Iesha Small

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How to bounce back from negative feedback or criticism that wounds you

Have you ever received feedback or criticism that was painful or made you feel a sense of shame? Read on to for a frame work that will help you deal with it.



A while ago I was asked to write a post about how to take criticism. The request was from a school leader who said it was hard sometimes working with staff who she needed to give feedback that wasn’t entirely positive. I could empathise and have been in the position of having to give negative feedback many times in my career. It can be frustrating when you know that you have to give feedback that won’t be well received but that you feel is necessary. It’s even more frustrating when the feedback is ignored and nothing changes.  At the time I didn’t feel I had a great deal to say on the topic, it felt a bit patronising of me to write a blog post that I felt would be saying “here’s how you should take feedback from me telling you that you are rubbish.” However, in the intervening time I’ve received some negative feedback myself that at the time affected me a great deal. I’ve reflected on the process I went through to learn from the experience and share my thoughts here to help you.

Criticism and feelings of shame

There is a quote by Maya Angelou that is often used on leadership courses, talks or events

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Recently I was speaking at a leadership event and the above quote formed part of the presentations of two of my fellow speakers. I think this quote gets to the heart of why it can be so hard to receive criticism. Some types of negative feedback can make you feel awful. For whatever reason- the delivery, other things going on in your life, triggers relating to other issues- it can be hard not to take certain types of criticism personally. At its worst, negative feedback or criticism can be taken as an attack on self or your general competency now and forever. Even though that’s generally not the case, it can be how it feels at the time.

Criticism taps into our feelings about shame. Shame that we are inadequate or not enough. Shame is specifically related to our personal worth – rather than relating to a particular event. If we are ashamed it is very hard to then hear any of the follow up comments that may be offered related to how we may improve.

In writing this article, I’m going to assume that the intention of negative feedback we are given is generally to help us improve- even if it’s delivered poorly or doesn’t have that as an immediate effect. However, sadly and occasionally this may not be the case. It could well be that shame is exactly what the person giving the feedback is trying to evoke. However, I’m not writing this post for trolls or people with negative intentions. I’m writing it for you (and me) so now we’ll explore how we can receive, evaluate and then if necessary use criticism or negative feedback to improve in a way that adds to our mental resilience.  Let’s look at how we can bounce back from negative feedback that initially feels as if we have been wounded.

Listen or read the criticism without comment

I have a relatively thick skin and have received many, many pieces of feedback and constructive criticism during my career. These have helped me become a regularly “outstanding” maths teacher (when I used to care about that label), a successful head of department, a senior leader who was better able to develop those I line managed and more recently a project manager and report writer who communicates more effectively in my life as a senior associate at a think tank. I don’t usually take feedback personally and often seek it out because I always want to improve my performance.  However, I can still remember three particular pieces of criticism that I found particularly harsh and unfair that affected me in a way that others hadn’t.

  1. The first was as a class teacher. It was in the first school I ever taught in about 14 years ago and questioned the quality of my teaching
  2. The second was as an assistant headteacher, probably about 4 years ago and questioned the quality of my leading
  3. The most recent was as a speaker earlier this year and questioned my worth as a speaker, expertise and knowledge


It didn’t matter that I had many other positive pieces of feedback related to each of the above areas that painted a different picture. At the specific time for each of the above cases, the feedback hurt. Physically. In my chest. I feel stupid writing that but according to shame researcher, Dr Brené Brown, it’s not that outlandish. In her book, Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead, she writes “ as far as the brain is concerned, physical pain and intense experiences of social rejection hurt in the same way.”

You may have felt the same, receiving criticism that challenged your view of who you felt you were personally or professionally. Obviously remaining in this state is not useful so how can we act?

Well, surprisingly (for me) I’ve come to the conclusion that my best response at the specific time is to do nothing. Just listen. Do not respond at this point. Do not justify. Do not make excuses. Don’t prove the person wrong, just listen.

Why? You are hurt. Your response probably won’t help the situation and will be defensive, possibly angry or rude, which really isn’t going to make the person giving the criticism change their mind. There is a time for those emotions (the next step actually) but now isn’t it. Listen. Take things on board. If you feel able to ask questions then do but my preferred these days is just to be quiet, maybe take some notes. Your silence also helps the meeting go quicker and let’s face it you don’t want this meeting or discussion to go on for ever.

