The World is your Mirror (part 2)
The Gift of Criticism
Copyright… Kathie Strmota, LoveLight Co-Creative HealthCare
Read part 1 … Self-Esteem through Honest Self-Reflection
We’re all sharing in this journey of being human, and learning how to do that in the most empowered, loving and compassionate way.
Since none of us has it all totally worked out, we all have room for improvement.
We can experience a fantastic amount of growth and evolution through our interactions with other people and the challenges those interactions present to us. However, to make the most of these opportunities we need to be prepared to acknowledge those things, in our personalities, which hold us back and limit our expansion. We also need to find ways to release those limitations, and integrate a ‘new & improved’ way of operating.
We often do this quite naturally, as part of the learning and maturation process.
We reflect on our experiences, on our successes and failures, and on our relationships with others. We take in new information and ideas, and we re-invent ourselves continually.
However, we also have many unconscious patterns which motivate us, and influence our choices & behaviours, and we don’t always recognise when these are having an unhealthy impact on our own lives, or on the lives of others and the world around us.
In these cases, we can benefit greatly by receiving supportive feedback and criticism from other people to help us move forward.
You may cringe at the idea of receiving criticism because you instinctively associate it with the feeling of being under attack or being put down. But, if offered in a compassionate and loving spirit, criticism can be a wonderful catalyst for self-reflection and personal growth, professional development, improving your relationships, and helping you achieve your goals.
Have the courage to receive and offer supportive criticism, and experience the value of this beautiful gift for yourself.
Helpful or Harmful?
Helpful feedback comes in the form of constructive criticism.
This is useful information, which aims to make you aware of the truth of a situation. It is offered in a spirit which seeks to help you improve, to lift you up, and help you (and those around you) be happier and more balanced.
Constructive criticism is nourishing and encourages positive change.
For example, a friend is unhappy because of a certain situation in their life. From your objective perspective, you can see that the pain is of their own making. You want to help them find a way out of their pain and be happy. This is what motivates you to bring to their attention a painful truth, which they may not like to hear, but which you know, in your heart, will help them.
Or you are performing a task at work in a way that is causing difficulties for other staff. There is some frustration coming at you, which you feel the tension of, but have no idea why. A workmate has the courage to kindly point this out to you and suggest a way to improve the situation. That person’s desire is only to fix the problem and make everyone’s life easier, including yours. The minor change will help everyone do their job more easily, and remove the tension.
Destructive criticism, on the other hand, is more of an attack, rather than offering useful information. It seeks to offend, put you down, lower your self-esteem, and diminish your power. It is harmful (intentionally or unintentionally), and is usually driven by the low self-esteem of the person giving it.
Destructive criticism is effectively abuse, and should not be tolerated.
While positive criticism may feel like abuse at times, because we don’t always want to hear what we’re being told, it is ultimately nourishing, even though it may be a hard pill to swallow. Destructive criticism offers no such nourishment and only creates imbalance for everyone involved.
For example, you may be describing your fantastic travel plans to a friend, and expressing your excitement about this new venture. The friend feels jealous about it and begins to point out the flaws in your plan, in an attempt to ‘burst your bubble’. The aim is not to help you have an even better trip, but rather to bring your positive energy down a bit, more into alignment with their own negative feelings.
Or, you’re not happy with your relationship and, rather than discussing the issues honestly with your partner, you constantly pick on them about the little things they’re doing wrong, trying to make them feel bad because you feel bad.
With destructive criticism, the information offered may occasionally be valid, when looked at objectively, but the energy behind it has a big impact on whether it can be useful or simply abusive.
It’s important to be open to hearing the truth about yourself, and also to have the courage to be honest with others, so that you can improve your life.
However, it’s also important to be honest about what drives you to make a certain comment at a certain time, or what has motivated someone else to make a comment to you, to ensure that the motivations are pure.
See Yourself in the World
None of us is so self-aware, as we walk through life, that we can recognise every single way in which our words & actions might affect the world around us, so we will, of course, tread on the occasional toe.
Criticism offers us an opportunity to understand ourselves better, and to understand how our behaviour & attitudes impact others.
We are social creatures and don’t exist in isolation. We can improve our lives and relationships by being more aware of the impact we have. Often, the only way to gain this awareness is by allowing the world to enlighten us, and to reflect ourselves back to us.
Try to pay more attention to your own words and actions, and reflect on how these may be experienced by others. Consider, also, how they impact the direction your life takes.
Does hesitating to speak up in time cause you to miss out on a wonderful opportunity?
If you miss out on a particular job, is it because you put yourself down in the interview, or failed to point out your relevant talents?
Do you feel more welcomed by others when you are polite and welcoming?
Is it possible that the comment you made to a friend, without thinking, was hurtful to her and that’s why she suddenly went silent?
Did your fear of being tied down by mundane tasks, like record-keeping, have something to do with your business going downhill?
Did your failure to offer something to your relationship make your partner want to leave, or had the relationship run its course, or was it your partner’s own fears?
Never assume that, if something has gone wrong in your life, the causes have come only from outside. There will always appear to be logical external rationalisations, but they don’t usually tell the whole story.
You have no power to change others, but you do have the power to positively impact your life by improving yourself. So, always look at the part you may have played in any situation, to identify if there is something you can change to make things work better for you.
