someone you have a good, real, relationship with to start with and they are doing the criticizing from real insight then it’s easier to accept and react in a positive way.” And Allison Moxie Verville pointed out: “I think true valuable criticism, especially from those we trust, should be welcome, appreciated, and examined as a way by which to grow ourselves and learn. Supportive criticism isn’t intended as personal or negative and can be seen as an opportunity as well as indicator that someone has a positive vested interest in us.” Victoria Kaya said: “At university we are constantly criticized, but always constructively. Without being criticized I would not be where I am today. When I look back over the last few years I see that my teachers are my best friends and I owe what I have learnt to their kindness.”  Michael Hume put it this way: “Because of my self-cherishing I respond best to “skilful criticism” from people I trust & respect. Such as when someone says something slightly indirectly to help me understand something that will benefit me. That way I understand that the intention is good and they have taken the time not to directly hurt my feelings.” Rosanne Brancatelli from Brazil says “Whom I respect, I really think about, some people I don’t care. Pride? Maybe.”

So it seems that if we know the criticism is well motivated, we’re prepared to put up with it and use it. This is a fine place to start. However, the downside is that if we distrust others’ motivation we are quite likely to become annoyed or upset; and being conditional has its limits. For one thing, we cannot always choose how our criticism is served up or by whom, so that puts us in a vulnerable position. For another, if our criticizer happens to be speaking some truth, rejecting it could mean missing out on some helpful insight into our faults.

What would Geshe Kelsang do?

We can overcome these limitations by understanding that criticism can in fact always be helpful if we shift our perspective as to what we actually need out of life. The mind-training adepts of old, Kadampas like Atisha and Geshe Potowa, famously relished any kind of criticism that came their way as a vital demolisher of their egos — they far preferred a good insult to being massaged by praise!

Modern-day Kadampa teacher Geshe Kelsang explained to a friend of mine what he himself does when it comes to being criticized. (It is not as if he is short of practice — he has received his fair share of criticism from various quarters, including from people who really don’t appreciate him at all.) I’ve always found this advice very useful.

When he is criticized, he checks whether what the person is saying is true or not, regardless of their motivation. If it is true he thanks them (at least mentally) and tries to change. But even if it is not specifically true, the criticism reminds him that self-cherishing has many faults, and because he is happy to be reminded of this he also thanks them.

The second part of this article is coming soon, including how to defeat our faults confidently, without feeling guilty or inadequate.

Your comments are welcome, and please share this if you find it helpful.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

21 thoughts on “Five ways to deal with criticism”

  1. Strong criticism can be very frightening. We dont like it at all. But yes, the other person is our mirror and so, their viewpoint cannot be dismissed entirely – even if we may feel it is distorted.
    There must be some basis for the dispute … clearly something we have done (or neglected) has definately caused upset. This ‘something’ is what needs to be addressed, otherwise we are saying ‘your view is invalid’ which is just bigheaded.
    Since we are all fallible its better to be open and be ready to learn. This is our best defence.
    But hey! I should try to stick to my own advice!

  2. I have had my fair share of criticism from a spiritual friend, which i found at the beginning very hard to accept. but as time went on and my faith increased in him i allowed this to happen through choice. I realised that his motivation was always wanting me to be happy. If he did not point out my faults i would have never been able to progress on the spiritual path. This type of relationship for me is so valuable and i have learnt so much how my mind plays tricks on me. through Dharma teaching i now able to identify my faults better then before. I still have this relationship with my friend with less criticism due to me able to identify my faults. Also as some one already said our friends and relatives are great in pointing out our faults. My daughter was and still is a spiritual guide for me. She used to point out many faults she saw in me and due to Geshe-la’s kindness i fallowed his advice to check if its true or not. So criticism is a good indicator to help us identify what is going on in our own mind, and we can be happy if its true, and change, and we can be happy if its not true and just carry on with our every day life.

