Criticism & How to Deal with it

Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” – Franklin P. Jones

Criticism stings.

A lot of what is true in life stings as well.

Death stings. Loss stings. Failure stings. Rejection stings. All of these stab at and wound our pride, our vanity, our ego.

If we can’t handle being told off or not getting what we want, how will we be able to handle death when that comes?” – Pema Chödrön

And if we can’t handle criticism, constructive or otherwise, and metabolize it maturely, then how will we be able to deal with the rest of what contributes to the full intensity of life? We’ll always be shrinking from life, retreating, afraid of life and afraid most of all of ourselves and our own reactions and the heat iand ntensity of our own emotions.

All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.” – James Thurber

This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.” – Rilke

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life, and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” – Karlfried Graf Durchheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pg. 108

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can;” Rilke counsels us, “everything, even the unprecedented“—which means even that which we find immense and overwhelming and unpleasant and unsettling and discomforting—”must be possible within it.” We must learn to take on life and become big and strong and mature and sane enough to live and love on life’s terms, not our terms, and overcome our natural tendency to be “timid before any new and inconceivable experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope.” We must overcome our natural timidity and our innate tendency toward flight—to retreat, avoid, shrink, ball up, wall up, play it safe, take the path of least resistance, take the path of least stress and least emotional intensity. “That something is difficult“—and unsettling, for that matter—”is all the more reason for us to do it. Most people have turned their solutions and their approach to life toward what is easy, and toward the easiest side of the easy; but . . . if only we would arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then that which now appears to us as most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” (From “Letters to a Young Poet,” letters no. seven & eight)

The primary reason we shy away from criticism is that it’s difficult. It’s difficult to deal with. It’s difficult to metabolise. It’s difficult to stay calm and centered and rational when we’re hearing something we don’t want to hear or something that challenges us or dis-validates us.

Criticism triggers us, shows us our weak spots, makes us feel bad or inferior or inadequate, makes us feel like we’re under attack, brings up all sorts of unpleasant and difficult and white-hot negative emotions (our fight or flight responses)—intense, flooding emotions with which we feel ill-equipped to cope. In other words, criticism makes us feel inferior; it makes us feel bad about ourselves; it makes us feel invalidated, rejected, not good enough, wrong; and no one likes to feel inferior or not good enough, no one likes to feel attacked or rejected. These are all unpleasant emotions that are difficult to deal with and metabolise.

And so one of the primary things to learn that will help us better and more peaceably deal with criticism and not flood emotionally when someone is criticizing us, is lessening our dependency on “reflected sense of self”— on other people’s approval and acceptance and validation. The less we rely on others’ acceptance and approval and validation for our sense of self and for our emotional stability, the less likely we will flood emotionally when criticized, and the less likely we will view criticism as such a intense personal attack—or form dis-validation or rejection—and the less likely we will be to spin out and flood emotionally. The less we need other people’s acceptance of us, then the less we will mind their rejection of us as well, and thus the more skilled we will become at maintaining our equilibrium emotionally, thus freeing us to deal with criticism rationally—in a calm, cool, collected, thoughtful, inquisitive, grounded, rational, discerning, lucid, sane way.

Like it or not, each of us is at the helm of something that was built much more for pleasure and for playing it safe than for tolerating pain and the unknown; something that is much more emotional and egocentric than spiritual and egoless.

We are emotional and reactive beings first, before we are sane and rational and less reactive beings. The latter is something we must learn to grow into; and it is something very difficult and painful to grow into.

Yet, like it or not, through concerted effort, we can become much less emotional and reactive and avoidant and egoful; we can come to learn or teach ourselves to do the unnatural—to endure pain and discomfort for the sake of growth and self-improvement and self-transcendence, to not automatically run or shrink or wall up or flood or spin out.

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” – Robert Frost

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.” – Thomas Huxley

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics, Peace and Laughter (1971), p. 50.

From “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck, pp. 52-53—

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged.

The only way we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers.

Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy—rebreathing only our own fetid air, and more and more subject to delusion.

Yet because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality (read: dealing with criticism; which is essentially what most criticism is: a challenge to our map of reality), we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity. . . .

The tendency to avoid challenges is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

But calling it natural or a characteristic of human nature does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior.

It is also natural for us to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth.

Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until it becomes natural, until it becomes second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural.

Because another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature and conditioning.

From the motion picture “African Queen”—

Charlie Allnut: “A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.”
Rose Sayer: “Human nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

Every person (okay, almost every person) on the planet has this capacity—the capacity to learn how to do the unnatural, the capacity to learn how to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth, the capacity to rise above the baser parts of their (which is to say “our”) nature.

And yet very few will take up the task or the challenge.

