Learn how to cope with criticism and take it in your stride
When you raise the topic of “criticism” it’s not long before someone will trot out the saying that “you should ignore what critics say as no statue has ever been erected for a critic.” That quote is attributed to Romantic composer Jean Sibelius, and you can imagine him huffing out those words as his wife read a scathing review of his latest work to him from the morning paper as he scoffed his breakfast Karelian pie (Sibelius was Finnish, should you be wondering). The thing to remember is that Sibelius died in 1957, and the world of the third decade of the 21st century is a very different one from the world he knew.
Sibelius was venting the age-old lament of the artiste. Whatever you think of an artist’s output it requires effort, time and skill. In a thoughtless second, however, criticism can dismiss that art simply by opposing it. The dewy fawn of creation easily falls prey to the valueless vulture of criticism, but in the 21st century that vulture is pretty damn popular. Our broadcast television is 80 per cent criticism-based reality programming, our politics is oppositional rather than constructive and social media offers everyone a platform to not only self-promote but also criticise others.
All of this is to say, like it or not, that while we don’t build statues to critics in the 2020s, we do give them ample air time. Criticism is central to the modern zeitgeist, so you are going to have to deal with it. If you want to avoid criticism you are going to have to dig yourself a hole in the desert somewhere and settle in, which would just involve sand getting into places where sand shouldn’t go, so much better than trying to avoid criticism, let’s consider what criticism is and how you can deal with it.
We don’t want to be too critical of criticism. The fact that it is a global past-time these days is not entirely a bad thing. Winston Churchill once said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Churchill was right: whether or not criticism is justified, it calls attention to something that at least one other person feels requires attending to. The degree to which criticism can be helpful, however, depends on how you deal with it. To appropriately deal with criticism you need to get some perspective on it, and that necessitates considering why people might criticise in the first place.
The starting point with criticism is to realise that it might tell you something about the person being criticised, but it always tells you much more about the person doing the criticising. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, criticism is “the most civilised form of autobiography”. If someone levels a criticism at you, the reasons they may have for doing it are virtually infinite.
According to Anastasia Hronis, clinical psychologist, university lecturer and founder of the Australian Institute for Human Wellness, “There are a number of reasons why people may criticise others. At times, people may be trying to provide someone with feedback, but the message is delivered in a less than helpful way. At other times, people may criticise as a form of ego defence. We may criticise others because we feel personally devalued by the behaviour or attitude of another person. Some may criticise because they feel insecure and are overcompensating.”
Next time it happens, consider these among the myriad possibilities that motivate the critic:
- he has a need that isn’t being met
- she has a controlling personality
- he’s threatened by you
- she’s trying to get your attention
- he sees you as competition
- she can’t get you to listen to her
- he lacks the social skills to communicate appropriately
- she is covering up resentment
- he had a nasty chicken korma the night before that is doing unspeakable things to his large intestine
- she is wearing jeans that are two sizes too small and just wants to undo the zip
- you deserve it (yes, it is possible)
The list could go on ad infinitum, but the point is that, aside from the last possibility, the many options available are about the person doing the criticising and not about you. It’s not even about disagreeing with your behaviour or your attitude; criticism usually comes because someone feels devalued by what you have said or done. Criticism often reflects an internal sense of dissatisfaction on the part of the criticiser. That means, of course, that a lot of the time if you take criticism personally then you are missing the point.
Having said that, as the last option listed above alludes to, there are times when it is about you, and that brings us to the difference between criticism and critique.
Criticism vs critique
Criticism is usually based on emotions and reaches a subjective judgement. The emotional component here usually leads to an element of aggression that causes withdrawal by the person receiving the criticism. As Hronis says, “Generally, criticism is not a successful or effective way of getting a positive change in behaviour from another person, and more often than not can result in resentment in the long term.”
By contrast, critique weighs pros and cons and objectively comes to a conclusion. The creation, rather than the creator, is the focus of critique. The personal idiosyncrasies of the person performing a task do not come into how it is critiqued, and neither does the internal world of the person performing the critique. Effectively the difference between criticism and critique is the difference between destructive and constructive criticism. What it highlights is that some criticism can be positive in intent and effect, which in turn means that you can’t just ignore criticism. You need to become a discerning recipient of criticism, and that requires some preparation.
Coping with criticism
The first and most obvious thing to remind yourself of when someone criticises you is that there could be a million things going on to lead to that critical comment. Having done that however, there are a few strategies to help you deal with those critical moments.
To truly to be able to listen to criticism and then learn from it you must be able to get beyond your ego and hear what is actually contained in the criticism rather than listening to your own emotional reaction. A person who is centred doesn’t get swayed by criticism. Instead they use criticism in a constructive way, to become strong and to bring positive change in their life. You are responsible for everything that happens to you in your life. You can only accept this responsibility when you realise that everything that happens to you is a result of some seed that you yourself have sown. Just because you cannot remember when you sowed that seed, doesn’t make it a random happening and doesn’t make it anyone else’s fault. Keeping this in mind you can see the critic as an instrument who is delivering to you your due. This will keep you free of emotional turbulence such as hate, anger and jealousy towards the other person and allow you to hear them.
Listening of course does not equate to action, but it requires that you be open to action should what you hear require it. How though do decide whether the criticism warrants action from you? You evaluate the criticism, and you do this by putting it in perspective.