This is doubly important if similar patterns keep repeating themselves in your life … you’ve lost 3 jobs in a year, or you keep ending up in relationships with people who cheat on you, or you keep making new friends and then after a while they just stop getting in touch.
As soon as you see a recurring pattern in your life, it’s time to stop blaming the external factors or people involved in each situation, and recognise that you are the common denominator.
Consider what part your own attitude has to play in this. Until you find your ‘glitch’, you will continue to repeat the pattern.
View your relationships as honestly as you can, and admit your part in the difficulties. Always ask how can you change, or improve yourself, to help make things better, rather than focusing on all the ways your partner needs to change.
This is not like saying that it’s all your fault and that your partner is not responsible for any of the problems. It’s simply about choosing a constructive approach by being willing to take responsibility for the parts of the mess that you have created, and making change where you have the power to.
You can’t force your partner to change, but you can do your bit. If your partner still refuses to do anything to take responsibility for their own part, this will tell you they’re not really all that committed anyway, and maybe it’s time to move on.
Take the same approach in every area of your life.
Let the situation help you see when there is something unbalanced within yourself which may have helped to create it. View your life activities honestly and admit your responsibility in them.
Consider what you are choosing and why, what you are sacrificing and why. Consider whether your motivations are appropriate to the situation, or whether they stem from vulnerability, fear, neediness, lack, low self-worth, anger, resentment, and so on.
Pay attention to the advice or criticism you offer to others. It can often teach you something about your own needs, fears or limitations.
When you’re speaking from the heart, to support the good of another, often some amazing wisdom will come through that can also offer guidance to you. It’s one thing to have that knowledge within you, but it’s quite another to hear it said out loud, just as if someone has said it to you. It can give you a fresh perspective on some aspect of yourself.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve offered a ‘deep pearl of wisdom’ to someone and then thought to myself “wow, I should take my own advice!” It can be very enlightening when you listen to your own words, as well as those of others.
Ultimately, you and the world are one.
Whatever you give to the world, you give to yourself, and whatever you give to yourself, you also give to the world. When you withhold, you deny both yourself and the world.
It may not appear this way, but it is this way.
With this truth in mind, pay attention to the judgments and criticisms you place on other people, on the situation, on the system, or the job. Let these be a reflection to you of what you find unacceptable within yourself, and what parts of you can be improved.
Let it also show you how willing, or unwilling, you are to accept yourself.
I’ve noticed, over my years of personal therapy, that the more I came to love and accept myself, the less judgmental I’ve become towards others.
It’s the “I’m okay, you’re okay” thing. When I feel that I’m okay, and my life is good, then I also see the world as being okay, and I’m more forgiving of others. When I’m not happy with myself, then I also become more critical of others.
Often, the only way to recognise that something is wrong within you is by paying attention to how you’re responding to the world around you.
Seeking a partner, or having a baby, just so that you can have someone to love you, reflects that you don’t love yourself enough. Doing things just to gain some approval from others shows you that you don’t approve of yourself. Being judgmental of others reflects that you feel judgmental towards yourself, and so on.
Fear of Criticism
The inability to hear and receive constructive criticism is always a reflection of low self-esteem.
When you have a secure sense of yourself, know your strengths & weakness, and find yourself acceptable, criticism from others isn’t experienced as a personal attack. While it may hurt to hear the truth, you are more able to see the information as an opportunity for growth, rather than feeling somehow diminished by it.
When your self-esteem is low, and you already find yourself unacceptable, criticism can make you feel defensive. You shut down, and don’t want to hear what is being said, even though it may be a gift to you. As a way to protect yourself, you may respond with aggression or anger, fighting back with your own hurtful remarks, or you may respond with submissiveness and withdrawal, going into despair about how totally unlovable you are.
Either way, the response is unbalanced and unhelpful, and you fail to receive the blessing of truth which can nourish your growth.
You may feel humiliated and embarrassed by having to recognise an uncomfortable truth about yourself, but isn’t it always better to know, so you can change it?
The humiliation comes from realising that others can see the cracks in our armour, which we thought we were doing a good job of hiding.
I’d rather know exactly what other people see in me, rather than strutting around, thinking I’m fooling everyone, while they all actually see the truth. That would be more humiliating.
It’s just like having the back of your skirt tucked into your stockings, or walking around with your fly undone. It’s a little bit humiliating in the moment when someone points that out to you, but it’s utterly mortifying to think you’ve been walking around all day like that and everybody saw, but nobody said.
I went on a date once, and it wasn’t until I got home, and happened to look in the bathroom mirror, that I realised I’d had a piece of parsley stuck in my front tooth since dinner. I was mortified and lost all respect for the guy because he didn’t have the guts to mention it.
Ugghh! The humiliation pains me even now, when I think of that… walking around in public, laughing and smiling, being all coy and cute, all the while with a weird green glob on my smile.
Whether it’s the parsley or whether it's my inconsiderate behaviour towards someone, I would much rather be told, as soon as possible, so I can rectify the problem.
When you have a healthy self-esteem, you recognise that others opinions don’t define you.
You understand that you are not wonderful just because people like you, and you’re not a useless human being if people don’t like you.