Why?

Again, it all boils down to the difficulty and unpleasantness factor. Meaning, mastering ourselves emotionally and becoming less reactive is difficult work—it’s difficult and it’s work; meaning it’s often not pleasurable; it’s often painful, difficult, daunting, overwhelming, unsettling, stress-inducing, anxiety-provoking.

And most people want things easy, light, simple, fun; most people don’t want to work, least of all on themselves; most people would rather be (most people long to be) accepted for who they are and as they are, than work on themselves and work on overcoming or rising above the baser or less noble or more reactive parts of their nature.

Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” – Jim Rohn

Again, it comes down to difficulty versus the path of least resistance. It’s easier to avoid criticism and just react to it emotionally rather than responding to it rationally and by thinking critically and honestly and staying calm, for the latter requires mastering ourselves emotionally, it requires the difficulty of overcoming our nature—our tendency to react emotionally, to flood, to self-protect, to go into fight or flight mode instead of think, observe, remain open and inquisitive. For most of us, emotionality or emotional-reactivity is our first responder, not calm cool and collected and orderly critical thinking and detached unbiased objective fair-minded inquiry.

And for most of us the desire to feel good or comfortable or adequate or accepted is more important than the desire to see ourselves and life as it is. We are more dedicated to the little picture (the ego) than the big picture (reality, true psychological and spiritual growth).

“Truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world and with the demands of adult life.

“The less clearly we see the reality of the world—the more our minds are polluted and befuddled by falsehoods, misperceptions, illusions, distortions, dishonesty—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise choices.

“True mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

“What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean?

“It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and self-awareness. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world (and thus to know what is true and real), we must not only examine the world, but simultaneously examine the examiner and our own assumptions, motivations, and paradigms/schemas—the lenses we use to look out upon and make sense of the world.

“Truth or reality (or even our own self) is avoided when it is painful (or too humbling or shameful to examine or become truly aware of). Yet we can only grow when we have the discipline to overcome that pain (and overwhelming sense of shame or powerlessness).

“To have such discipline we must be totally dedicated to truth.

“That is to say that we must always hold the truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our own self-interest, than our comfort.

“Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth and growth.” (Abridged and adapted from M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 44, 50-51; parentheticals mine)

Reality is not for everyone. The real world is not for everyone. Truth is not for everyone. The vast majority of human beings still prefer some variety of soft food intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. When it comes to truth and living in reality, many people are still hooked on the soft sugary make-me-feel-good stuff—you know, the emotional Gerbery stuff. Many people, which is to say, many of us, haven’t gotten to the point where we can take the real stuff. We haven’t evolved that much or differentiated that much. We can drink red wine—most of which is honestly quite nasty—arguably much nastier than criticism—or we can drink scotch or whisky straight up—but we still can’t similarly take the emotional hit of criticism.

We can’t take our criticism straight up. We can’t “man up” and take the emotional “hit” of criticism like an adult.

What does that say about us as human beings and our level of emotional fitness?

And what does that say about our values and priorities and what we hold to be near and dear to us?

Sure, we tolerate red wine, even whisky or bourbon or scotch on the rocks, because we know the payoff that’s coming—some variant of pleasure—a bit of relaxation, self-escape, inebriation, lessened inhibitions, lessened sensitivity to stress and worry, a precious bit of self-forgetfulness . . . ahhhh.

But criticism offers no such payoff. Once we take the hit emotionally, there’s no intoxication coming our way. Quite the opposite: we end up actually having to sober up—that’s likely one of the reasons we don’t like and value criticism—because we don’t really like and or value sobriety, i.e., reality, knowing who and what we really are and what we’re really like.

Not to mention the idea that knowledge creates obligation; unless our interior life is in complete shambles, we tend to automatically act in alignment with what we know or most strongly believe to be true. So that means we must do some actual work and make a real tangible change.

So who in their right mind would want to have to deal with this—with having their nose shoved in their own dodo? Who wants to have to remember even more clearly what they’re trying to forget? And then who wants to have to actually put in the work and clean up their own mess? If we’re basically frightened, a bit overly sensitive, a bit lazy, a bit comfort-first and path-of-least-resistance oriented, then criticism is not going to appeal to us.

Nor is it going to appeal to us either if our self-image or sense of self is shaky. We won’t be able to tolerate the hit.

If most people are basically dissipating their lives trying to forget or eschew the painful aspects of reality, then criticism will hold no appeal to them.

