Who among us has not felt the sting of personal criticism? Criticism of our ideas, our beliefs, or the decisions we’ve made.
This form of human communication strikes at the very heart of self-confidence shattering our defenses and insidiously makes us an accomplice in questioning our own choices. It’s an assault on our emotions which, unless handled properly, can have devastating long-term consequences.
But what’s the basis for this seeming need that many people have to savagely admonish others? Can there possibly be any justification? And, is there a way to respond without reverting to outright defensiveness?
In today’s post we’re going to address these and other questions that surround this curious human phenomenon.
Wikipedia defines criticism as being “…the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”
This succinct definition contains some important phrases. Note first that criticism is based on “perceived” faults or mistakes, not necessarily real. We know that the perception of each person becomes their reality; and, consequently what’s perceived in one person’s mind may be very different from that of another. Note also that action or “expression of” that disapproval, is required.
Criticism thus depends on someone drawing attention to the faults or shortcomings of others as they perceive them within their reality.
Now, let’s be quick to point out that if we’re to be successful in life, we must expect to be criticized. It’s inevitable for anyone who intends to accomplish something of value. Sooner or later, our actions will go against the long-held beliefs, or in some way challenge the comfort zone of others.
A line from a poem by John Lydgate, allegedly made famous by Abraham Lincoln, well describes the quandary we face.
You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. – Poet John Lydgate
While being a clever rhyme, none of us in the business of achieving true success is concerned about pleasing others at the expense of our own integrity. It’s inevitable there’ll always be those offended by the direction of our thinking and thus more than willing to respond with serious criticism.
Even during Aristotle’s time (384-322 BC), and I suspect well before, people were adept at criticizing each other! Prompting him to say,
Criticism is something we can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. – Aristotle
Assuming you agree that … saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing… are not viable options, let’s look more closely at this complex human phenomenon.
The Two Types of Criticism
The first point to understand in any discussion of criticism is that this form of admonishment can be delivered from a range of different motivations. However, most criticism can easily be recognized as either Constructive or Destructive.
Criticism when received from those whom we respect can be an important tempering force that guides and shapes the outcome of our life. It’s termed “constructive” for the very reason that this is advice that helps construct, or build up, who we are. Such words temper as the heating and hammering of steel is tempered making us stronger and more durable to face the world.
And while “heating and hammering” is never pleasant, we could hardly become the person we should be if there was no pain to be endured.
There have been individuals throughout my life, as I suspect there have been in yours, from whom I welcomed objective and constructive criticism because I knew they had my best interests in mind.
On the other hand… when we think of being a target for criticism, most often (and rightly so) we bring to mind an image of those who generally do NOT have our best interests in mind. Indeed, the interests they have more often than not are their own.
We refer to this type as “Destructive Criticism” because its intent, subtly or overtly, is aimed at “destroying” the behavior or idea they view to be a threat.
Fortunately, it’s possible to recognize these people through the following characteristics.
Who are They Who Criticize Me?
Understanding the motivations of people who criticize is half the battle in being able to mollify and respond appropriately.
1. SOMEONE WHO SEEKS POWER OVER OTHERS
Power is addictive, and we all know those whose aim in life is to accumulate as much of it as possible. Some will even conquer nations to acquire it. More commonly, we encounter those who attempt to impose their will on individuals within their immediate surroundings. One tool they invariably use is criticism.
If I can berate your ideas, beat them down, and get you to change them, then I have successfully exerted my power over you.
2. SOMEONE WHO LACKS SELF-CONFIDENCE
Self-confidence is the ability to know that we can cope with whatever we encounter in life, whether it be good or bad. And although we cannot predict what the future holds, we can prepare ourselves with knowledge, skills, and importantly – the right mental attitude – to face the trials that inevitably will come.
Defining self-confidence is much easier than actually achieving it, and we all know people who lack it entirely! Some of these people, in their own frustration, will turn to criticizing others. This is especially true when the “Critisizee” is perceived to have more self-confidence then the “Criticizer".
Make no mistake; envy and jealousy at the lacking something others have most definitely play a role in destructive criticism!