Because you recognise your own strengths & weaknesses, you also recognise that other people have both strengths & weaknesses. You don’t hold other people on pedestals, nor do you see them as somehow less than you. You recognise that they are your peers, and so you are more able to accept their criticism as a suggestion for improvement rather than being something which defines who you are.
It is always good to consider the views, opinions, feelings and expectations of others, particularly when your lives are intimately involved, but there is no need to feel compelled to live by these. In the end, your choices are your own.
When you recognise this, you won’t need to feel pressured or controlled by criticism. You will feel free to consider it, and then take it or leave it.
Being a perfectionist, ironically, usually doesn’t mean that you are truly striving for perfection, and willing to accept criticism to support your journey of self-improvement. In most cases, it simply means that you can’t accept those parts of yourself which are less than perfect, and you refuse to recognise your own faults and weakness.
This makes it impossible to allow other people to point these out to you. You’re working so hard to deny them, the last thing you want is someone to point them out in a way that you can no longer ignore. You can’t bear to think that you may not be perfect.
Perfectionism also makes it very hard for you to imagine that someone else may have more experience or more wisdom, or any useful knowledge to offer you. This arrogant assumption can really stunt your growth.
In both cases it is, once again, a reflection of low self-esteem. If you can accept your imperfections, and be okay about who you are, you open the door to really perfecting yourself in beautiful, powerful ways.
Another reason we find it so hard to receive criticism is because we’re often not taught how to offer constructive criticism.
Most people tend to fall into the defensive-attack pattern out of low self-esteem, as a result of our own life experiences and the examples we were given by the adults in our lives.
If you tend to use criticism as a way of ‘having a dig’ at another person, then, of course, you will expect any criticism that comes your way to be from a similar motivation. You will naturally be defensive.
When you can improve your ability to offer compassionate, loving, constructive criticism, you’ll also improve your ability to hear and receive useful criticism yourself. The two evolve hand in hand.
Receive Criticism Gracefully
The more you are able to practice receiving criticism, without becoming defensive, the easier it becomes.
Your self-esteem improves as you gradually see that your own value is separate from the mistakes you make and the way others see you. You feel better about yourself, in general, and you become happier about who you are by working through the feedback you’ve been given and making self-improvements.
In fact, get into the habit of inviting feedback.
Learn to ask for advice from others, even if you believe you know it all. You will find that, of course you don’t know it all, and other people will have some very useful insights to offer you.
This also helps you get used to receiving criticism in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack.
When you ask for the advice yourself, you have a sense of control and empowerment within the situation. You are also more open to hearing the information. With practice, you’ll also be able to carry these feelings over into situations where criticism comes unbidden.
Embrace criticism and accept the challenge of becoming better, more loving and compassionate, more kind, more understanding, more forgiving, more objective, more honest, more wise, more real and true to yourself.
The following steps provide a path by which you can receive and process criticism with objectivity, and rise above the instinctive responses which can prevent you from receiving some wonderful gifts.
1. Keep your defensive emotions out of it and be prepared to hear what people are saying to you.
This is the most important factor in communication of any kind.
Someone may be trying to offer useful advice, or they may be trying to put you down and simply boost their own position. You will never know which unless you are prepared to listen to what they have to say.
This is the first step.
You certainly don’t have to take that information on board if you don’t want to, but it doesn’t cost you anything to listen and find out if there is something valid in it.
People often throw their walls up as soon as they hear the word ‘you’, and get ready to defend themselves. Particularly in relationships, this attitude will get you nowhere.
Give others the benefit of the doubt.
Instead of assuming that they’re trying to hurt you, or that they’re so dumb they couldn’t possibly have anything to teach you, assume always that there could be a gift on offer for you.
Keep your emotions right out of it. Keep your mind open. Listen objectively. Accept the reality that you might possibly learn something. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Be open to the possibility of self-improvement.
If you hear something which hurts you, embarrasses you, or makes you feel small, don’t immediately jump to your own defence. Don’t take it personally. Don’t assume it’s an attack, and don’t attack back.
Even if it really is an attack, rise above it. Be the bigger person. Don’t lower yourself to that level by getting sucked into the other person’s game.
Just step back and breathe.
Give yourself time to think – and that may mean continuing the conversation another day. Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. Give yourself time to process.
Even if you feel that the person has got you completely wrong, there’s no need to go into defence-attack mode. Trust that what this person knows, or doesn’t know, about you has no bearing on your true value. It really doesn’t matter if they’ve got you wrong.
Stepping away from the conversation doesn’t mean that you agree with them, regardless of how it appears. It simply means that you don’t want to engage in an emotional slinging match.
Someone may become angry or aggressive, as they try to tell you what is wrong, and you may feel yourself becoming defensive. Try to stay emotionally detached and objective, as much as possible. Nothing will be served by you becoming aggressive as well.
Remember that, if this person feels frustrated or hurt by you, and is trying to tell you why, some of their emotion is bound to come out. They may not have the capacity to express themselves objectively, without attack, and so have no other means of sharing their concerns.
Try to accept the other person’s feelings, and allow them to be what they are, without taking them on board.
The feedback may still be valid, even if the delivery is harsh.
