Criticism is a good thing. It illustrates what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong, and what you can do to become a better at your job. And even though your earliest professional years will be subject to the most criticism, it's both healthy and helpful to accept a stream of criticism for the duration of your entire career. No matter how good or how seasoned you are, there's always room to grow.
Still, not all criticism is easy or healthy to hear. Not all bosses and supervisors understand or appreciate the value of constructive, positive criticism, and at least once in your career, you'll inevitably hear a piece of criticism that cuts you to your core. Knowing how to respond to this insulting or disheartening criticism with professionalism can help you overcome that negativity.
1. Distance Yourself From the Situation
Your first step is to rein in your emotions. When you're put on the spot with harsh criticism, your natural reactions could range from disappointment to genuine range. You may feel that your character has been called into question, or that your boss has it out for you. But before you allow those reactions to interfere with your next steps, you need to take a moment to calm down. Even if the criticism was directed at you personally, try not to take it personally. Realize that it's a criticism of your actions and your performance, not of you (even if it's framed that way), and try to see the situation as objectively as possible.
2. Try to Understand Your Boss's Intentions
Before getting too upset at your boss, try to understand her intentions. Is she upset with your performance and trying to help you fix it, albeit in an unhealthy way? Is she exceptionally stressed and prone to saying things she doesn't fully mean? If so, you can keep this in mind as you frame your response and breathe easier about the negative situation. However, if your boss seems like she's only criticizing you to make you feel bad about yourself, that's a completely different situation, and at that point, you may want to consider finding a new job.
3. Summarize the Criticism
Once your boss has given you her criticism, take a moment to reflect on what she really means. When you're ready, repeat back exactly what you think she's driving at. If she's been overly harsh, this is your opportunity to reframe the criticism in a more positive light. For example, if your boss says "your performance sucks lately. You're not submitting anything on time and your work is atrocious," you can drive to the root of the problem and repeat, "so you're saying I need to find a new work strategy so I can improve my performance?" Doing so distances you from taking the criticism personally, and may illuminate what your boss is actually getting at.
4. Explain Your Perspective
Only once you've calmed yourself and distanced yourself from the original criticism should you rebut with your own explanation. Your purpose here isn't to counterattack; you don't want to get defensive. Instead, your goal should only be to explain your view on things. Let's take the above example a step further. You've established that your performance is unsatisfactory. Can you explain why? Is the toxic work culture preventing you from doing your best? Are you missing software that would make your job easier? Do you lack direction or supervision? The more specific you can be here, the better.
5. Engage in a Dialogue
Hopefully, at this point, your boss will naturally lead you to a dialogue. If not, you can specifically request one. Work together with your boss to hash out the unspoken details of the criticism; once you've explained your broad perspective, this should be easier for both of you. Examine the areas that need to be improved and how they can be improved, one by one, looking intrinsically at your own motivations and actions and extrinsically at the environment in which you work. If you find your boss is not engaging productively, you can cut it short.
6. Suggest an Action Plan
Once you've settled the dialogue to your satisfaction, suggest an action plan before you walk away. If your boss has outlined one for you, this is your chance to repeat it and prove that you're motivated to making a positive change. Otherwise, create a list (with deadlines, if necessary) to hold yourself to once the meeting is over. If you both agree to this list, there can be no further problem so long as you follow it.
7. Consider Giving Criticism of Your Own
If your boss was especially unhelpful during this process, such as criticizing you for something that you can't help or refusing to enter into a dialogue, consider giving your own criticism. Only do this once you've successfully entered a calm, distanced state--don't just reply blindly with emotion. Tell your boss that his/her criticism was unwarranted or unhelpful, but suggest alternative strategies he/she can use in the future to make his/her criticism better. Don't fall to your boss's level--remain calm, logical, positive, and helpful should you choose to do so.
Harsh criticism is never fun or easy to take, but these strategies can make the experience healthier and a little more productive. Be sure to read the situation carefully, and don't allow your emotions or your ego to get the better of you. As a general rule, the more objective, calm, and logical you are in this situation, the better your final results will be.