How to Take a Punch (Without Hitting Back or Sinking to the Mat)

how to handle criticism

Here’s the part no one talks about, when you’re creating content strategies for your business. You reveal a few personal details and make yourself vulnerable. You pour your heart into your content, because you know that in order to make a personal connection, people need to feel they know you. You work hard getting it as great as you possibly can.

And someone comes along who hates it, and you feel like you’ve been pissed on.

Now you may be one of those highly admirable people who takes nothing personally. If so, go check out something practical like Chris Garrett’s post today, this one will bore you to death.

But if you’re a thin-skinned sensitive soul like I am, you will feel like killing yourself. Jumping off a bridge seems like a pleasant proposition next to this. We quirky souls (I prefer quirky to neurotic, don’t you?) secretly spend a little too much time mentally listing all the ways we aren’t good enough, don’t know enough, and are entirely unworthy of any success, love, fame or money. An unappreciative remark (or a downright criticism) hits us like a bucket of ice water to the face.

“Aha!” we think. “I knew I sucked. Now I have validation. Add to my to-do list, find bridge.”

Since the world is a better place if you do not, in fact, kill yourself, here are a few strategies for when you’re finding it just too awful to go on.

1. Keep a testimonial file

Ideally you’ll do this before some brute rains on your parade. Create a file of great things people have said about you. Keep it where you can always find it. (The Web is nice for this–I’m never far away from my Backpack.) Unless you are Osama Bin Laden, your fans are going to massively outnumber your critics. Keep a lot of evidence from your fans, and make a point of referring to it frequently.

This is not vanity, this is a simple reality check. Most of us weigh criticism far more heavily than we do kudos, an unhelpful and unhealthy habit. We need to make a point of remembering to focus on the good stuff.

2. Resist the temptation to kick yourself for getting upset

You may have an internal monologue that goes something along the lines of, “Why am I such an idiot to take everything personally? I’ll never be able to succeed if I don’t get a thicker skin. God, if only I didn’t suck I’d be making as much money as Brian/Darren/ at the very least Remarkablogger. Stupid, stupid, stupid idiot to take it personally. Stop taking it personally. God damn it, stop. Ugh. Moron.”

Let me be gentle. This is not helping you, sweetie. You’ve just taken a right cross to the jaw–please try to refrain from giving yourself a left hook to follow it up.

When I catch myself doing this, I find it extremely helpful to wallow in my misery. Go ahead and feel bad about getting criticized. In fact, go ahead and feel awful. It’s quite helpful to zero in on physical reactions–my scalp always gets hot when I feel under attack, and my gut gets cold and knotted up. Pay attention to all that. Let yourself feel absolutely dreadful. The more completely you can give in to it, the quicker it passes.

3. Control your outward reaction

Since I am good with words, at one point in my life I responded to criticism with the verbal equivalent of neutron bombs. I can be pretty darned mean when I set my mind to it.

Not smart. Or kind.

Liz Strauss had a nice point on this at SOBCon. If you get slammed, say thank you. As unappealing as this may seem (and believe me, I’ve tried to find a workaround, but so far, no luck), criticism can sometimes be very useful. When you’ve had a chance to process everything, you can go back and decide whether or not there’s something to learn. In the meantime, you’ll look cool, calm and collected.

Which, in my evolved way, I like to think of as nice revenge on the rat bastard.

If you’re a true head case like I am, it’s smart to work up your response in advance. Feel free to steal this one:

“Thanks so much for that, [jerkface]. I’m going to give that some more thought.”

Expert communicator tip: This works better if you use their name rather than [jerkface].

4. Don’t over-correct

You’ve put a lot of time and thought into your content. If one person in a hundred hates it, the odds are not in their favor.

So yes, you may learn something valuable. But don’t change your direction until you’ve given yourself enough time to really process it. If you’re still angry and hurt, you’re not there yet. Once you can think about the comment and not get mad, you’re ready to learn.

If you’re still boiling, go back to step 2. Vent, vent, vent. Wallow in your rage and misery and be an absolute drama queen until it doesn’t really bug you any more.