2. Apply honest self-reflection to discern the validity of criticism.
Once you have heard what the other person has to tell you, take some time to reflect on whether it is true for you. Give it the benefit of the doubt. Assume the possibility that it is true, and look for the issue within yourself.
Again, be objective. Reflect on your behaviour and your attitudes honestly, and be willing to face an ugly truth, if it exists.
This is a process of discernment.
You are not judging yourself and assuming the worst about how wretched you must be if someone needed to point out your failings. You are simply seeking an objective understanding of the truth.
You are asking yourself “is this criticism valid?” and “is it true?” and “does it apply to me?”
You are also asking yourself “does it have any value for me?” and “will it benefit my growth to make a change?”
Many years ago, a good friend had ‘a talk’ with me, and I found it hard to hear what she had to say. None of it was particularly bad, but it was simply unpleasant for me to think that there were things about me that she didn’t like.
One of her complaints was that she felt I was too analytical and, ironically, it was this very quality that allowed me to be open to hearing what she had to say. I’ve always been prepared to reflect on myself, even if I didn’t want other people to know there was anything wrong with me.
At first, I couldn’t see what could possibly be wrong with being analytical but, as she continued, detailing various other ‘faults’ I began to understand the context in which she saw this as a problem.
She is a very sensitive, emotional person and, from her perspective, I was too unemotional, too analytical, and she sometimes felt like I didn’t care or wasn’t supportive enough when she was troubled.
The conversation went on for several hours, but that was the gist of it.
As she was speaking, I thought about each thing and found a way to justify it, in my own mind.
I didn’t argue with her, just let her talk, but I kept thinking “well, there’s nothing wrong with that” and “I care, I’m just not as emotional as you” and “but she turns everything into more of a drama than it has to be, and I’m just keeping it real” and stuff like that.
So, my first layer of reflection was relatively defensive.
But, once something has been heard, it can’t be unheard, and I found myself continuing to reflect on these things in the weeks that followed.
What I came to realise was that her criticisms were valid, in the context of our relationship and the kind of person she was. Relationships are about supporting each other in the ways that we need to be supported, and I wasn’t giving her what she needed.
My approach to life is one of “face it, deal with it, and move on”. It is very practical and unemotional. I don’t like to waste energy on turning things into a drama.
Upon reflection, I decided that I actually liked these things about myself and saw no need to change them. I saw my analytical nature and my ability to be objective as strengths, not weaknesses.
After having made that assessment, I could have said “well, there you go, there’s nothing wrong with me, she’ll just have to get over it”, but I continued to think about it, and look more deeply.
She was my best friend and she would never have brought it up, in the way she had, if it wasn’t important to her. I really wanted to try and understand.
When I began to imagine her experience, and how these qualities of mine might affect her, then I was able to really recognise the problem.
It wasn’t that those qualities needed to change. It was more that I was lacking the emotional sensitivity and the patience to be with her suffering, and it was the dominance of those practical, analytical qualities which was not appropriate in those particular situations.
When she needed the space to process her suffering in her own way, I was saying “it’s over and done with, let it go”. I failed to see that just because I was able to process things quickly, it was wrong of me to assume that everyone worked like that.
I fully understand, these days, that we all do really have our own way and speed of working through things, just as we all have differently-functioning digestive systems, but I never understood it back then.
Those thoughts, about how she might need to move through her issues in a different way, were the first seeds of that later understanding.
So, I took this on board and committed to developing in those areas where I found myself lacking. Our friendship continues, 25 years later, so I clearly managed to improve in that area.
Interestingly, I wonder if I would have become such a good counselor and therapist (if I do say so myself!) if my beautiful friend hadn’t given me that gift of criticism and set me on the path of developing my emotional sensitivity.
As you can see from this example, it’s never easy to be faulted, even when it comes from someone you trust, let alone from people whose motives you’re unsure about.
You can also see from this that it’s not always clear exactly what the problem is. People can only describe how they feel and what they see. Often they don’t really know what’s wrong either. It’s up to you to be willing to face yourself, to go deep into your personality and explore, and to try and understand your impact on others.
And you can see that what others believe is a fault, you might actually feel is a strength. You have the freedom to choose, once you recognise the ‘issue’, whether it is something you believe needs changing. You may actually like that part of yourself and not want to change it. This is for you to decide.
Always be true to yourself. Let others opinions be a sounding board for you and reflect on them honestly, but don’t try to make yourself wrong just because someone else says an aspect of you is unacceptable. You can agree to disagree.
I also believe that we instinctively want to see our rightness, so we may tend to justify our behaviour with rationalisation and excuses, just as I did in my initial stages of reflection.
If you too quickly and easily decide that you’re right, and none of the criticism is valid, I’d be suspicious of that and look a bit deeper.
In your process of reflection and discernment, it sometimes helps to separate the criticism from the person who has offered it, at least initially. Sometimes, the nature of your feelings towards the person can colour your ability to discern clearly.
If you are angry with someone, or have no respect for them, you generally won’t want to let what they’re saying be true. You won’t want to see the truth of it in yourself. You won’t want to accept that they are right and you are wrong, even if it’s true.
At the other extreme, if you idolise someone, or desperately want their approval, you may take their criticism on board over-enthusiastically and find fault within yourself even where there is none.
Try, firstly, to reflect only on the information and how it applies to you, ignoring completely its source.
