If you were to make a list of all the reasons for calling your family and friends, or striking up a conversation with a coworker, getting criticized is probably not going to make it to the top.

And that’s a shame, because according to science, criticism can actually be a valuable tool for self-improvement—if you can learn to handle it properly.

The benefits of constructive criticism

You’ve probably heard the phrase constructive criticism thrown around before. What’s so constructive about it? Well, constructive criticism isn’t meant to be mean-spirited or harsh. Instead, it’s specific, actionable feedback that can (and should) be used to help you improve as an employee, friend, and human being.

Criticism is a great self-improvement tool for a couple of reasons:

  1. It helps point out areas that need improvement. Nobody is perfect. We all have stuff we need to work on, and good constructive criticism can help bring your attention to this. It’s a lot easier to spot areas for improvement when a boss or coworker points them out—people tend to have a hard time identifying their own weaknesses.
  1. It helps you become more resilient. Not all criticism is going to be constructive—sometimes people don’t know what they’re talking about, and sometimes people can be downright mean. The more you get used to hearing criticism, though, the easier it gets to pick out the good from the bad (and ignore the bad). Your skin gets thicker, and you learn to deal with things in a more mature and beneficial way. Self-improvement is no longer a vague aspiration, but instead becomes deliberate and measured.

How to take criticism like a champ

This is the hard part. Many people don’t handle criticism well, no matter how nicely it’s packaged. If criticism makes you edgy, defensive, or straight-up mad, you’re not alone. Sue Shellenbarger, a Work & Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal, describes taking criticism as “a skill that requires practice, humility, and a sizable dose of self-awareness.”

The key to handling feedback is learning to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. When you receive feedback, stop and take at least a couple minutes—if not a couple days—to process it. Try to see the criticism from the perspective of the person offering it. And try to have a sense of humor about it. Even if the criticism is totally valid, taking a lighthearted stance can help soften the blow.

How to get constructive criticism

Finding someone to offer constructive criticism is easy. Just ask! Find someone you trust—a friend, a boss, a mentor, or a family member—and ask them what you can improve on. If that seems awkward, take advantage of scenarios like performance reviews to ask for additional feedback. Chances are, you’ll find at least a few people that are more than happy to tell it like it is.

It seems counterintuitive to go around asking people to point out your flaws, but it’s important: in a study published in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman of Zenger/Folkman found that 44% of managers surveyed considered giving negative feedback to be stressful and difficult, and many avoided doing so as a result.

Turning harsh words into a tool for positive change

Alright, so you’ve gone out and got yourself some brutally honest feedback. Maybe it stung a little, but you’ve moved past that and are ready to find the lessons in it and apply them to your life. First, you’ll need to decide if the criticism is valid. This is another time when avoiding the knee-jerk reaction is key: it gives you a chance to review your actions and determine if the feedback is based in reality.

The next step is processing the criticism and coming up with a plan to improve. Set a concrete goal and break it down into small, actionable steps. If you’re getting criticism as part of a performance review, you might be lucky enough to have your supervisor help you break down the feedback and set goals, but if not, use the SMART system to create an action plan.

Seeking out criticism and actively discussing your work performance with your managers will set you up for future success, whether you’re preparing to ask for a promotion at work or simply trying to improve your craft.

With a little feedback in your pocket and some goals in place, you’ll be off to a great start on the path to self-improvement.

Author's Bio: 

Alec Sears graduated from Brigham Young University in public relations and now writes about business technology and entrepreneurship. Visit his online portfolio at https://alecsears.contently.com/