You may be strongly (and subconsciously) tempted to do anything at all to avoid ever getting criticized again. Resist this with everything you’ve got. Nothing is more boring than inoffensive content.

5. Congratulations! You’re succeeding

This is the really annoying one.

When you’re getting criticized, it means you’re moving toward success. Your stuff is getting in front of more eyes, which means your odds of finding a critic go up. And you look strong and confident enough that the people who dislike strong, confident people will take a potshot at you.

Also, your thin skin can actually be a tremendous asset. Great content and relationship marketing depend on a high level of empathy. Being a delicate flower usually means you’re a blackbelt at empathy. If you can, think of your writhing agony as a price you pay for gifts that come in very handy at other times.

I know all of this is easier said than done. Believe me, I have 42 years of experience in how much harder it is to do than to say. But these do help me a lot, and I hope some of them may help you too. Most of you are far less mentally ill than I am, so you may not need all of them.

Related Reading:

So let us know in the comments: What’s your best technique is for handling criticism?

(p.s. If you like this post, I will be honored if you’d Digg, Stumble or link!)

Flickr Creative Commons image by ganessas


  1. My best technique is to sleep on it before reacting.

    These tools are great for anyone’s arsenal as they put themselves out there online–thanks for sharing.

  2. Sonia, this was excellent advice. It might be hard to get that initial “thank you” out without sounding fake — but I will do my best.

    Now I’m dreaming of a t-shirt with a delicate flower that says “I have a blackbelt in empathy.”


  3. Sonia Simone says:

    Sally, that is the beautiful, beautiful thing about blogs. It looks so geniune there in writing. :)

    I agree, Jared, sleeping on it is key. The great restorative for everything, IMO.

  4. Jean Gogolin says:

    For me, it’s a whole lot worse to be ignored than criticized. Do you think it comes from having two older brothers?

  5. GirlPie says:

    Swell advice and tactics for executing that advice, thanks. If a comment comes from that 1 in 100, it’s not criticism I care about, it’s an opinion I don’t.

    First concern: consider the source and the motive. You give us a great retort (may work on angry siblings too), a classy way of acknowledging them but then letting their own weight through the pisser off balance.

    But alone in the dark, we have to pay attention if we hear the same points over and over. Growing pains = ouch.

    My first boss was a big-timer but he taught me to do what he did: keep a “nice letter file” — I use pink file folders (have several that are inches thick, pleased to say), and honestly keep the latest right here in an upright holder on the back corner of my desk. Anyone says the slightest nice thing to/about me/my service and it goes right in. The tactile browsing through the cards and letters is wonderful for the ego…

    And it’s a great tool for mining what’s valuable to your clients: note what they were raving about and track that. I may think they love my A, B and C. But if the majority loves X, hmmm. If others rave about Y or Z — I gotta pay attention. It makes a great excuse for getting your warm-fuzzies fluffed and calling it ‘market research.’ (IttyBiz would approve, right?)

    So the ‘nice letter’ file and Jared’s (and my own BoyPie’s) warning to “sleep on it” are key to protecting yourself, inside and (before you over-react) out.

    Thanks for the helpful tips in walking the talk!

  6. Sonia Simone says:

    Very cool, thanks GirlPie! I am not nearly as good about it as I want to be. You have inspired me.

    And thanks for the email–very interesting. I’ll mail ya.

  7. OMG this post sucked.


    Now that I am (apparently) internet-famuz, you would think that I never have feelings like this, but I certainly do.

    But a funny thing happened along the way. I used to hate and dread when someone disagreed with me or had a criticism. I really have learned to say thank you. My skin did thicken somewhere along the line. Success brings haters out of the sewers like C.H.U.D. (you will never see that reference in a comment again by anyone, evar).

    One of the oldest cliches is the truest: nothing succeeds like success. Nobody can take that away from you. You are Sonia Simone, dammit.

  8. Sonia Simone says:

    I am slowly, to my own amazement, getting better. Sometimes I still get the crazies, but the cycle is shorter. And sometimes I don’t get them at all. So that is nice.

    If I was in your place, Michael, I would think that it would be a great help to know how much concrete, real help you have given people. Not just “you think I was wrong and I think I was right” but “I helped these X people go from place A to place B, and this is how they benefit.” It’s very objective.

