How to Cope With Anxiety Triggered by Criticism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you suffer from anxiety triggered by criticism? How can you reframe this criticism so that you no longer feel anxious about it?

One aspect of life that triggers anxiety in almost everyone is criticism. Though unjust criticism might sting, it can be considered a compliment—it means you’re doing something that merits jealousy and attention. 

Here is how a small change in perspective can help ease anxiety triggered by criticism.

Dealing With Criticism Anxiety

As natural as a negative reaction to criticism may be, it’s important to learn how to control your emotions and examine criticism with clear judgment because it often has the potential to teach valuable lessons.

There are three ways to deal with anxiety triggered by criticism: 1) remember that you’re not perfect, 2) do your best, and 3) think of unjustified criticism as a compliment. 

1) Remember That You’re Not Perfect

Without fail, we’ve all done foolish and regrettable things or made bad decisions—and often, received justified criticism for what we’ve done. Often, we instinctively react to this criticism in the worst possible way, either becoming angry and defensive or worried sick about what people must think of us. 

The best way to deal with justified criticism is to recognize that it’s a valuable learning opportunity. Rationally, you probably know that you learn more from those who honestly criticize you or push back against your decisions than you’ll learn from those who dishonestly praise you and blindly go along with your ideas. There are two ways to become more receptive to criticism and your potential to learn from it. 

1) Be Your Own Worst Critic

When you examine and criticize yourself, you ensure that you won’t be taken by surprise by others’ criticism. Furthermore, doing so gives you the opportunity to learn how criticism of your work can yield positive results, on your own, less emotionally charged terms. 

  • For example, Charles Darwin spent 15 years going over his work before submitting it for peer review—finding plenty of opportunities to improve his work and think about areas of his research that might be especially called into question and need defense. In doing so, he was able to avoid the stressful and embarrassing experience of being proven wrong or criticized in front of others and was fully prepared to defend himself against questioning without becoming flustered or emotional. 

2) Recognize and Welcome Sincere and Helpful Criticism 

When criticism comes from a place of sincerity and kindness, rather than spite or malice, it should be welcomed. Unfortunately, many of us become defensive and shut down when we receive criticism, even if it’s constructive.

To combat this natural tendency to shut down, train yourself to take a moment of reflection when you receive criticism and consider if the criticism is legitimate. First, remind yourself that just like any other human, you’re imperfect and can make mistakes. Second, ask yourself:

  • Is this criticism justified? 
  • What can I learn from this criticism? 

For example, Carnegie tells the story of a Colgate salesman who, when he wasn’t able to make a sale, would ask the non-buyer for feedback on his sales pitch. Their criticism was sincere and helpful, and he took it to heart and changed his methods based on what vendors suggested was working or not working. This attitude helped him improve his sales methods and move up the ladder until he was eventually president of the company. 

(Shortform note: For more tips on productively accepting feedback and criticism, read our summary of Thanks for the Feedback.)

2) Do Your Best 

Whether the criticism you’re receiving is justified or not, one of our greatest problems with receiving criticism is that we take it too seriously. We react in two ways: 

  • We assume everyone must agree with the criticism and is judging and gossiping about us. 
  • We try to please every critic in an attempt to avoid criticism altogether. While you can’t control what people will say or think about you, you can control how much you let it bother you. 

When you feel yourself overreacting to criticism, keep two important ideas in mind:

  1. Most people aren’t thinking about you and don’t care about singular criticisms that have been made about you. Everyone is much more concerned with their own lives and the criticisms they receive. 
  2. No matter what you do, someone will criticize you. A decision that might be best for one group of people can easily cause outrage among another. 

Instead of basing your decisions and actions on whatever you believe will draw the least amount of criticism, focus on doing what you absolutely believe is the right and good choice. When you believe in your heart that you made the best possible decision, it’s much easier to let criticisms bounce off of you, instead of internalizing and worrying about them. 

Above all, remember that the outcome of your decision is important—not the criticism or praise you receive for your decision.

  • If you make a decision that draws criticism but results in a positive outcome, it doesn’t matter that people didn’t like your decision. It ended well, despite their criticism. 
  • If you make a decision that receives praise but results in a negative outcome, it doesn’t matter that people praised your decision. It ended badly, despite their praise. 

3) Take Unjust Criticism as a Compliment 

Don’t concern yourself with unjustified criticism. When you’re criticized unfairly or for no particular reason, it’s usually because your critic needs to feel more powerful or important than you. Their criticism says much more about them than it does about you. 

Instead, take unjustified criticism as a compliment. Their criticism signals that you’re accomplished enough to garner criticism, and whatever you’re doing is worth jealousy and attention.

  • For example, in 1909 Admiral Peary became the first explorer to reach the North Pole, gaining much publicity and praise all over the world. This made his superior naval officers—who hadn’t achieved anything nearly so remarkable—insane with jealousy. They publicly criticized his character and work ethic, going so far as to suggest he was a fraud who wasn’t exploring the North Pole at all, instead hoarding the money for scientific expeditions for his own benefit.
How to Cope With Anxiety Triggered by Criticism

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  • What worry is and how it manifests both physically and mentally
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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