Depending on the issue, you may later need to reflect on it in the context of the whole situation and the people involved.
Always try to stay objective and honest with yourself.
3. If the criticism is valid, accept it and acknowledge it. Take steps to change.
If, upon reflection you decide that the criticism is true, have the courage to face up to it.
This may sometimes only involve honestly admitting it to yourself. At other times it may also need to be acknowledged to the other people involved in the relevant situation.
Far from being humiliating, this is often a very empowering thing to do. It frees you up even more to just be yourself, without the burden of maintaining some personality pretence, and that’s the only way we can be truly happy.
If you find that some change is warranted, or there is room for improvement in relation to the criticism, then take steps to change.
Don’t choose to change because others expect you to, or because you need to be approved of. Seek change only to become more empowered, for your own joy and peace of mind.
If the criticism or the reflection process was painful to you, try to let this dissolve completely.
Don’t hold onto the pain of it or feel resentful that this distasteful fruit was put on your plate.
Recognise that this was just the small price you had to pay for a great blessing. Release it and move on.
4. If the criticism is invalid, reject it with love.
You may find, upon reflection, that someone’s criticism of you really has no relevance. You may see that it clearly is not true for you, or that what they consider to be a problem is something you are perfectly okay with.
In this case, simply let it go.
Don’t get caught up in the need to defend yourself, or prove to the other person that they were wrong. Simply say to yourself “this has nothing to do with me” and just move on.
Know that it doesn’t define you, and you don’t need to prove anything.
If you’ve been really honest with yourself, and find that the criticism truly isn’t valid, then it’s likely that those comments have been driven by a weakness or fear in the other person.
Try to be compassionate about that. Try to understand the other person’s perspective, and acknowledge that what drove them to criticise you was most likely an attempt to meet some personal need of their own, rather than a perverted pleasure in making you feel bad.
Don’t hold onto your humiliation or pain or offence. Let that go. It will only make your own life more difficult if you don’t.
If the invalid criticism is not just a simple error in judgment or a personal weakness, but you feel it is clearly an attack, and the person went out of their way to try and humiliate you, or make you feel bad about yourself, then stand up to it.
Don’t accept this offensive behaviour.
Offer this person some constructive criticism in return by lovingly bringing to their attention how their behaviour has impacted you and why it isn’t acceptable.
Have the Courage to Defend Yourself Without Attack
Sometimes, people in your life can unthinkingly direct unfair criticism towards you. This can wear you down if it occurs repeatedly.
If you are vulnerable to it, in any way (eg. it plays into your own self-doubts, or you’re seeking parental approval, or you want to keep the peace in a relationship, etc), you can gradually come to believe the false criticism and take it on board. This will be detrimental to your own confidence and self-esteem, in the long term.
Obviously, you do need to hear what is being said, initially, to assess if there is anything valid in it that you feel is worthy of your attention.
If you find that there is not, and that it is clearly designed to hurt you or diminish your power, then you must stand up for yourself.
Discern, first, if any defence is necessary.
Sometimes, unfair criticism or attack may have nothing to do with you. You may be ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’, or the other person may just be having a bad day. It may be just a passing thing which, if you look at it objectively, you can just let it go and decide not to take it on board.
However, if this kind of behaviour happens repeatedly, because the other person is desperately miserable in themselves, you may need to pull them up on it. It may be helpful for you to bring to their attention how their behaviour is affecting the people around them, and to assert your right not to be subjected to this unthinking (or intended) abuse.
To address this kind of situation effectively, avoid the urge to return the attack by listing all the different criticisms you have about the person in an effort to prove that they aren’t perfect either.
This will only create a block in communication, as both of you become more and more defensive.
Instead, stick to the subject of the criticism and deal with that alone. Simply make it clear to the other person that you feel their criticism of you is unfair, or unwarranted, and you will not accept it. Explain, as honestly as you can, why you feel that way, and how their attitude towards you makes you feel, or how it affects you.
If the person refuses to engage with you (if they really don’t want to hear your perspective and just want to attack you), then you can simply say, with as much love and compassion as you can muster, that you have heard them but choose not to accept their criticism, and just walk away from the situation.
Don’t engage in a fruitless argument which will ultimately go nowhere good.
If someone is not open to improving things, there’s nothing you can do about that.
You just need to be clear, in yourself, that you have chosen not to take their opinions on board – and don’t take them on board. Don’t think about what they said every night for the next two weeks. Just really let it go.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how the other person understands the situation.
Whether they believe they ‘won’ somehow, or got their message across, is irrelevant. What matters is only how you experience and respond to it. That’s what will define your own health and peace of mind.
If you let it go, you will be free of it. If you hold onto it, then they truly have ‘won’.
Choose Reliable Mirrors
Learning to receive, and make best use of constructive criticism, will be a lot easier if you practice this initially with people whom you love and trust, and whom you believe have your best interests at heart.
Be discerning about whom you share your doubts and fears and weaknesses with.
Being honest with, and about, yourself doesn’t mean you have to share your deepest darkest secrets with every man and his dog.
Share your vulnerabilities only with people you trust not to use these against you. Share your hopes and fears with beloved friends who love and respect you, who want your highest good, and who will hold your vulnerability sacred and not use it against you.
