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Tackling the Fear of Criticism: How to Quiet the Inner Critic and Roll with Negative Feedback

How do I respond to criticism? Critically. I listen to all criticism critically.

-Paul Thomas Anderson

Early in my professional career as an actor, a friend came to see my show. Unsolicited, he commented afterwards that he didn’t think I was a talented actor. He said I was more of a “working actor.” A few years later, after a collaborative performance with another vocalist, a close friend who hadn’t attended the show claimed, “No one wants to hear you sing.”

These comments burrowed into my skin like a tick, shaking my confidence and infusing me with feelings of betrayal. Over time, I’ve wondered at their motivation in offering such unhelpful opinions. Perhaps they wanted to save me from certain humiliation? Or did they find my love of performance threatening? Did it make them feel bigger to diminish me? Whatever their reasons, what matters is I took their comments to heart, and some part of me went into hiding as a result.

I’m sure most people can relate to the sting of criticism, especially when it comes from people you thought you could trust, like a teacher, a parent, or a lover. Perhaps you remember a poor performance review or a time you were laughed at in public. And then there’s the sneaking problem of the critic that lives inside you who constantly tells you your work isn’t good enough. If you are a performer, a writer, an artist, an athlete, you speak publicly, or you’re being held back in your work or life, it is vital you improve your relationship with potential criticism, especially your own.

Being haunted by past criticism and fearing future criticism can keep you from putting yourself out there.

According to Eric Maisel, a creativity coach and author of books such as Managing Creative Anxiety and Coaching the Artist Within, believes there are three keys to rolling with criticism: a dynamic key, a mindfulness key, and a holistic key.

The dynamic key involves learning to put criticism in its appropriate place. When you take criticism as a personal attack on who you are, your self-image gets injured and feelings of guilt and shame are dredged up. It is important here to be critical of the criticism, as Paul Thomas Anderson suggests, and recognize that you are still who you are. The feedback, positive or negative, doesn’t change that. The dynamic key calls you to release past, internalized criticism and find more productive thought patterns and behaviors to move forward successfully.

The mindfulness key requires you to become aware of how your own mind works. It’s vital to recognize that other people don’t generate your fear, self-doubt, anxiety, and negative self-talk—all that happens in your mind. In response, we must learn how to return to a calm, neutral center. Mindfulness especially targets your inner critic, teaching you to detach from the onslaught of unproductive thinking and self-sabotage.

Finally, the holistic key is found in recognizing how you allow criticism to deflect you from your soul’s path, and how this amounts to spiritual and existential death. This key has everything to do with seeing yourself as a whole person, rather than a wounded person, and invites you to acknowledge and commit to the things that give your life meaning; this involves taking steps to know yourself, to respect your heartfelt yearnings, and to aim to live in alignment with yourself.

What these three keys have in common is you. You are the only one who can take ownership of your personality—its glories and its pitfalls. It’s your responsibility to be aware of and accountable for your emotional triggers, to get a grip on negative tendencies, and to decide to show up for the big picture of your actualized life.

Let’s take Tara (not her real name), who came to see me about performance anxiety. She was eligible for a promotion in her job, but the new position would require her to present new ideas to her team once a month. In any group situation where introductions or participation of any kind were required, Tara clammed up, inevitably feeling small and ashamed, and so she took every possible measure to avoid situations where she’d have to speak in public.

I began our session by asking her a few questions:

Me: Have you always had trouble speaking in groups?

Tara: Well… no. I remember being in a debate class in middle school and always having something to add.

Me: Do you remember ever speaking in public and being criticized?

Tara: Yeah… Our debate team went to the State Competition one year, and I was really excited and proud. Our topic was on “Pollution and Sustainable Practices,” and I discovered then that I was an environmentalist. My mom came to the debate and she took me out to lunch afterwards, which was really special, because I didn’t get to spend much time with her—she was an ER nurse. Even though we didn’t win to go on to the national level, I was super high. So, anyway, Mom took me to lunch, and when our food came, she turned to face me squarely and… she didn’t say anything about the debate except [voice breaking] “You know, honey, all that environmental crap is just liberal hooey. Pollution is just a reality, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I was crushed.

