How to Receive Criticism

People generally don’t enjoy criticism.  It’s often received as undermining and offending.  I used to count myself as one of those people.

But when you think about it, criticism is an opportunity.  An opportunity to learn about yourself, or make something you do better.  Then why don’t we like it?  How can we look at criticisms so that we stop dreading and avoiding them, and take advantage of the opportunities?

Consider Where the Criticizer Is Coming from

The first thought that comes to my mind is, where is the criticizer coming from?  By that, what I consider is the person’s background, context, exposure to information, personality, and intent.

For example, my mother is one of my greatest cheerleaders, but she’s not exactly a fan of my music.  She’s told me that it’s not “understandable” — too complicated.

Now, I know that she grew up playing the violin in orchestras (background).  She listens to classical music mostly (context).  And when she checks out my music, she’s doing just that — just checking out bits and pieces, instead of listening with an intent to get to know the music (exposure to information).  She has a pretty direct personality and tells it like it is (personality).  Finally, she means well — she wants me to succeed in whatever I do, she is just stating that she doesn’t understand my music (intent).

So all things considered, I come to the conclusion that while I love my mother and trust her with my life — she is not my audience.  Music is a subjective thing.  I’d take in an opinion of someone who likes a lot of the same acts I like, someone whose sensibility should be compatible with my music.

Everyone is entitled to her/his opinions but they don’t have to universally apply to you.  As the receiver you get to decide what the input means to you.  When I came to this realization it freed me up from being afraid of some opinions.

But sometimes, regardless of where the criticizers are coming from, you can’t help but be stung by what they say.  It’s because you may be afraid that that what they are saying is true.

Do you believe it’s true?

If you find yourself reacting emotionally to criticisms, it may be because you agree with it.  You may not want to, you may not even be aware that you secretly fear that it’s true.  But these things can reveal itself when faced with criticisms.

Think about it.  If what they’re saying doesn’t ring true at all — will you get mad right away?  For example, if someone was to accuse me of being a sexist, the first thought that comes to mind is “that’s absurd.”  In my family and at my job, I’m surrounded by strong, smart women.  Sure, I can admit to perhaps applying some gender stereotypes here and there — but being called a sexist feels more perplexing than maddening.  I’ll have to ask for more details.  If the accuser keep insisting then eventually I may get mad — but not for a while.

But some criticisms hurt more, immediately.  I can admit to you that if someone was to say I don’t sing well, that stings.  It hurts when you are afraid that they are right.  You wouldn’t have this reaction if you didn’t secretly agree with them — and you knowing that you agree with them is not a requirement here.  If anything, unrecognized fear may hurt even more, because an unpleasant surprise adds some punch.

Whether it’s actually true or not is not the issue here.  The point is that you believe they may be right.  So when you find yourself reacting with anger, then that’s a sign to stop and take a good, hard look at yourself.  As painful as it is, criticisms create opportunities for you to learn something about yourself.  It may reveal something you should really address or fix.

What Are You Going to Do about It?

So let’s say that you came to see that the criticizer has a valid point.

Now it’s up to you to decide what to do about it.  Denying or saving your face is an option but it really doesn’t address the underlying issue.  What you do about your vulnerability or problem is outside the scope of this post, but suffice it to say you owe it to yourself to face the issue, if you want to stop being afraid of that particular criticism.  Of course, sometimes the issue isn’t the real problem — it’s your belief.  And there are ways to deal with your beliefs, so you can feel more comfortable about something that used to be a vulnerable spot for you.

But then other times, instead of making you feel vulnerable and challenged, a criticism can fuel your resolve.  You heard the message, you agree there’s some truth to it — but you’re going to do it anyway.  For example, someone may criticize me for writing music that’s too long, complicated and inaccessible — and I can see that it can come across that way to some people.  Am I going to “fix” that problem?  No.  I will continue to make music that I want to hear — and if it happens to be simple, short or accessible, it’s because that’s how I wanted it to be, not because I think being otherwise is a problem.

