Sometimes when others criticize us, especially those close to us, or those in power over us, it is as if a fire alarm goes off in our brains. It can put you on the defensive very quickly. What if you could change this clanging into something that actually made you more productive? What if you could soften the sound to some gentle chimes that made you say, hmmm, what about this has me paying so much attention?

This is a matter of asking yourself the right questions. It is a way to receive criticism that you can teach yourself, instead of responding like it’s a three alarm fire. Here’s a few questions to get you started. But first a personal story.


When I was working in the design field, I did several projects with one architect that I developed a wonderful working relationship with. We had, for one of those projects, a particularly difficult contractor on board. He kept interfering with specifications and making cost cuts that we both knew were going to affect the quality of the work, and both of us were being extra diligent about our documentation to protect the owner of the project.

One day the contractor was being particularly asinine in a large meeting with the owner. The changes he was spewing out meant the owner would be making repairs or replacing materials within 6 months after the contractor was long gone. I was making the case for holding to a material specification instead of allowing a cheap substitute, and the contractor accused me publicly of increasing project costs unnecessarily. I looked at him and calmly reported the lifetime costs and maintenance costs of the material, causing the owner to overrule the contractor and hold the spec.

But let me assure you that I was not calm on the inside. I had to quickly evaluate every one of the questions I share with you now. But I knew that I would be around, and proud that the project wouldn’t look like someone’s laundry room inside of a year. It came down to my long term reputation vs the contractor’s ongoing bullying and manipulation.

Criticism—The Right Questions To Ask

  • When did the criticism start?
  • What prompts/triggers the comments? Is it something you said, did, wore? Or does the criticism stem from their insecurity/jealously/contempt/desire to appear the winner?
  • How come what is being said is important to you? Are you fearing loss of connection, or are you in a situation where someone has power over you?
  • Where does the idea come from that it should be important to you?
  • How is it important for you to put their ideas over yours? What makes their ideas more important than yours?
  • How much does your opinion matter? (Being mindful here of “power over” circumstances.)
  • When, or perhaps why, would it matter MORE to you be around people that call you names, insult you, or really just don’t have your back?

When the alarm goes off for you, start by naming the emotion it is making you feel. If you feel threatened, (as I did in the above story) then why is that? Answer the question. If it is something you want to change, as in a solvable problem, then form a plan. How might you change it? Is it a gradual change over time? Is it the way you respond when you feel scared, mad or embarrassed?

Remember that changing something large often best begins with taking one small, doable step. And here’s an awesome thing to understand. Positive change in one area of your life will often spill over into other areas. Automatically. This creates momentum that keeps you moving in the desired direction.

Criticism: One More Question

Before you decide that you have depression or low self-esteem, look around and make sure you are not simply surrounded by asshats. Really. Sometimes we take in criticism from others that really ought to be discounted, or consigned to the dustbin. Sometimes we simply need to hold our boundaries.

If you need some guidance in how to evaluate the criticism you may be receiving and how to manage your feelings, give me a call or shoot me an email

Page Rutledge, LCSW, MSW, MPH is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and couples communication. Visit her website and blog at