Most people like to live in their heads and in their own little dream worlds of what they think they’re like. They—which is to say, the vast majority of us—don’t want to know what we’re really actually objectively like. We don’t want to hear the sound of our own voice on an answering machine; we don’t want to watch a hidden camera account of a day in our life. A thousand times a day in a myriad of little and not so little ways we avoid reality, we evade the (painful) truth of ourselves and our condition; we choose what’s in our heads and our ideas of who and what we think we’re like instead of the truth, instead of reality, instead of something more objective.

Why?

Because what’s in our heads is like a drug that we like to dope ourselves up on.

And thus criticism threatens to be a total bummer of buzz kill and sober us up from our self-delusion and self-deception. It’s like your parents coming home when you were a teen and having a party. The ultimate killjoy. That’s criticism.

I wonder how difficult criticism would be to take if we had just had some sort of massive near-death experience, or if we had just gone skydiving or faced down one of our biggest fears?

Would criticism still sting and bother us to the same extent if something else in life had just sobered us up?

If we’re leading a truly examined life, then criticism has to be an integral part of that. We only have the inside scoop on ourselves; we don’t have the outside or external scoop on ourselves. We don’t see ourselves as God or as an objective narrator would see us.

But criticism helps bridge that gap.

For me, so much of our aversion to criticism—and the tough to look at and think about stuff in life in general—is about our load capacity for stress. So it’s all very contextual, very relative, meaning, for many people, dealing with criticism is one of the biggest negatives that they will have to go through in the course of a day.

But what if our lives were filled with great heroic overcomings of our fears and anxieties—what if we were climbing mountains, kayaking, skydiving, speaking publicly, doing yoga, practicing meditation, taking up a martial art, going to the top of tall buildings, and or if we were reading the likes Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, M. Scott Peck, C. S. Lewis, Murray Bowen, Thoreau, Simone Weil, Martin Luther King Jr.—people who were movers and shakers when it came to dispensing truth straight up and without any softeners—what if we were daily trying to build our courage and mental toughness in these or similar ways? . . . Maybe then we might toughen up a bit and not be quite as emotionally thin-skinned or underdeveloped. . . . Maybe then we wouldn’t need so much emotional sugar and so many softeners to make the medicine (criticism) go down—or at least get us to listen to it fairly and honestly. . . .

The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

A lot of it comes down to being aware, to mindfulness, to really examining ourselves and our underlying motivations, and the future consequences and costs to ourselves and others. I see the difficulty in dealing with and metabolizing criticism as symptomatic of something larger going on. Why do we read what we read? Is it for the sake of really learning and growing and for the sake of what’s true and actual? Or is it for escape, to feel good, to improve our mood, to steady and stabilize ourselves, or to distract ourselves? “Enjoyments pass, consequences remain,” wrote Hadrat Ali. How much of our day is spent deliberating practicing and developing our courage? What was the last truly courageous thing you did where you deliberately overcame one of your fears or anxieties—where you really overcame something within you that was really holding you back and that kept you sabotaging yourself (and others perhaps as well)?

Courage is a muscle. It needs to be practiced and worked out. Either we use it or lose it. And most of us by the time we reach adulthood fall into a rut of going for comfort and security and convenience first. And so we inadvertently end up letting our courage dwindle and atrophy. There’s a price to be paid for leading a life of too little stress or of always fighting with little things and not wrestling honestly with the bigger questions and bigger issues and anxieties.

If we really knew ourselves, if we were really leading a highly mindful and self-aware and honest and examined life—if we were really interested in leading a life of total dedication to the truth and to reality (see M. Scott Peck’s, “The Road Less Traveled”), then there’s not much that another could say to us that would surprise us. We would have likely already thought it or encountered it (especially in our reading and self-reflection). Not only that, honest criticism and honest feedback would be something we’d welcome! It would only help us—especially since we all have our blind spots!

Thus for me, one of the biggies in learning to deal with criticism is learning for ourselves how to think honestly and critically. To the extent that we are critical thinkers, criticism becomes easier to deal with and more manageable emotionally, because instead of only having our emotions and our psychological defenses at our disposal for us to use in defusing criticism, we have another tool—and a very powerful tool at that—the capacity for rigorous and discerning critical thought.

Murray Bowen, M.D, one of the founders of the field of Family Therapy, theorized that people differed from one another in terms of their level of “differentiation.” On the one end of the scale are those whose level of differentiation is fairly low—they are fused to their environment, they tend to be very reactive, prone to impulsivity and impulsive decision-making and being stressed out, their moods fluctuate with so much that is external to them—the weather, the social weather, a kind or harsh word. They have a high degree of fusion between the intellectual and emotional systems. They tend not to have a lot of well-defined and deeply internalized principles that they live by; instead they tend to make decisions based on feelings and moods and impulse and what “feels” right. They tend to need a lot of support (“borrowed functioning”). (Roberta Gilbert has written several books on Bowen Theory that provide a good overview of Bowen’s ideas; i.e. “Extraordinary Relationships” and “The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory”)

Well differentiated people, on the other hand, are more proactive, lead a more principled-center and conscientious lifestyle, can better delay gratification, have more perspective, borrow less functioning—and when and where they do, they tend to borrow it more mindfully and graciously. They exhibit less fusion in their relationships and with the outside world and between their intellectual and emotional systems.