Don't be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success that some people get is when they take a bite out of you! – Zig Ziglar
3. SOMEONE WHO FEARS CHANGE
To many, change is the most frightening thing that could ever happen to their world.
We all take comfort in the consistency of our daily routines because we know exactly what to expect. It becomes a holding pattern of beliefs and activities, and this in itself has the power to generate feelings of safety. Thus, with such repetitious patterns established, much of our life can simply be run on autopilot.
Since safety is the goal of life for many, any disruption of that feeling is regarded as a personal threat.
Unfortunately, this constant quest for safety becomes an ideal formula for mediocrity!
Change, when thoughtfully directed, is progress. And without progress, there is no growth. There is only mediocrity, which often is the definition of safety.
The Role of Self-Criticism
Before we leave this discussion describing the characteristics of those who criticize, we must consider the one person who absolutely can do the most damage – our self!
It’s true; self-criticism can be the most damaging of all. That’s because the easiest thing to do is to accept the directives of our inner thoughts.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “She’s her own worst enemy.”
Each evening as we look into the bathroom mirror we see an image that can help us evaluate the happenings of this day. That image can either work with us or against us. The choice is ours.
No one would argue that at the end of the day, self-evaluation and reflective thinking are necessary activities to keep ourselves on track. However, that does not mean the excessive expectations we sometimes place on ourselves that can and do have deleterious effects.
Our goal is to assess our actions within the reasonable limits of being a fallible human being. Do not allow that image in the mirror to berate you for not being perfect! If you fall prey to this method of criticism, heed the advice of professionals. Separate the event causing your self-destructive criticism as an isolated occurrence; a specific incident in which you may have made a mistake, not a broad condemnation of your character.
Mary Ann Radmacher offered the best advice when she wrote,
Courage does not always roar. Sometimes it’s the still, small voice at the end of the day that whispers… "I will try again tomorrow." – Mary Anne Radmacher
What Makes Us a Target for Criticism?
So then, what makes us a target for criticism by these people?
There are a number of personal characteristics that mark us as targets for Destructive Criticism. However, they all can be summarized by the simple answer – that of being different!
People in general are uncomfortable with anyone who does not conform to their expectations, and will single you out of the crowd for the least deviation from the norm. Yet, these are the very characteristics we need to become successful in life (see Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow referenced below).
Let’s take a brief look at some of these identifying characteristics.
1. SOMEONE WHO IS EDUCATED
Let’s be quick to say that history repeatedly demonstrates that one need not have a string of academic letters behind their name to be considered an educated person. That’s because education comes in many different forms (see Robert Kiyosaki’s classic book Rich Dad Poor Dad referenced below).
Education of any stripe is threatening to those who do not have, or will not use their education.
In every society since the beginning of time where conformity has been imposed, who are the first to be eliminated as threats to the state? Intellectuals! In other words, those who have the insidious habit of thinking and then questioning that conformity!
Reflection and inquisitiveness mark them as prime targets for criticism because such thinking constantly leads to developing new ideas and new ways for doing things. This is bound to disturb someone’s comfort zone resulting in admonishment. And, in some cases, that admonishment can be very severe!
Mark that man, he thinks too much! Such men are dangerous. – Julius Caesar
2. SOMEONE WHO THINKS OUTSIDE THE BOX
As humans, we are most comfortable when everything in our world is neatly in its place; when everyone “colors within the lines”; and when we all act alike with no one “making waves.”
How boring life would be if that were true all the time!
Fortunately, there are those who refuse to conform to convention. They constantly push the envelope asking questions, as we’ve already discussed, that can make others very uncomfortable.
“Why must it be done that way?”
“How do you know that’s true?”
“What would happen if we did it another way?”
(Are you beginning to recognize yourself here?) In any society, these people are the thinkers and the doers.
3. SOMEONE WHO DOES NOT FEAR TO ACT
Thinking, asking questions, and even developing new ways is collectively one thing, but having the courage to act is often something very different! To be truly worthy as a target of criticism, we must be willing to act boldly on our ideas.
Putting our self “out there” speaking and working toward our idea takes great courage… and great patience!
