None of us likes to receive criticism.
Even when the person delivering it means well and we understand their intentions.
Let’s face it. Dealing with criticism is tricky.
I created two courses on the topic and more than 6000 people have enrolled so far. This is how I came to discover even more subtle everyday issues that stem from our relationship with negative feedback.
But not all criticism is built the same.
Not every message that we receive and seems to be in disagreement with our actions or decisions is meant to put us down.
Sometimes, it is necessary to hear a direct, but rather unpleasant truth. It may turn out to be the step that takes us significantly closer to our personal and professional goals.
How do we tell the difference, though?
How can we tell which critical message is rubbish, just a personal attack, and which type of feedback can become an opportunity to improve our performance and life?
Well, I am here to help with that.
Luckily, there are a few uncomplicated ways to tell constructive from unconstructive criticism.
I will share five of them below.
Justified vs. Unjustified Criticism
How to tell the difference and not take things personally
Justified Criticism refers to things that one can change, such as behaviors and results of our actions.
Unjustified Criticism is about the fixed traits of a person, elements that they cannot modify, and which are part of who they are.
For example, criticizing a person’s handwriting is justified criticism — if the person desires to improve their handwriting, they would be able to do that. On the other hand, mocking a person for being left-handed, is unjustified criticism. That simply is their dominant hand.
Worth noting here also that even though some things that seem fixed about a person could potentially go through modifications of all sorts — we can, for example, change our appearance through cosmetic surgery, or train to write with both hands — , they should not make those changes as a result of constant criticism and social pressure. That’s not the point here. The point is linked to original traits such as elements related to race, sex, cultural background, physical appearance, etc.
Justified Criticism refers primarily to what you do.
Unjustified Criticism attacks who you are as a person.
The difference is easier to spot during debates on various topics.
If your opponent comments on your arguments, the criticism is fair. Even though not necessarily valid but that is a separate issue.
If the other person attacks your character, your motives, or some other element that is related to who you are as an individual, then you’re dealing with unjustified negative feedback.
This type of unjustified criticism is considered a logical fallacy and it is known under the label of ad hominem argument.
It is more about emotions and less about critical thinking and reason.
Justified Criticism is made out of specific formulations and claims. “We agreed on dinner at 8 P.M. It’s almost 9. You are late and this upsets me.”
Unjustified Criticism is rather about vague claims. “You always annoy me with the things you do.”
Justified Criticism is a direct, straightforward message. “I just do not like your art. Not my style, really. The themes are too dark.”
Unjustified Criticism can be more subtle, manipulative or passive-aggressive, on top of the directly aggressive version, which is easier to spot. “Are you sure someone’s going to be willing to pay that much for your paintings? These paintings…”
The most significant difference between the two types of criticism.
Justified Criticism can be used to help you grow, personally and professionally. You can use the information contained in this type of feedback, also known as constructive criticism, and improve your life. It’s one of the ways in which we learn.
Unjustified Criticism is only meant to make you feel bad about yourself while providing a false sense of power and relevance to the person delivering the negative feedback. There is no useful information hidden in it. Most of the time you can just dismiss it or throw it in a mental garbage can.
How Does This Information Help You?
Now that you know the main differences between Justified and Unjustified Criticism, it should be easier to decide regarding your reactions to each piece of negative feedback.
As a general recommendation, even though specific contexts may require a different approach, select the valuable, constructive bits that are relevant to your goals and aspirations, and use them to become a better version of yourself. Separate what is being said about you — internal, subjective — from what is conveyed about your results or actions — external, objective.
You will also know not to put any energy into responding to unjustified criticism. Now you understand that nothing constructive can come out of that.
Focus on what is important, keep your eyes on your milestones, and enjoy the journey, troll-free.