Your aim with criticism is to see, as we said earlier, that there could be many reasons why this is being said to you, and equally there may be some truth that you need to acknowledge. To achieve this you will need to have trained your mind. There is a saying that goes, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” If you can teach yourself this principle then you are on the way to dealing with criticism in a healthy way.
Criticism might tell you something about the person being criticised, but it always tells you much more about the person doing the criticising.
The next step when facing criticism is to ask yourself some important questions. Ask yourself, “Do I need to deal with this person?” If not, who cares what they think! Then you can try to be empathetic. Understand the situation from their perspective. Maybe they are in pain. Remember it is all perception and you can reframe whatever they are saying as feedback.
Anastasia Hronis says that there are a few questions you can ask yourself to evaluate and process criticism.
- Who is the person who has offered the criticism? Is it someone you respect or someone who can offer you some wisdom? What is the relationship history like with this person?
- In what spirit was the criticism delivered? Was the criticism delivered with judgement, envy or malice, or from a genuine place of love and kindness? This can help you determine if the criticism is meant to be destructive or constructive.
- What were the circumstances under which the criticism was delivered? Was the person in a hurry, or under significant amounts of stress? Do they have some troubles in their life at the moment? Such factors may influence a person’s delivery.
Change your assumptions
One of the most important things to remember in dealing with criticism is that “nice” things are not the only valuable things. Buddhist nun Robina Courtin says, “The awful assumption we make is that happiness comes from nice things happening and sadness comes when they don’t. At that level of assumption, every time that I get something that I don’t want, like criticism, I will be unhappy. The assumption that nice things make me happy causes me to crave the good things, crave the praise, the love and the respect. The other assumption of course is that the second it doesn’t happen, I will be miserable. This is one of the functions of what the Buddha would call attachment. The assumption that happiness comes from the good stuff and suffering comes from the bad stuff is a dualistic idea. If we are living this way as most of us are, then inevitably the moment that you get criticism you will be angry or violent or depressed.”
… some criticism can be positive in intent and effect, which in turn means that you can’t just ignore criticism.
If your life is dependent on being “good” or “bad” and if it relies on the approval of external people or institutions then it will be a rocky road of ups, downs and eventual exhaustion. Living through knowledge of yourself and measuring events against your own internal values leads to a more balanced, even and successful life. In this context criticism from others will be at worst a surprise and at best a valuable insight.
Courtin says, “If you are working on your mind in the way that the Buddha suggests and you have been unpacking your mind and believe in your own potential to grow yourself and to be stable and wise and good, you’ll have enough sense of who you are when you get criticism to not be defensive. You will happily listen to it, and if it’s valid and reasonable say, ‘Thank you very much, how kind you are,’ and if not say, ‘I’ll let you have your criticism.’”
It all comes down to knowledge of self. If you do not know who you are then you will constantly be looking for reflections of who you are from the world. In that case the implications of criticism are devastating because you believe you are what the critic said you are. What a painful way to live; as a piece of neurotic flotsam afloat on the sea of everybody else’s mood. If on the other hand you know yourself then criticism, or praise for that matter, does not alter your sense of self, but they both become interesting opportunities for further learning. That is a stable way to be.
Things to avoid
Criticism can easily trigger a flight or fight response as it is easy to perceive it as a threat. What you do not want to do is run away from the topic or try to prove you are right without addressing what has been said. It’s difficult if the criticism happens in a forum such as a meeting where an immediate response is required. In such a situation, if the person criticising is a bully, narcissist or malevolent competitor then you may need to answer the criticism by defending your performance, arguing for what you have done and correcting misperceptions. However, if at all possible, when confronted with criticism it is best to find some mindfulness and some perspective. Even in a meeting, if you can, take a few deep breaths before responding as this will get you out of the fight or flight mode. Check how you feel, notice what the body language (or voice or language tone) of the other person is telling you, and remind yourself what you want out of the situation. To give yourself time, reflect back what the person has said as this also clarifies their meaning.
The blame game
Criticism often comes closely allied with blame. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in fact the most empowering thing that you can do is to take the blame in a situation where you have been criticised, even if it is not entirely your fault. Never blame others; you are responsible for your actions or your non-actions. If you want to live an empowered life then make this your mantra: my thoughts, my words, my actions, my results.
If you do not know who you are then you will constantly be looking for reflections of who you are from the world. In that case the implications of criticism are devastating because you believe you are what the critic said you are.
According to Anastasia Hronis, “People who have a strong internal locus of control may blame themselves excessively for things for which they are not ultimately responsible. People with a strong external locus of control will excessively blame others and point out their flaws. The goal is to find the healthy balance, acknowledge that the actions of others are out of your control, but that you are responsible for your own actions.”
Usually, when someone blames you, you feel hurt and you feel unhappy, you feel sad. This is all because you’re resisting. What you resist persists. Embrace the blame, regardless of its veracity, because it is a light being shone on your next steps. In fact, the blamer is the one who is most damaged by the act of blaming because they are deflecting from their own part, leaving themselves in darkness.
Criticism is not something any of us seek, but it is inevitable. When it does occur, don’t run from it but use your predetermined strategies to deal with it. Although it might not always look like it, that criticism holds a gift for you in its hands.
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