In doing so, we risk failure that our idea is not as good as we thought. Yet, this is often just long-term criticism working against us; thus the need for patience to endure. How often has it been said,
4. SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHO THEY ARE and WHERE THEY’RE GOING
It’s been said that the most powerful force on Earth is an idea whose time has come. That idea had to be conceived and proposed by someone, and I believe that also makes the originator of that idea a man or woman of uncompromising strength.
Such individuals who are Educated, Think Outside the Box, and Do Not Fear to Act are destined by their very nature to become targets for criticism. While most of humanity is wandering aimlessly though time merely accepting their life, these people have created direction and are actually taking the initiative to lead their life!
People who know who they are and where they’re going move us forward from the quagmire of conformity and establish the future direction of our thinking.
How Should I Respond to Criticism?
As I’ve said, most criticism we encounter is an assault upon our emotions, not our reason.
And being emotion-driven creatures, our inclination is to immediately retaliate in a defensive manner. This is a natural and primal response to protect ourselves from injury (see Today’s Featured Resource).
Yet, in today’s world, when criticized we must not give in to these primal responses. We are rational creatures determined to be ruled by reason rather than emotions.
Responding to Constructive Criticism requires little explanation since it comes from those who have our best interests in mind. We listen carefully to what is being said (see post 013 The Art of Effective Listening), clarify by asking any questions we might have, and then formulate a plan to implement the change of behavior into our life.
It’s for destructive criticism that we need a plan, and the following three steps constitute a proven method.
1. LISTEN CALMLY AND QUIETLY
First; against all natural tendencies, do not be provoked to argue!
It’s important to listen calmly lest we miss the grain of truth hidden within the emotional tirade of our critic. And, much as we may not wish to admit it, there might be some truth in what is said. It’s our task to find and benefit from it.
Yet commonly, any truth there might be is wildly exaggerated in the mind of the critic to justify his outburst and full condemnation of our character.
Such character assassination is never right, yet we still must search for any truth to what is being said.
2. EVALUATE THE SOURCE OF THE CRITICISM
Understanding the personal characteristics we discussed of those who criticize immediately gives us an advantage when we find ourselves on the receiving end of someone’s tirade of admonishment.
Oftentimes we know the person who is criticizing, and remembering their position relative to us can generally be sufficient to place the outburst within a context of their needs and motivations.
3. LET IT JUST ROLL OFF
Having searched for any nugget of truth in what that person says (again, realizing that it may be misunderstood or grossly exaggerated), and evaluating the character of the criticizer, then makes it easier for the excess emotion to roll off like proverbial water off a ducks back!
Certainly, like the duck, we may be surprised to see it coming, but now understanding how criticism works has prepared us to let it go.
If you have been marked for criticism, realize that you are in very good company!
Everyone who has ever accomplished anything of value has experienced their critics.
Who was it that said?
If evil isn’t knocking at your door, then you haven’t done anything yet of value to warrant his attention!
In this post, we've discussed destructive criticism at length, noting specifically the identifying characteristics of the critic. Chief among these are those who seek power, those who are often insecure, and those who harbor a personal fear of change.
Knowing the motivation of those who criticize is a major defense in understanding why they do what they do. And, a helpful aid to knowing how we best should respond.
Like the duck with his well-oiled neatly layered feathers who is impervious to water, so too can we weather the “slings and arrows” of exaggerated emotion.
Just remember that before responding to criticism, we must train ourselves to listen attentively and non-emotionally. Then carefully evaluate what has been said. Is there a grain of truth from which we can benefit buried somewhere beneath the layers of that violent emotion? If so, pluck it out and then simply discard the rest.
Also remember that you are a unique individual placed on this earth for a specific reason. You have a right to be you, as only you can determine. The reason you are here will rarely please everyone with whom you come in contact! Be gentle with yourself and others, even if they cannot be gentle with you.
Again I say... know that you have a right to be you!
This is Roger Koment at NSR Development encouraging you to think things through, find your purpose, and then go out there and do something... worthy of major criticism!
Seth Godin – Purple Cow
Robert Kiyosaki – Rich Dad Poor Dad
Our images today are from 123rf.com
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