This is not the same as sharing only with people you know will ‘stroke your ego’ and never say anything which makes you feel bad or question yourself. People who only tell you what you want to hear, who always tell you that you’re right and don’t need improvement, are usually only acting according to their own fears of avoiding conflict or needing to keep you ‘on side’. This won’t help you to become happier about yourself and your life.
The best critics are people who love you, but have the courage to be honest with you as well, to pull you up when you’re in the wrong and help you to find the right path, not because they want you to feel bad, but because they want you to feel better about yourself in the long run.
To have a couple of trusted people like this in your life is one of the greatest gifts you can ever receive.
Self-criticism is a double-edged sword. It can be wonderfully empowering, if it is fair and objective, but usually we are our own worst critics.
The people around us can often see our greatness as well as our failures because they look at us objectively but, most of the time, we ourselves tend to see none of our greatness and only magnify our failings.
Judging yourself negatively, over every little thing, can undermine your confidence and willingness to even try to do great things. It is probably the hugest limitation to success in every area of life.
Most people bridle at the injustice of unfair criticism when it comes from outside, and yet we often let our own inner critic plant seeds of self-doubt and wear away at our self-esteem, with a continual stream of unfair judgments and fault-finding, and we never once question the truth of its voice.
Deal with your ‘internal critic’ in exactly the same way that you deal with external criticism… step back; hear it objectively; review it honestly; discern it’s validity or truth (by looking at all the facts objectively); and then either accept its perceptions as useful or reject them as unfair.
For example, your heart dreams of having your own pottery business, making one-off pieces for practical use.
Your inner critic says “Sure, some of the things you make are nice, okay for your own home, but you can’t really expect other people to pay good money for your eccentric productions. It’s just a hobby. You’re not a professional potter.”
Don’t just accept this critical wipe-out of your dream. Ask if it is true and valid.
So, it’s true that you’re not a professional potter, but that’s just because you’re not in business. There’s nothing stopping you from becoming a professional.
And when you look at the question of whether your products are saleable, didn’t someone actually say they’d pay money for that tree-stump tea-pot? Isn’t that what planted the first seed in your mind about the possibility of going into business. Do you actually know for a fact that people wouldn’t buy your work? Have you ever actually offered it for sale?
Ask yourself, also, whether your inner critic is just an accomplice, helping you cover up a deeper fear, in this case possibly the fear of failure.
Are you afraid of the material or emotional consequences that may come from putting your personal creations ‘out there’ and having them rejected? Are you afraid of investing a lot of time, money and energy in setting up a business only to have it fail?
The best way to test the validity of your inner self-criticisms is to challenge them head-on.
You could give up your day job and dive into full small-business mode, throwing everything you have into the project (the ultimate risk).
Alternately, you could find a few outlets in which to offer your products for sale and just see what happens. If they sell like hot-cakes, then you’ll prove your inner critic was false and you were right not to listen. You’ll also undermine the power of the fear that drove it to express those beliefs.
If none of your creations sell at all, after six months of gathering dust, then maybe you can accept that your relationship with pottery really is about your own personal experience of creative expression and not about being in business, or maybe you can explore some other possible styles to find out what will sell.
Here’s another example: You’re five years into a good relationship and you feel there is a lot of love and caring between you and your partner. However, the frequency of ‘bed gymnastics’ is greatly diminished and you feel that something is missing there.
Your logic says: ‘well, the honeymoon is over, and sex is bound to become less important in the big scheme of things’. But your inner critic says: ‘You’re not desirable. You’re not attractive. You’re partner has lost interest in you. You should work out, lose that gut, get a hair-cut. You’re a wreck. Who’d want you?”
How much of what your inner critic says is true, or untrue?
Before you go into a swell of depression about what a loser you are, and reach for another beer or tub of ice-cream, how about looking at things a bit more objectively?
Do you truly believe that you’re neglecting your own needs and not taking care of yourself? (This question is not one of whether you’re trying be attractive to your partner by working on your looks, but about whether you are neglecting your own personal / inner needs for pampering, time out, healthy food, exercise, etc).
Is your lack of a sex life really due to your alleged unattractiveness, or might there be other real-life factors, such as a forty hour working week, or stress about money, or the fact that you’ve rejected your partner so often in the last year that they’ve given up making sexual advances?
Maybe you and your partner have simply developed some unbalanced habits around the whole process of working up to having sex, and this has de-railed the ‘naturalness’ of it all.
Why not just talk to your partner about your concerns and ask, outright, if you are unattractive to them and if they’ve really lost interest in you personally, or if they’ve possibly only lost interest in sex in general.
This, again, is a way of challenging the truth of your inner critic head-on, so you can find out if there is something real that you need to address.
If there is, you can then move on and deal with that. If there isn’t, you can let go of those useless thoughts which only serve to undermine your self-esteem.
When you are able to challenge your inner critic and get to the truth, it helps to disempower the fear or doubt which lies behind that pattern of criticism.
When you recognise your strengths & weaknesses, through honest reflection, it helps to strengthen your own self-esteem and recognition of your true value.
Even so, you’ll find that there are certain paths of ‘untrue belief’ (in relation to particular issues, life situations, or aspects of your personality) which have been so well-trodden over the years of your life that, even once you’ve acknowledged they are invalid, will continue to play themselves through your mind.
