Responding to External Critics


This document as of 6/13/2014 is at version 0.5At this stage it has the material which will be present in the 1.0 revision and the material has been sorted into sections, but it is still the raw data and needs to be transformed.

Fear of Criticism

  • “You may dread criticism simply because you have never learned effective techniques for handling it.” (Burns 131)
  • “Many depressive episodes are set in motion by external criticism.” (Burns 131)
  • “Overcoming your fear of criticism will require a moderate amount of practice. But it is not difficult to develop and master this skill, and the positive impact on your self-esteem will be tremendous.” (Burns 132)
  • “…you must realize that it is not other people, or the critical comments they make, that upset you…No matter how vicious, heartless, or cruel these comments may be, they have no power to disturb you or to create even a little bit of discomfort.” (Burns 132)
  • “When another person criticizes you certain negative thoughts are automatically triggered in your head. Your emotional reaction will be created by these thoughts and not by what the other person says.” (Burns 132)
  • “The first step in overcoming your fear of criticism concerns your own mental processes: Learn to identify the negative thoughts you have when you are being criticized.” (Burns 133)
  • You can use the double-column technique to do this (Automatic Thoughts (ANTs), Rational Response). (Burns 133-134)
  • “…if people criticize you the comments they make will be right or wrong. If the comments are wrong there is really nothing for you to be upset about.” (Burns 133-134)
  • “Why should you be disturbed if someone else makes the mistake of criticizing you in an unjust manner?” (Burns 134)
  • “On the other hand, if the criticism is accurate, there is still no reason for you to feel overwhelmed. You’re not expected to be perfect. Just acknowledge it…it may take some effort to transform this insight into an emotional reality.” (Burns 134-135)
  • “The crux of the matter is that only your thoughts can upset you and if you learn to think more realistically, you will feel less upset.” (Burns 135)

Disarming Our Fear of Criticism

Step 1: Empathy

  • Ask questions to help you understand exactly what your critic means. (Burns 135)
  • Don’t be defensive, attempt to see the world through their eyes. (Burns 135)
  • Even if the criticism is entirely unjust, still respond with empathy and questions. (Burns 137)

Step 2: Disarming the Critic

You have three options in responding

  • Fire Back – results in mutual destruction.
  • Run Away or Dodge – results in humiliation, loss of self-esteem.
  • Stand and Disarm – you feel like a winner and so does the critic. (Burns 137)

Standing and Disarming

  • “Whether your critic is right or wrong initially find some way to agree with him or her.” (Burns 137-138)
  • What about if their criticism is entirely unreasonable? “…you can agree in principle with the criticism, or you can find some grain of truth in the statement and agree with that, or you can acknowledge that the person’s upset is understandable based on how he or she views the situation.” (Burns 138)


  1. Find some way to agree in your response.
  2. Avoid sarcasm and defensiveness.
  3. Speak the truth. (Burns 138)
  • You can role play with a friend if you have someone who is causing you trouble regularly. If a friend is not available, write out what you imagine the dialogue could be. (Burns 140)
  • “You will notice you have a profound, almost irresistible tendency to defend yourself when you are unjustly accused…If you give in to this tendency, you will find that the intensity of your opponent’s attack increases!” (Burns 141)
  • “…if I respond with empathy and disarm your hostility, more often than not you will feel I am listening to you and respecting you. As a result you lose your ardor to do battle and quiet down.” (Burns 141)
  • Role-play situations after-the-fact with a friend to see how you could respond differently. (Burns 141-142)

Step 3. Feedback and Negotiation.

  • “…you will…be in a position to explain your position and emotions tactfully and assertively, and to negotiate any real differences.” (Burns 142)
  • If the person is absolutely wrong, state your own point of view objectively with the caveat that you may be wrong. (Burns 142)
  • Remember to stick with the facts, rather than focusing on the person. Their behavior here does not delineate the entirety of who they are – they do not suddenly become a worthless human being. (Burns 142)
  • “If he or she continues to harangue you, making the same point again and again, you can simply repeat your assertive response politely but firmly over and over until the person tires out.” (Burns 143)
  • “You may have to settle for part of what you want. But if you have conscientiously applied the empathy and disarming techniques first, you will probably get more of what you want.” (Burns 143)
  • If the person is correct in their criticism, agree with it, thank them for telling you, and apologize for any injury caused. It is likely the critic’s respect for you will increase. (Burns 143)
  • “You do have the right to defend yourself vigorously from criticism and to get angry at anyone you choose whenever you like.” (Burns 144)
    • “The crucial point is not whether or not you express your feelings, but the manner in which you do it.” (Burns 144)
    • “If you defend yourself from negative feedback in a defensive and vengeful way, you will reduce the prospect for productive interaction in the future….while your angry outburst momentarily feels good, you may defeat yourself in the long run by burning your bridges.” (Burns 144)

Handling Hecklers

  • “The heckler’s comments usually have several characteristics: (1) They are intensely critical, but seem inaccurate or irrelevant to the material presented; (2) they often come from a person who is not well accepted or regarded among his or her local peers; and (3) they are expressed in a haranguing, abusive style.” (Burns 145)
    • “I find that the following method is highly effective: (1)…thank the person for his or her comments; (2) acknowledge that the points brought up are indeed important; and (3)…emphasize that there is a need for more knowledge about the points raised…encourage my critic to pursue meaningful research and investigation of the topic. Finally, I invite the heckler to share his or her views with me further after the close of the session.” (Burns 145)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.