So in this instance, criticism serves to help me uncover a belief or principle, and I feel more strongly about it precisely because it was challenged.  This is a very useful process.  Challenges, when looked at it correctly, are growth opportunities.  In this instance a criticism helps me to grow stronger in my resolve.  It may not be the easiest experience, but growing in one’s conviction contributes to being at peace with yourself.  It’s also possible that you may just be sullen and stubborn about something you should fix — you can probably spot this if your anger appears to grow each time you are criticized.  A healthy resolve takes the sting out of criticism — while what the criticism describes is true, you no longer feel that it’s a problem.

Criticisms Can Help You, If You Let Them

So I walked through three considerations regarding criticisms:

  1. They help me see if they have relevant context, and filter out noise coming from irrelevant sources.
  2. They help uncover issues, problems and beliefs that I may have been unaware of previously.
  3. They create opportunities for me to face issues that need to be addressed, or help strengthen my resolve.

Of which, #2 can certainly be rather uncomfortable.  I don’t relish the sting of being criticized where it hurts.  But given the thought process I walked through, I have come to realize that they can all lead to positive outcomes.  That’s not to say that everything comes out peachy in the end, but I’ve grown comfortable with it enough not to be afraid of it any more.  I don’t go out of my way to seek criticisms — I think affirmations and recognizing and then capitalizing on one’s strength is a better approach — but they certainly don’t stop me from doing things the way I think they should be done.

Criticisms are part of living a creative life.  Fearing what others think can stifle us in our pursuit to live the life we want to live.  I wish for everyone to learn to handle criticisms — so that we can each live a free and empowered life, and perhaps even offer constructive criticisms to each other without worrying about being taken the wrong way.

Do you agree or disagree?  Do you have your own ways of handling criticisms?  Let us know in the comments!  Thank you.



  1. Everything you said is right on. I agree totally..

    I studied art at The Art Institute of Boston.. One of the most valuable things I learn’t there was how to critique something..

    First of all we had to critique in the area of the art.. In our case. If I was a serious jazz musician, I can’t be a lot of help in the content of death metal music..

    In critiquing something, you discuss the work, as an entity in itself..
    So if the chord playing is off, you don’t say’ you suck as a guitar player.. You point out in measure 3, 26, and 40, the timing could be tighter.

    Make it a point to start out with something good about the work/

    Then preface other areas, with, ‘you might consider’, ‘an alternative might have been’ etc.

    Understand where the creator is coming from.. One website I went to the guy would make something really nice, but then it would just sort of fall apart and end at measure 32. After a few comments by different listeners, the writer revealed this was just an experiment, in chord resolution,. or working a certain modal scale.. He wasn’t interested in making a proper piece out of it.

    Opinions are like A**holes, everyone has one. After a while you’ll realize John Doe, is an angry and jealous guy, he is most likely going to put your work down, so that in his mind, his is better. John Doe 2 doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, he hits the nail right on the head. I had a friend a graphic artist, hut he has an amazing ability to get to the essence of what makes any work of art ‘the best it can be. It can art, music, the arrangement of furniture. His brain just works in such a way that he visualizes. He is the most valuable critiquer I have. Although he knows almost nothing about music, as a player, he can point out my acoustic guitar and english are ‘fighting for the same sonic space’’. Just move the guitar down an octave, or simplify parts so the it hits unison or harmonies on some of English horn parts, and I’ve got something.

    So sometimes people criticize things I totally don’t get or agree with.. Doesn’t bother me, (I’ve had life time of rejection in art. music, love etc. so it really doesn’t hurt anymore). But I do try to get into the listeners head, and see if I can get his point. Then I decide how it applies to me.

    I go to this site ‘YoungComposers’.. Some very serious musicians there. There are a couple of ‘music analysts’ there. who have perfect pitch, and go into why my chord breaks one of the laws of music.
    a lot of this goes over my head. Cause I’n not interested in classical music conventions. I go by how I like the results. I have been studying up on it. and it’s slowly making sense.