You may truly come to understand, rationally, that your partner still finds you very attractive but often just doesn’t have the energy or desire for sex. If the belief in your unattractiveness has been a long-term repeater, it will still find its way into your thoughts at those times when you put yourself forward for sex and feel rejected by your partner. You know it’s not true but, somehow, that critical voice still sneaks in when you lose confidence.
You need to vigilant, and observant of your thoughts, to ensure that such unfair criticisms don’t gain power and begin to have a negative impact on your life experience.
Whenever you notice yourself caught up in such a pattern, just nip it in the bud immediately. Don’t let yourself go there. Re-affirm the positive truth instead, over and over, if you have to, even if you don’t believe in it right then.
You can also help to diminish the recurrence of these negative self-criticisms through any therapies or activities which help to increase your self-esteem, and also by repeatedly challenging the belief head-on, as described in the previous examples.
When you do this, you confront the very fear or doubt which drives it and continue to undermine its power over you, more and more, each time you challenge it.
Aside from releasing these patterns of false criticism, get into the habit of giving yourself loving, constructive criticism wherever possible.
This means honestly acknowledging where you and your life would benefit from change and completely leaving out any kind of judgment about that.
For example, you may be unhappy about the size or shape of your body, or the health of your skin, or the way that you always seem to put your foot in your mouth by speaking first and thinking later.
Don’t be hard on yourself about these things. Accept first that, for whatever reason, this is who you are right now and this particular ‘you’ is completely lovable and acceptable.
If you believe you will truly be happier by making certain changes (such as becoming thinner, improving your skin health or being more deliberate about your speech with others), then explore the issue with as much objectivity as you can, to find out what habits, beliefs, fears, etc, are causing you to maintain the current pattern.
Have the courage to tell yourself the truth, and to hear the truth from yourself.
For example, in relation to the foot-in-mouth issue, you may have an insight from your 'inner constructive critic’ who says: “You know that quite often you just speak because you want to be ‘in the conversation’ and not because you really have something useful to say. Maybe you could find a way to let go of that need. Maybe you could have the courage to be silent until you truly have something to offer.”
Be prepared to hear this, and use that information from your ‘helpful inner critic’ to improve yourself.
Offering Constructive Criticism to Others
We often avoid speaking up, or offering criticism to others, because it’s a bit like crossing a mine field. You can never know how the other person will receive it. You may get to the other side unscathed, or the whole thing may blow up in your face.
Most people are extremely sensitive to criticism because we’re just not practiced, either in giving it or receiving it, and because we aren’t at peace enough with our own sense of self.
In spite of this, there will often be times when you do someone a disservice by not having the courage to speak up. You become an enabler, supporting their ‘delusion’ rather than helping them to step out of it.
When you think about offering criticism, first explore your motivations to ensure that your intentions are ‘pure’ and there is no personal agenda at play.
For example, you may have become insecure about the fact that your mature-age partner is spending a lot of time with new, younger, friends from a class he is attending.
Instead of admitting this truth to yourself, you convince yourself that, by telling him “Love, I think you’re having a mid-life crisis and these younger people aren’t really taking you seriously”, you’re really trying to help him stop making a fool of himself and regain his self-respect.
In fact, what you really mean is, “I want you to stop ‘getting a life’ because I feel like I’m missing out”.
I believe that, when offered with love and respect, and with true motivations for the other person’s good, criticism will always be received easily.
I believe that a lot of our communication-interplay happens energetically, and we instinctively sense what kind of ‘gifts’ are truly being offered along with someone’s words. On a subtle level, we know if someone is not saying exactly what it sounds like they’re saying. That recognition of some kind of duplicity is often what triggers our defences.
Once you have determined, as honestly as you can, that your need to offer criticism is for everyone’s good, then take the most respectful approach available to you.
Start by simply acknowledging the ways that you’ve been given criticism in the past, which have made it such a difficult and uncomfortable experience for you, and try to avoid these approaches when you offer criticism to others.
Here are a few more suggestions …
Offer your perspective with compassion and love.
Open your heart and allow yourself to feel compassion for the pain this person may experience because of your words. This energy will come through with your words, and the person is more likely to be open to the message.
Avoid delivering criticism in a way that hurts, or creates anxiety for the other person. Try to be aware, at all times, of the impact of your message while, at the same time, being as honest as you can.
Don’t avoid the truth that you need to speak. Just find the least hurtful way to speak it.
If you need to, think of someone that you believe is very loving, such as an angel, or Jesus, or the Dalai Lama, and ask yourself ‘How would they say this? What words would they use?’
Let the loving energy of this being infuse you and help you find the best way to express yourself.
Create a calm atmosphere and avoid being aggressive in any way.
Aggression is expressed in those obvious ways, like yelling or being ‘in your face’, but it can also be expressed in ‘passive-aggressive’ ways, where you look and sound calm but each sentence is a dagger that creates a very real energetic wound.
Aggressive energy will only reduce the other person’s ability to take in what you’re saying. They will become defensive and shut down.
Reduce the perception of threat by maintaining a calm, friendly demeanour, and a soothing tone of voice, all the way through the discussion. Try to soften your heart so that a warm energy flows through your words as well.
