Dealing with criticism is difficult. It can cause us unhappiness and distress. In my post today I’ve taken a fictional case study approach to exploring this area.
Marie sat opposite me sipping a cup of coffee, her eyes red and puffy from crying which, for now, had at least stopped.
“I’ve struggled to deal with criticism all my life.” She told me.
“Whether this was well-meant in the form of so-called (she highlighted the words) constructive criticism or a deliberate insult seems to have been irrelevant. Instead my automatic response was, and is, always to take it to heart and then to make the mental leap from initial indignation to upset and anguish.”
The tears threatened the edges of her mascaraed eyes once again…
“It’s as if I can’t rationalise what I’m being told in the moment and either can’t accept it as a fair point or I’m unable to come back with sensible reasons as to why it’s just not true.”
“But then, I can’t deny how, when I felt the criticism was undeserved, it has fuelled in me a desire to show the culprit that I am not guilty of the so called misdemeanour. This in turn has made me very determined and consequently made me push hard against my perceived barriers.”
This personal drive was apparent in Marie’s career success where she had risen to a senior position within the charity organisation that worked tirelessly for a cause she felt passionate about. To her co-workers, Marie appeared calm and self-assured, but to see her now, attempting to regain her equanimity, it was clear that the remarks from her partner had cut deep.
Marie’s problem is far from unique. For many of us, dealing with criticism, whether well-intentioned or not is difficult for us. How do we separate the fact from the fiction and where we fail to do this, are we able to let go, or do we cling to the barbed words and just feel worse?
As Elbert Hubbard says:
The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.
And this is where our dilemma lies because most of us tend to take offence from and feel resentment towards the perpetrator of the criticism. Their words become a spiral of self-deprecation, leading us to greater and greater reproach of ourselves, ending with such ridiculous conclusions; usually something along the lines of ‘oh well, I must be completely rubbish at everything then!’. It then seems pointless to even try to find the nugget of development which could propel us to greater success.
Marie continued: “I don’t suppose he meant any harm, it’s just that I love my job so much. We do such good work and it’s so important. Brian just doesn’t feel the same passion as me about his job. For him, work is a means to an end, it pays the bills and leaves enough money over so he can follow his motor biking passion.”
Marie sat silently for a moment, clearly lost in thought, then added…
“Brian thinks I give too much of myself to my job, and maybe I do. I work long hours and often bring work home with me. I guess from his perspective it looks like the charity are really taking advantage of my good nature – he’s always telling me what a caring person I am!”
It was interesting to observe the different, but not incompatible values Marie and Brian applied to their work lives. It was also interesting to note that they both had some clear external passions in their lives. The discord, in this instance, seemed to arise from where they each applied their passion, both believing that their choice was more legitimate.
You have to take criticism with a grain of salt because you’re never going to please everybody.
– Yolanda Adams
This is an interesting take on criticism. I’ve always gone along with the idea that you can’t please all the people all the time and so I guess it’s inevitable that if you’re not pleasing all the people (in other words, abiding by their values), then some of those people are going to throw criticism at your efforts and results.
For Brian, Marie’s dedication and passion for her job were not the same as his passion for motor biking. However, there were similarities. He spent many weekends at track events and would arrive home tired but happy. Similarly, Marie came home from work and, for the most part felt a sense of accomplishment. There was clearly some common ground they could work on to help clarify and resolve their current impasse.
With this in mind, I asked Marie if she might find it easier to think of Brian’s ‘criticism’ as ‘feedback’. The word criticism has such negative connotations that it’s almost inevitable that it will have a negative impact. However, with a label of feedback we can begin to see that it might indeed be possible to find the grains of potential improvement or common ground which may be contained within the comments or opinions.
“That sounds like a good idea. It’s a much better word…not so threatening.”
Finally I asked Marie not to overlook her progress brought about by previous criticism. Whilst she might not have felt happy about the criticism initially, she had put the energy it wrought to good use.
Interestingly David Beckham views criticism in this way:
People react to criticism in different ways, and my way is definitely to come out fighting.
I’m assuming that Mr Beckham isn’t literally going to start a fight after receiving some form of criticism, but instead follows the ‘I’ll show ‘em!’ school of thought! Given his competitive nature (one would assume), then this seems like the kind of response we would most likely expect and has certainly helped pave the way for his phenomenal success.
Criticism, or feedback then can be a complete waste of time or a springboard to greater success. The trick is in dealing with the negative emotions it will inevitably illicit from us. However, it is often in our interests to take a cold rational look at the criticism which has been levelled at us to determine if it has a basis in fact. If not, let it go and move on. It’s completely pointless dwelling on it. If however there’s some truth in the words, then figure out how to work the change needed to your advantage.
As Winston Churchill said:
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
So what are your thoughts? Do you take criticism in your stride or does it muster up emotions which are difficult to handle? How have you previously dealt with well-intentioned but ill-conceived criticism? Alternatively, how do you give negative or difficult feedback? I’d love to hear your thoughts!