Criticism comes irrespective of whether you think it is due, deserved or unwarranted. Just by the mere act of being, we invite criticism into our professional and personal spaces. The immediate reaction to it depends a lot on how it is delivered. The accusatory brand derogates, harms, undermines and works to destroy our sense of self; punching holes in our self-respect, and even causing us to question our worth. Fortunately, most of us are resilient enough to take one on the chin every now and then. It helps to remember that critical words from others are external, but our reaction to them is the result of our inner interpretation of them. Logically, we can choose not to give them too much power to damage (after you are done with the initial ‘wtf?!’ reaction).
What It Is and Where It Comes From
What is this action that has the power to destroy? The dictionary defines it as an expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes. That sounds harmless enough, even something entirely desirable, as it obviously drives improvement. However, the delivery – the communication – of criticism is critical to what its expected outcome is.
Criticism comes from everywhere: bosses, colleagues, teachers, relatives, spouses, friends, strangers and even your own children. Some has no other purpose than to hurt; some is sensibly designed and ultimately meant to result in improvement. Destructive and constructive is the accepted terminology. Of course, we are not perfect and may often deserve criticism for work poorly done, or lack of effort, or perhaps some undesirable trait, behaviour, personality flaw, or attitude. All our actions and thoughts are subject to analysis and interpretation, and therefore, criticism. There is no escaping it.
The Negative Kind
When delivered with the intent to cause damage, it erodes our very being, eating away at all that defines a person as an individual. In my career as educator, I have frequently seen children and mothers fall victim to destructive criticism. So easily and thoughtlessly delivered; so difficult to undo the resultant damage. The irony is that the behaviour is often repeated and imitated by the victims to create more victims. During role play, how kids act as their teachers or parents is amazingly revealing.
The Positive Kind
When criticism, properly delivered for the purpose of bringing positive change, is about our professional competency, work and related activity, it can be of immense value, and others’ opinions may be given due importance. However, if criticism is about attacking you for who you are, what you believe and are committed to, then it is prudent to attach only enough value to others’ opinion as would help you improve and stay true to yourself.
Many of us allow ourselves to be products of other people’s opinions of us. So, if they approve of us, we are elated and feel worthy. If they tell us otherwise, we feel deflated and broken. While it is important and motivating to find validation, approval and appreciation from others, in the end, these things ought to come from within us. Just as we accept the accolades, we have to accept the brickbats. Shrugging off criticism would be as detrimental as embracing accolades with excessive enthusiasm. The trick is to find a middle ground. You have to analyse both, the positives and negatives, and remain true to your quest: Are you aware of who you are? Are you established about that? Are you making conscious efforts to learn and evolve? Are you teaching yourself to appreciate differences? Do you know how to accept other people’s way of being without being judgmental? If yes, then what other people say to you and about you can be dealt with. You would be gaining in wisdom, and you would not fall apart.
It is extremely difficult to be yourself in the true sense. By being yourself, you will invite praise on the one hand, but also condemnation on the other. You would find admiration, respect, warmth, approval, adoration, and recognition, as also disgust, contempt, rejection, disrespect, and criticism. Some people will perceive you as being kind, considerate, supportive, and caring; others will tell you that you are needy, nauseating, nosy, and clingy. Some will admire you for your strength, intelligence, intellect, compassion, and insights; others will call you weak, unfeeling, foolish, or overly-analytical. Some may acknowledge your presence as heartening and encouraging; others frustrating and draining. Some would call you exhausting, tiresome and tedious; others uplifting, stimulating, and interesting. Some would welcome you; others avoid you. There are those who will love you with passion and warmth, and those who decide you are unworthy of being loved.
Working with Criticism
In all of this, if you have more of the positives in your favour than the negatives, then you know you are doing something right: You are staying true to what you care for and care to be. If you are striving to create, invent, and evolve your Self to represent what you believe, praise as well as criticism become tools that assist in the endeavour.
The negatives, however, should not be brushed under the carpet because they are so difficult to accept and work with. Sometimes, it isn’t your rivals or enemies that criticise you; it’s the people who you love best that do. To them, you owe a debt of gratitude: they must have endured some flaw of yours as best as they could before finally reaching a break point and telling you that they just can’t bear to spend another moment with you anymore. It may feel like they pulled the carpet from under your feet, especially if you never saw it coming; certain in your belief that they understand you and are on the same wavelength. When their tolerance runs out, let them go. They would have stayed if they could. Perhaps they will find their way back to you. Love them the same whether they go, stay or come back. Their criticism is not meant to harm, derogate or destroy. If you deal with their criticism firmly believing that truth, you will find yourself striving to work on yourself to become a better, more aware human being.
It takes some courage and a lot of inner work to not have criticism build resentment or erode your foundations. It takes strength to open yourself to criticism and not be permanently wounded or debilitated by it. It takes humility to accept your own flaws and go to work on them. It takes conscious effort to not whip yourself over spilt milk and let go. The lesson here is that since you have faced the trauma of it, you could be an encourager to someone, bringing in change with gentleness and compassion rather than hostility and accusation.
And so, you will move forward in your quest, albeit a bit battered, bruised and scarred. A little more alone. But that is the price to pay for an upgraded version of yourself.