How To Manage Criticism

Photo: Lara604

In the past several weeks I’ve found myself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Some of it has been mean-spirited, some of it misplaced, and some of it accurate. But all of it was painful to hear. Though intellectually I know I’m capable of error, emotionally I like to believe I’m free of it, and when I’m reminded that the way I view myself and the way others view me are at odds, it creates a particularly painful cognitive dissonance that most people (at least, those not burdened by a narcissistic personality) know well.

No one likes to be criticized. We all want to imagine we’re without flaw. And yet, of course, none of us are—which some others will invariably, at various points in our lives, point out to us. Unfortunately, many of us seek to resolve this cognitive dissonance by discrediting any and all criticism that comes our way—not only criticism about ourselves but also criticism about anything that emanates from us (our work product, our material possessions, our opinions, and so on). We often even bristle when groups with which we identify (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Democrats, Republicans, teachers, doctors, men, women, and so on) come under fire.

But as many know, criticism, like failure, also represents an opportunity for self-improvement. If no one ever tells us how we’re going wrong, we’re far more likely to continue to perform inferiorly, whether as an artist, musician, teacher, doctor, or human being.

Which is why it’s actually a good thing that criticism stings. Certainly we’ll do almost anything to avoid that sting, including deny the truth of that which stings us. But that same sting also provides the impetus for us to examine ourselves with a critical eye so we can make positive changes. After all, if we didn’t feel bad when criticized—even if only a little—what incentive would we have to consider the criticism on its merits?

Thus, there are really only two questions we should ask ourselves when someone criticizes us: 1) how can we prevent ourselves from dismissing it before we have a chance to evaluate it, and 2) how can we sort out valid from invalid criticism?

ACCEPTING CRITICISM

For me, this is all about silencing my ego. This is how I try to do it:

  1. Don’t respond immediately. I presume my first reaction will be dismissal based on my desire to preserve my self-concept. Much of the time, however, I fail at this. But that’s okay because I can always…
  2. Consider the criticism in a cool moment later. Just because I may vigorously defend myself against whoever may have criticized me at the moment they bring a criticism up doesn’t mean when I’m done I automatically dismiss their criticism from my mind or forget it. But in order to do this I must…
  3. Spend time on a regular basis asking myself how I can improve. If I’ve established this as a habit and do it alone when I can have an honest dialogue with myself, I just may have a chance to consider a criticism on its merits. Which is when I try to pause and ask myself…
  4. What if what s/he said is true? I ask myself this question as a hypothetical and begin to explore the implications. Which is how I…

SORTING OUT CRITICISM

…figure out what criticism is valid and what criticism is invalid. Just as a scientific hypothesis should make predictions that can be scientifically validated (supporting the hypothesis as true), if a criticism is valid, it should predict or explain other things. For example, if my wife is right that I often become inappropriately angry (hypothetically), I should be able to remember multiple instances in which I lost my temper and regretted it. Further, such instances should occur in the future (these should be even more apparent than instances from the past), and if criticisms accurately predict our future behavior, that’s a sign we should take them seriously.

Sometimes, it helps me to evaluate criticisms more objectively if I imagine I’m watching a movie of myself so that I can better judge my actions as if they were taken by someone else (in fact, actually watching a movie of yourself can be quite a revealing experience, as I wrote about in an earlier post, The Importance Of Tone). Ultimately, though, what really gets me to take a criticism seriously is the consequences of not taking it seriously. Which means, of course, I take some criticisms more seriously than others. For example, if my wife threatens to divorce me if I don’t get my anger under control (again, hypothetically), I’m much more likely to take that criticism seriously. Or if my agents tells me she can’t sell my book proposal as it’s written (also hypothetically), I’m also more likely to take that criticism seriously. In general, then, though we may lament having to face the consequences of ignoring accurate criticism, those consequences, like the sting of criticism itself, can also be our friends, motivating us—as the threat of such consequences can like nothing else—to actually make changes we likely need to make.

Next Week: The Best Disease From Which To Die

 

10 comments to How To Manage Criticism

  • Criticism, right or wrong, is a perception.

    Someone said to me, “You’re bossy!” My first reaction was to deny it. “No I’m not.” Then justify it. “I am bossy because I’m Chair!” It didn’t go over very well. I thought that I was conducting the meeting in an orderly fashion according to establish rules. But that person saw me as uncompromising and bossy. I resolved this conflict by saying, yes, I am bossy, but I don’t have to be. With that I became more aware of my actions moving forward.