  3. I’m still thinking about this one and for some reason I’m confused. One big problem for me is when I think that someone doesn’t like me, that they are annoyed with me (and I don’t know them well), or, biggie, that I have done something wrong, I get very very very upset.

    If someone straightforwardly says ‘You do this and it’s wrong/silly’, for instance, then the communication sort of comes right up to you and stares you in the face. You can then think, ‘is that true’ etc, but I think ‘criticism’ is often not quite so straightforward.

    If someone shouts or snaps at me (and again it’s not someone I’m close to which is most people) it takes me by surprise and I am liable to, embarrassingly, burst into tears or at least feel very wounded and troubled for ages. It’s all down to what I am implying or projecting about what they are thinking or what their motivation is I suppose.

    I think a lot of my problem, on one level, comes down to ‘low self esteem’ and perhaps some paranoia (which must surely come from one’s own past criticism of or negativity towards others).

    One thing I’ve learned is that if you see something troubling in someone else (they’re shouting at me or criticising me so they don’t like me/they’re nasty etc. etc.), it is good to turn that around and pull evidence of that very same fault out of oneself. Often, once this is done, it seems that the troubling experience you see as coming from someone else, disappears.

    At the deepest level, this must all be down to self grasping and the mistaken appearance of an ‘I’. When I am being ‘good’/productive, my favoured practice in this instance is a preventative one really – I like to recite the Heart Sutra and pray to the Great Mother Prajnaparamita to dispel this great obstacle and problem that I have. With faith, these things can be unravelled.

    Note to self – that sounds good, do some practice!

    1. I like the way you brought up the problem and then came up with the solution 🙂

      The next article may or may not help address some of what you are saying… let’s see and then continue this discussion. xx

  4. Such good advice from kind Geshe-la – thank you so much for sharing it Luna! I think what underlies this advice is the need to be honest with ourself which is so hard sometimes. This tiny bit of advice from our Spiritual Guide has the power to free us from so much suffering.

  5. Thank You Luna, for your article, I really need to learn more about this. I want to become a true Kadampa that can take criticism and transform it into the spiritual path!

  6. This is always a timely topic. Even if we know people are well-intentioned, the feelings of hurt can be very strong. That just shows how habitual and insidious our self-cherishing is. I find that applying the teaching on the kindness of others helps. Recently I gave my dissertation defense and received some feedback that was well-intentioned but felt a bit harsh. My husband, who was there, afterwards said he wanted to tell them (my committee members) to stop being mean to me. He was very sweet, wanting to come to my defense. During the feedback, I did feel attacked, but I mentally kept reminding myself that they’re there to help me. They’re actually trying to protect me from being attacked by others in the academic community by questioning some of the decisions I made. I continuously reminded myself that they were helping me–even though my cheeks were flushed, and my stomach lurched, and my palms were sweating. I had a VERY strong sense of self at that time. They were helping me in many ways–practically helping me with my topic and spiritually helping me oppose my self-cherishing. I can apply this same principle when others seem to be trying to harm me. I can remember their kindness.

    1. This is a good example, thank you for sharing it. It is like if you’re trying to improve at tennis or something for a competition — you don’t begrudge the trainer who hits the ball in the far left corner as you want to improve your game.

  7. This is a great article.

    I was criticized recently because I talk about death.

    My non-Buddhist friends are very uncomfortable about this topic. My aunt passed a few month ago and I was with her to help her. When I shared this with them, they were VERY vocal in letting me know that this is not something I should be talking about openly and sharing. That is was something I should keep in my family only. Also, that I was bringing them down.

    I was surpised and hurt at first. Then I realized that in our culture, talking about death is very taboo. I forget this sometimes because I have so many Buddhist friends who helped me prepare to help my Aunt and who were there at her Powa and to give me the support that I needed.

    After I got over myself, I learned a valuable lesson. I need to respect my friends and ask them first if it is OK to talk about death. If they are uncomfortable, I keep it to myself.

    1. I know what you mean. People are nervous about death, it is true, and assume it is depressing or morbid to talk about it. But it is a rather crucial subject.

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