Criticism can be helpful IF your self-esteem is in good working order.

Columnist Robert Fulford, writing for Canada’s ‘Globe and Mail,’ coined the phrase, ‘To kill a critic: the fantasies of authors.’ Just about everybody hates a critic—not only in the context of plays, books and movies, but also co-workers, friends and family who are, at times, all too happy to share their opinions. But not all criticism is bad. Take, for example, constructive criticism. We might ask, ‘Can I have your opinion about something?’ Or, one could (politely) volunteer: ‘Can I make a suggestion?’ Or, ‘May I give you some honest feedback?’ By doing so, they’re at least showing some deference to the fact that you don’t have to take their advice just because they express it. In such cases, it might be worth listening to what they have to say.

Nevertheless, I still recommend caution when others criticize you. Criticism can be honest, but it can also be motivated by the critic’s desire to feel superior. Some people attain their sense of worth by feeling superior to others. They can be quite convincing in their criticism, but—if you look more closely—they have nothing positive to convey.

So how can you tell if the critic is motivated by a desire to feel superior? Before accepting criticism, consider the source. Is the critic knowledgeable on the subject at hand? If so, then it merits attention—though that alone is not the decisive factor. The final word must be your own mind. Make sure you draw your conclusions objectively, and not simply with an “I’m right, no matter what” attitude. Give consideration to any truly valid criticism, but don’t elevate the critic’s mind and overall judgment above your own.

This is where self-esteem enters the picture. My favorite definition of self-esteem is simply ‘confidence in your own mind to figure things out.’ Confidence does not mean knowing everything, but it does mean trusting your own reasoning first and foremost. If your logic leads you to conclude that you did a good job with something, and somebody walks up and suggests that you did a terrible job, then you’ll have one of two internal responses. If you have good self-esteem, your response will be, ‘What does he mean? What’s the proof that I did a terrible job? I see evidence to the contrary.’ If you have poor self-esteem, your internal response will be, ‘Oh my gosh! I thought I did well, but I guess I didn’t. Nobody would say that unless they were sure.’

The honest critic will explain his reasoning to you. He’ll say, in effect, ‘This is how I came to my conclusion that you didn’t do well. Here’s how I think you could have done better.’ You can then evaluate that reasoning for yourself. You can weigh the facts, and whether any were left out. For example, ‘What a terrible job you did cleaning that window! I see streaks.’ Once pointed out, do YOU see the streaks? If so, then there’s nothing to feel defensive about—at least not if your goal was, in fact, to clean the window.

Honest critics are not above criticism themselves. Because they make their reasoning clear—even about something obvious, like the window—they are confident in their conclusions, and they don’t mind proving them. However, if their actual goal is to feel superior, then you’ll know it, because they won’t offer any reasoning or proof. In fact, the dishonest critic will probably be too arrogant to even care about things such as facts or evidence. Such ‘critics’ have nothing to offer you, and you’re free to dismiss them.

We all know people who can’t accept criticism of any kind. It’s impossible to criticize these ‘thin-skinned’ individuals, even honestly and constructively, because they can’t tolerate even the slightest suggestion that they made a mistake. That is because they subscribe to one or more of these false ideas: (1) ‘If I think I’m doing a good job nobody will find anything wrong;’ or, (2) ‘I can’t make a mistake! If I do it means I’m hopelessly incompetent.’ Or, (3) ‘I can’t do anything wrong.’ The antidote to these silly ideas is to think of yourself as a ‘work in progress.’ In other words: ‘I’m as good as I am, but I can probably be better. If someone honestly points out a way I can do better, they have helped me—even if helping me wasn’t their motive.’

You don’t necessarily need to know your critic’s motive. You don’t have to analyze them to figure out whether the criticism is sincere or not. All you have to do is evaluate what they’re saying. If it’s arbitrary, then ignore it. If it’s useful, then great—add it to your base of knowledge. This is, in fact, how the most sophisticated science has advanced through the ages—but it also works with everyday things, like cleaning windows.

The key is to stay open, objective and impartial about ourselves. By keeping an eye on reality and facts, we can confidently reserve the right to accept or reject whatever criticisms might come our way.