If the other person is already aggressive or angry themselves, their anger will gradually diminish if you don’t feed it with your own. Try to keep a forgiving attitude and don’t ‘rise to the bait’. This will help to diffuse the other person’s aggression.
Choose the most appropriate situation to offer your insights.
Offer your criticisms privately, whenever possible.
Don’t add to someone’s humiliation by criticising them in front of others.
Sometimes, it can be helpful, for both you and the other person, to offer a minor criticism in passing, as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than making a big issue out of it by ‘setting the scene’.
Often, if we know something’s coming, we naturally begin to make ourselves ready for some kind of attack and are more likely to become defensive before the conversation has even begun.
A little comment, simply made in the context of a good-natured conversation, can often be more easily received.
Sometimes conversational criticism won’t be effective enough. If the issue is too big and entangled, or if the passing comments haven’t ‘sunk in’, and you really need to get the person’s attention, then you may have to create a space for ‘the talk’.
Bear in mind that you will both be a little bit on the defensive in these situations. Try to be as gentle and loving and compassionate and respectful as possible, no matter how extreme or emotional or hurtful the other person’s responses may be.
Don’t get personal … separate the issue from the person.
Don’t make your criticism an attack on the person. Focus instead on the action or situation – what the person said or did, or didn’t do, to create the problem – and how that is affecting you.
Your message should never be “you are wrong, or a failure, or a loser, or unlovable, because of this”. That approach offers a judgment about the value of this person’s existence (and is not for us to make anyway). It will naturally trigger a big wall of defence because it touches into a person’s deepest identity and survival fears.
Instead, let your message be more like “you are really a lovely person, and here’s a little suggestion to help you become even more great”.
Keep the focus more on yourself, as well. You’re obviously bringing this up because you find it a problem, so explain how it affects you.
Take an approach like “here’s something I find difficult to deal with” or “when you do that it makes me feel this way” or “when you say those kinds of things it causes me to doubt myself and that upsets me”, and so on. The aim is to help this person understand how their behaviour affects the people around them, rather than to simply make them feel wrong or like a bad person.
Remember that you are expressing an opinion, and not laying down a universal truth.
Always express yourself in terms of how the issue affects you, how it makes you feel, and how the other person can help you to feel better. That way, it is less likely to come out as an attack on the other person, and they are more likely to hear it, and want to help you to feel better.
Stick to the issue.
Try to keep the discussion focused on the issue which motivated you to bring it up in the first place.
While you may need to expand a bit to encompass some surrounding factors, don’t let it de-rail into a listing of the last five years of grievances just because you now have the person’s attention. The real issue will be lost and you’re unlikely to have an effective resolution.
It’s more effective to have a separate discussion, once a week (if there are that many problems), discussing a single issue each time, rather than diluting important issues with lots of side-tracking.
Be constructive and supportive.
Try to keep all your phrasing in the positive, or to include a positive perspective, even when what you need to say is not so nice.
Be constructive in the way you share. Don’t just tell the person how they are in the wrong. Try, also, to help them see a light of positive change. Offer some suggestions on how you believe they might change for the better.
Sometimes, our defensiveness comes out because we can see that what we’re doing is not so great, but we can’t see how to make it better.
Your helpful suggestions may be just the thing a person needs to find a way out of their current state.
Creating Good Communication Habits in Relationships
All of the suggestions here, about giving and receiving criticism, will help you to improve communication in your relationships, and create greater possibility for positive change and the growth of deeper love.
Approaching discussions in this more constructive way allows for a greater degree of honesty, because a lot more can be said without defensive retaliation.
I expect that many of us have experienced, in a relationship, that vicious circle of hurtful criticism which comes out of our own dissatisfaction and frustration, and gradually kills the light of love.
When a person feels attacked, they naturally fight back in defence. Discussions turn into arguments, emotions become heightened and things are said which can never be un-said. It sets up a situation where there is a loss of trust and both partners are perpetually on the defensive. Trying to be honest about anything just leads to further arguments.
This becomes so uncomfortable that people begin to avoid any form of ‘real’ communication altogether and just stick to safe, superficial communication. They stop sharing their deeper concerns and feelings just to avoid pain and keep the peace. Lots of unspoken pain and frustration then builds up and gradually eats away at the loving bonds like acid.
The relationship inevitably fails, unless some major transformation is able to take place.
With a more forgiving and compassionate approach, honest, loving, constructive criticism, can encourage a deepening of love, trust and understanding. When both partners feel heard and learn to trust that they are not being personally attacked or judged, they become even more willing to hear criticism.
The relationship faces challenges but, instead of failing, it can grow and become stronger. The snowball of support just builds on itself and grows bigger. The light of love burns more brightly and deeply with each challenge which is successfully confronted and overcome.
Of course, it does ‘take two to tango’, and a relationship will usually fail if only one partner is prepared to take this positive, courageous approach. But there is no reason that you shouldn’t be the one to rise above the pettiness, even if your partner won’t.
At the least, you will continue to grow as a person and know that, even if the relationship does eventually end, you gave it your best.
And you never know… Your shining example may help your partner to eventually ‘see the light’ and have the courage to change their approach. Your relationship may develop into something more lovely and supportive than you ever dreamed it could be.