    Now that I write that down, I really need to document some of those successes for myself. I have them, I just need to quantify them.

  9. Hey Sonia,
    Found you through Copyblogger, where you also comment and post quite frequently… Great post, whether I’m as mentally ill as you or not, its still nice to know that there are those out there suffering with their own instabilities and self-deprecating lacerations.. Thanks, love your comments on other blogs and I’m, so far, loving your blog…. Carry on baring it all…. It’s absolutely fantastic… Helps the rest of us validate our own “inadequacies” when we realise we’re not alone with them..

  10. What? We can’t just smack ‘em around a bit?

    Seriously good advice on the keep the good stuff in front of you. There is some crazy weird thing out there with people who love to see someone make it, then love to see them taken down. I don’t know what to call it but a zillion tabloids support that hunt for blood. And there’s that contrariness that can make for a good debate.

    I totally support GirlPie’s position and yours. Consider the source, and consider for a moment maybe there’s something there, but lean very heavily on what the good stuff tells you. I call them touchstones.

    Well, after you’ve had a good cry…stomped off… ranted, thrown a few things…borrowed some curses..

    note to self: practice saying thank you to absolute asses..because it actually helps find your weak spots, your triggers…and that’s something too.

  11. Evan Hadkins says:

    Hi Sonia,

    Well written and on an important topic.

    Other options:
    If you can’t be nice, get someone else to do the comment for you.

    It’s possible to heal the past. There are many simple things to do that with a little work make a big difference.

    I’m sensitive to issues of competence. If people think I’m not a nice person, I think ‘OK’. If they question my competence (the arguments or data in a post) I get very narky. This is very much my issue. I’ve got lots better at dealing with it over the years, but it’s still the one I have to watch out for.

    Also it makes a difference (for me) if there is actually reason in what they say, rather than just ‘this sucks’ or its many variants.

    One consoling thought. Others read the comment and see what a jerk they are.

    Be as kind to yourself as possible – always!

  12. Cara Faye says:

    For your testimonial file: What a brilliant post :-) Thanks for putting all these useful options altogether at once – have as the first thing to read next time I’m smarting from a backwards comment.

  13. Nadine says:

    Hi Sonia, have you been spying on me by any chance? The person you are describing is so totally me, me, me.

    I wonder how, with such brilliant empathy, you could get any criticism. If anyone criticizes you, surely they are the ones who don’t get it?

    I’m older than you, and still working at it. I find that my reaction really depends on my state of tiredness (which is why sleeping on it usually helps a lot – but is this escapism or plain survival instinct?), the context (I take blows far better in public, believe it or not, than when I’m alone -another survival instinct thing?) or when the critic is, by all measurements, a complete idiot (the lazy option, I don’t need to fight back).

    Congratulations for this -again- excellent post. Please consider the bridge is not an option. We need you here.

  14. Karen Swim says:

    Solid advice that I can really use. My current trick is to have a conversation (out loud) and just get it off my chest. No one’s listening but me after all and I can say whatever I want. It also allows me to yell, say jerkface or shed a tear. Once it’s out I am calm and can really process the criticism and learn from it.

  15. Sonia Simone says:

    @Evan, I’m the same way about competence. And it’s a million times worse if I secretly feel there’s some grain of truth to it. Never mind if it’s 1% true and 99% bullshit, that 1% will drive me right out of my mind. About the best I can do with it is say, “oh, look, going out of my mind again.”

    @Nadine, I always thought this was an emotional state the French were immune to. :) I do better in public as well, I wonder why? Maybe just because my public persona is a lot more confident than my tender little private self is, and somehow that act actually convinces me?

    @Karen, I do this a lot in the car. Maybe a little too much. :) There is often shouting involved, but I will say, I always come across as very witty and incredibly right.

  16. Dwight says:

    I’m new to the blogging scene and it was a huge shock to me that one of my posts received a whopping 50 comments overnight.

    I’ve never experienced such a thrashing in my whole life! It was awfully painful, but it also pointed out a lot of things I haven’t thought about.

    Thanks so much for this post; it puts things into perspective.


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