    I had one music teacher who insisted on using the term ‘music tools’, not music rules’. Cause the composer has the right to break or mutate any music rule that suits him.. Indeed this is how new music is created.

    One personal lesson I learned was to play my songs in the studio in front of people. I would invariably start to talk, when I knew a section was coming up with a ‘clam’ note that I had previously justified. I would start to get ‘hot under the collar’ at a certain point..

    And YES when someone says something that upsets you, or you start to deny, you know they’ve got a point. Now it up to you to go beyond ‘denial’ and examine the music more closely.

    When I was younger, I was always asking for criticism, and critiquing things. I used to feel it was my job to ‘fix things’, songs, people, their English, etc. Eventually I learned you don’t have to share anything.

    Most people DO NOT want to be told about their musical shortcomings. I have joined many sites, where that’s all people want to hear. and they upload really crippled songs, wrong chords, fluffed notes. Yet, almost everyone responds, ‘cheers, good work mate’.. I do the same. Cause music is their hobby, they do it for fun, not as an occupation..

    IMPORTANT so you have to gauge your criticism to what the listener will be able to take in.. Don’t be talking Music Theory 3rd semester to someone who is at 1st semester. They will not get it, and you might do more harm than good, by making them insecure. At the bottom line criticizing something is supposed to help improve things.

    Like in art school, we made it a safe place to criticize something.

    If someone doing advanced classical music, I can’t really address that. I can talk from a technical angle, or a certain sound aspect. While they may be working on sophisticated voice leading, I can comment on, ‘well you have three instruments, all taking up the same sonic area. and because of their closeness, it gets confusing.

    Or a pointer on how to get recording technique a bit better, so their musical point is more clear.

    Other times I might comment on the emotional impact certain sections had on me.. This is part of the reason for my never ending search to learn more about theory, harmony etc. I’ve learned over the years, that certain things work, but now I want to know why..

    One should not be afraid of learning more music lessons. They are sometimes afraid it will take away the ‘magic’ of it.. And it does to a degree. Sort of like looking behind the green curtain in the “Wizard of OZ”.. But learning the why of something also has it’s benefits too. You can make a musical statement, evoke a very particular element of emotion, without blindly jamming to arrive at it. You can go directly to it, and then move to the next area.

    This of course depends on what you want to do with your music.. If you just do it for fun and relaxation. You can ignore this.

    I used to live in Boston and work at 16 track recording studios (the pinnacle back in early 70’s.. We got tons of Berklee music students coming in, to record.. For the most part they all sounded the same, That’s because they were still in their 2nd year, learning scales, modes, etc. I used be kind of snotty about it, cause my music playing was unique. I didn’t exactly sound like others, because my knowledge was self garnered, self learned. Years later, I kicked myself, for not have gone to music college, because I could do create music a lot faster, without so much trial and error. But looking back on it now.. I, and ultimately you, do it at the right pace for your.

    The beautiful thing about music is it can be learnt, written, performed on so many different levels. And musical growth is like life.
    Now if you write something that might be wrong’, a certain note clashing, or repetition, and you keep repeating it. it become normal..

    RnB music from the 70’s is pretty different from RnB music of 2000. I used to get extremely agitated at how todays artist will just take a 4, 8 bar segment, lifted from an old song, and make that the whole song.. But it has been done so much, that it is now normal.. Different styles of music have done away with solo’s, Bridges, Alternate chorus’s. In a way this is good, because it’s open up the door for wider variety..

    There’s an R. Kelly song, were there is no discernible rhyme structure, and he fits in volumes of words in too tight a space.. Very foreign (and unlistenable) but after a few more listenings, I realized how really clever and well executed it is.

    1. Hi Mark! Thanks for a lengthy, thoughtful comment. Your comment probably has more value than my original post, and that’s totally awesome! 🙂 All your points expand upon the ones I was trying to convey, but it is more convincing because it’s portrayed in the life experiences you share.

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