Me: Did you feel as though she was attacking you personally by not agreeing with your ideas?

Tara: I guess I did. I made the connection later that people in her family worked for oil companies…

Me: And you felt she was invalidating you because you identified as an environmentalist?

Tara: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I made sure to never bring up the topic again, even though I went on to study it in college.

Me: Some part of you shut down?

Tara: Yes.

Me: So, we can’t know if your mother was criticizing you or just the ideas she clearly disagreed with. What we do know is you internalized this criticism, and that’s kept you from speaking with confidence in groups.

Tara: Yes.

Me: What will this job promotion do for you?

Tara: Well, I would be working with environmental groups to help them strategize fundraising and launch public relations campaigns… It’s kind of like my dream job. And I’d make significantly more money than I’m making right now.

Me: Knowing you’re going to have to step up your game, be open to criticism by making presentations, does the risk this would require of you personally outweigh the pain of staying as you are now?

Tara: …Yes.

Me: So if you’ve decided you’re going for this promotion, how can you change your relationship to potential rejection or criticism?

Tara: I can remind myself that I don’t know the person’s motivation behind the criticism and reassure myself that it isn’t me they’re criticizing, but my ideas, my presentation, or whatever.

Me: Can you be someone who’s open to criticism for the potential it has to help you grow?”

Tara: [Excited now] I never looked at it that way… I’m so sensitive… It’ll take some doing, but, yeah, I can do that.

Tara decided to apply for the promotion, and she got the position. As she dedicated more time getting to know herself, she became aware of her “sensitivities” and found ways to detach from ostensibly negative feedback and either use it to grow or trash it altogether.

Ask yourself—and answer honestly—how the fear of criticism is holding you back. What would you do if you didn’t fear criticism? How can you improve the ways you currently receive criticism?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Consider the source — It’s easy to criticize, and everyone’s a critic to some extent. There will always be dissenters. There are some who say if you’re not getting any criticism, you’re not having an effect! Be aware of people’s motivation, and either put their feedback in a category you find helpful or let it go entirely. Remember that all feedback is delivered through a subjective filter and may simply be an opinion, a projection, or a competitive ploy. If you are the source of your criticism, get to know your emotional triggers and choose to release criticism you’ve internalized from your past. Treat yourself with compassionate attention and take care of the wounded parts of you.
  2. Learn techniques to relax and focus — Some social psychologists have claimed that fear of criticism and rejection relates to our tribal history, when our likeability and inclusion determined our survival. Even now, performance anxiety can certainly feel like life or death. Take the time to educate yourself in techniques that will relax your body and calm your anxiety, such as visualization, meditation, and deep breathing.
  3. Give yourself permission to be wonderful and flawed — When you are connected to what gives your life meaning, and you understand that all of you (not just the bright and cheery parts) contributes to that meaning, negative criticism can flow naturally into the stream of your life. Stand at the center of your own life, sourcing your identity from who you truly are rather than someone else’s version of you. Sharing yourself is quintessential to a fulfilling life, and the reflections you receive provide instructive means to growth. Foster the learning, and give up the need to measure yourself against false standards. Become skeptical of your inner critic and stay committed to excelling at being you.

Criticism from others can feel like having your worst fears exposed, and herein lies a significant point. You may want approval, yet approval isn’t always the most beneficial response to your work. If you choose a path in your life for personal growth, criticism can be taken constructively to help you improve. Remember to take a beat when you receive criticism and ask questions of it. Treat yourself with compassion, and your inner critic will lose its foothold. When you get a grip on your mind and your reactions, you empower yourself to be all that you are.


Need help tackling your fear of criticism? Visit my website at www.hallibourne.com to learn more and find out how to work with me!


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