Say how you feel

The feedback you just received made you feel like crap. Acknowledge that but not to the person who just gave it to you. Not right now. Call your partner, talk to a friend or trusted colleague, somebody you can be really honest with. Or write it down if you are that kind of person. Just get it out. Once you’ve acknowledged it you can start to move on.

Digest and evaluate the information

Feedback is often just other people’s opinions. They may or may not be objectively true. This is the stage when you have got your initial feelings out and are now trying to see if there is anything you can learn from the feedback given and whether it was something you really do need to work on or is in fact more about the person giving it than about you. One or a few people’s incorrect opinions about you or your work doesn’t need to define you professionally or personally. The key is to find out which bits of the criticism you have received are fair – even if it was poorly delivered. It’s now time to chuck shame in the bin and ask other people’s honest opinions. Dr Brown writes further that “if we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Who you ask is key here.

Don’t ask you mum, your partner or best friend or your moaning disaffected colleague. Ask somebody objective who knows your general performance and who has expertise and credibility in the area you have been criticised in. Your objective here is to find out if there is any truth in the criticism, whatever your personal view right now. To do that you need to talk to somebody whose opinion you trust and who has no agenda and knows what they are talking about. For example – when I received negative feedback about a speaking presentation, I spoke to 2 experienced professional speakers and another trusted person all three of whom each of whom had seen me speak in different professional situations before and asked them about my performance in particular areas. This was very helpful.

Don’t make people take sides

Instead of :

“Mike saw my lesson the other day and said I was a shit teacher, can you believe that, what the hell does he know?!”


“I’ve recently been told my students don’t do enough work in my lessons. You’ve seen lots of people teach and you’ve observed me, I’m keen to improve and I trust your opinion- what do you think?”

You aren’t trying to be right. For me the objective is always to get to the truth and use it to improve in areas that are important to me.

Act on the advice if you need to

After going through the steps above, I have found that I am in a position to decide if the feedback had anything constructive that I need to act on – even if I didn’t like it. If there was anything useful I take action. If it turns out that actually it was in accurate or unfounded. I let it go and decide that it was more about the person who was giving the feedback than it really was about me.

Follow up (optional)

Above I urged you to listen to the feedback without comment. That was because my experience of acting when I’m angry or upset had rarely worked out well. However, after a period of reflection (which the steps above are designed to create) the emotion is usually gone. If the original criticism had some useful elements the best follow up is to act and then show how you’ve improved. If the criticism was unfounded or rude or malicious then the grey area appears. I think this depends on whether you have an ongoing relationship with the person concerned. If not… Forget that guy– they have no bearing on your life and you don’t need to interact with them again. If you do, my preferred would be to talk to them. Possibly outlining the steps you’ve taken and why you disagree with their feedback. The aim here is not to change their mind -they probably won’t budge- but more to politely outline to them in the future that you prefer to be treated fairly and with respect as is your professional right.

Lessons from stoicism

Stoicism is a philosophy that suggests that we cannot control external events but we can change our perceptions and behaviours so that these events need not control and overwhelm us. This mindset is especially useful in the context of initial painful criticism or negative feedback. As Ryan Holiday writes in Ego is the Enemy failure is just a part of life “with wisdom we understand that these positions are transitory not statements about your value as a human being.” I have a tattoo on one of my forearms that is generally covered but whenever my pupils see it they always ask about it and want to know the meaning. It is lower case version of the Greek letter delta surrounded by wind and it represents change. It is there to remind me that whatever happens in my life is temporary and subject to change. Success should be enjoyed as it may go and failure is only temporary and can be learned from. In fact, any major success in my life has come after a period of failure after I’ve regrouped and improved. Negative feedback can be seen as failure but it can also be our chance to get closer to our own goals. To quote Ryan again “When we lose, we have a choice: Are we going to make this a lose- lose situation for ourselves and everyone involved or will it be a lose…and then win?”

What next?

Have you ever received crushing feedback? Let me know how you responded and took action. If you are in the position to give feedback remember how it can feel to be on the receiving end of negative feedback and do your job while remembering to be constructive and kind.

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How to bounce back from negative feedback or criticism that wounds you