    Admitting to the criticism will often deflate the emotion level because the person needs to have their perception validated. Besides I don’t always have to be right. Wink!

  • I, for one applaud your heartfelt and authentic disclosure regarding your personal journey around this, as well as many of your other life experiences and emotions that you have shared through your writing. It’s always difficult to speak out on almost any subject in a large forum because you will ultimately become the lightning bolt of other people’s projections. It’s usually more about them, than anything else. It’s OK to observe the feelings and acknowledge what is being said, but (like I often say when the criticism comes), “I’m sure not for everyone!”

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  • 001mum

    re: Tone

    Oh yes! Tone is absolutely everything. One can say anything if the tone is “right” and nothing if the Tone is “wrong.” Content, truth, reality, education, beliefs, history are neither considered nor understood with the wrong “tone.” So criticize away but say it pretty! I have been so horrible and unaccepting when I am given criticism. I try to defend and deflect, then I cry. HOWEVER, now that I am a stronger woman and feel more in control of life decisions, my ability to listen, hear, pause and respond has matured. Yahoo!!!

    PS—enough of the promoting of your book, eh?

  • Erika

    I tend to do this, although I must admit, even though I am quick to defend myself, I am not as tough to criticism and immediately take it to heart. Like many people (not necessarily gender-specific) I am “thin-skinned.” The critical comment (or “silent treatment”) will stick in my head until I have figured out if I actually did something wrong, or why it might have been necessary at the time. This happened in my office a few months ago. My usual approach to this type of situation is to first contemplate the criticism, and if I can’t resolve it, to ask the person if I may have done something to upset them. This I do in a non-confrontational, inviting tone. The answer I received was, “No.” End of conversation and the silent treatment persists. We are in a 5-person office with necessary interaction in our jobs. Any ideas on how to resolve this?

    Erika: This person may not be able to answer you directly for any number of reasons. Perhaps ask other neutral parties what they know?

    Alex

  • Patricia DiMartino

    I find that self-confidence is a double-edged sword when it comes to accepting criticism. Normally I am so confident that I can slough off criticism because I feel justified in my decisions, attitudes, actions. But if I let self-doubt creep in, the veneer is cracked and I get really rattled. An “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment. I don’t mind apologizing or admitting I’m wrong, but it leads me to second-guessing across the board. I guess self-reflection is a good outcome, though.

  • Alexander N. Brittain

    I really don’t understand “we all want to imagine we’re without a flaw.” Really?! That’s pretty telling about you, Alex. I know my flaws well and therefore have nothing to defend or protect. I have learned many years ago that most comments, positive or negative, have more to do with the one making the comments than with me. Honestly, when I do receive criticism, I have learned to listen to both the actual comments as well as what may be behind the words. If the comments are valid, I act on them accordingly; if they aren’t, I understand they have nothing to do with me, but are a manifestation of the other’s “issues.”

    Most people (even good, thoughtful people) are egoistic (but not necessarily egocentric). “Praise” and “criticism” are not things we need accept or reject, but just acknowledge as perceptions coming from (mostly) egoistic individuals.

  • chris

    How about this for a back-handed defense: for anything that a critic says against me, I have beat them to the punch, being quite self-critical. Thus, the criticisms of others are not new to me—I have usually leveled these criticisms against myself at one time or another. So, I usually don’t have to analyze to see if the criticism fits. Thus, I don’t have to be defensive.

    But I must admit that the STING is still an issue. I still wince.

  • This was a good post, as our reactions always have messages for us. Random comment though: I don’t understand the need for using (and thus stating as such: hypotheticals) in your post. I don’t assume someone has anger issues unless admitted; that you needed to state the examples as hypothetical in nature says more (to me) about how you want readers to perceive you rather than just giving examples that are real. It seems a bit like too much protesting. Hypothetically, of course. Try not to care so much about what we think. Be vulnerable.

  • chris

    Alex, I can imagine that you have received criticism in larger than usual doses as the author of a newly published book. I can also imagine that you must sort out the criticisms because your reputation and your credibility is more important than ever before—as the author of a book about spiritual direction. We probably all remember what happened to Mel Levine (A Mind at a Time) in terms of his reputation. It had to have affected book sales.

    On the other hand, ALL the political figures are being maligned in the nastiest of terms these days. And they just keep on sparring back and forth, don’t they.

    I used to tend towards letting people trash me, but now I defend myself much more than I ever did. I had to learn the lesson of standing up for myself late in life.

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