In other words, learning to more meaningfully endure the emotional hit or pain of criticism and metabolizing it critically and legitimately and honestly is a wonderfully difficult but differentiation enhancing thing to do! It not only requires all the emotional courage and stability and perspective we can muster, it helps to create these! Ditto for out critical thinking skills—it helps to both create and to reinforce these capacities and neural pathways.

So why avoid criticism? Because we’re weak; because we have limited self-capacities; because we don’t think very well for ourselves; because our own sense of self is shaky; because we overheat emotionally and stress out very easily and we want to spare subjecting ourselves to those painful and difficult to deal with emotions; because we’re still depdendent on other people’s validation and approval for our sense of self and emotional stability; because we prefer to live a life dedicated to comfort and feeling good, not to truth and growth; because we want to not have to sober up but instead we want to stay doped up on and anesthetized by our own delusive discursive thinking.

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6 thoughts on “Criticism & How to Deal with it

  1. This is a wonderful post! It’s true – criticism can be hard, especially coming from people we care about. It’s hard to change, to accept that we need to change. I think having that firm self-concept makes it easier to respond positively to constructive criticism, rather than clamming up and shutting out someone else’s advice.

  2. Unsolicited criticism hurts….however evaluations are necessary from loved ones because we are blind to ourselves sometimes…

    • Hello Liza,

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment.

      I think criticism–solicited or unsolicited–hurts no matter what. It’s a form of rejection. Tell a 3-year old “no” and s/he’ll be hurt by that. Criticism tends to have a similar sting to it for us no matter what our age.

      I think one of the reasons why criticism stings so much is because of how “dependent” we (most of us) are on others for our sense of self. If we really knew ourselves well–the good, the bad, the ugly–and if we knew all of our blind spots–then what others said would have much less impact on us. So to me, much of the sting of criticism comes from a lack of self-knowledge (know who we are). It’s like seeing a photograph of ourselves, or listening to our voice on the answering machine, or seeing ourselves in a home video–most of us tend to recoil in horror from those things–that’s not my voice! how can I sound like that! Oh my gosh, I look so fat! My nose is so big. Gosh I look so awkward/unattractive, et cetera. But guess what–that’s how we actually are! Yet from our inside (and somewhat delusional) point of view, we don’t think we look or sound or act like this. We have some other “image” (or fantasy) built up in our head about what we look and sound and act like. And every time we’re faced with the choice between changing our mind and accepting that we perhaps really are that awkward, et cetera, or proving there’s no need to, the vast majority of us get busy on the proof!–we try to get rid of the evidence (by either deleting the photo, erasing the video or recording; as if by deleting a photo we have somehow also deleted those 10 extra pounds or that goofiness in our voice, lol) or persuade ourselves through some form of fallacious denial-based magical thinking that we really don’t look or sound like that. We prefer idealized fantasies and photoshopped version of ourselves to reality. We (most of us) prefer to surround ourselves with a mutual admiration society rather than with our best and most honest critics. Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?…

      And so criticism stings our narcissistic over-inflated or photoshopped view of ourselves.

      It might be much easier for us if we just boot-camped ourselves for a while with cameras all around us and got used to seeing ourselves and what we really look and sound and act like from an outside and more objective point of view.

      That would like take a lot of the sting away from others’ criticism.

      And the other thing that would help immeasurably would be for each of us to learn how to think more rationally and logically and rigorously. That way when we’re being criticized, we would be bringing more to the table than just our emotions and ego; we would be able to actually operate criticially ourselves on the incoming criticism and see what is perhaps true about it and how we can use it and grow from it, and what is perhaps false and biased about it.

      Thank you again, Liza, for reading and for commenting! 🙂

      Warmest regards,

      John

  3. What a useful post, John. Such solid points. Since later last year, I have been focused on perseverance — being steadfast, falling down and getting back up again — truly for the first time in my life. Concidentally, I have been verbally attacked more in these months than in the entirety of my lifetime. So much learning buried in a commitment to perseverance and courageously facing what is scary and what hurts, really analyzing things internally and really observing others also. At this point I would confidently say that perseverance and facing life each day with all I’ve got has been the key to my happiness. I’m happy now. Truly happy. Life is messy. Easy day the few things I choose to truly attack are usually quite scary. But I do it and go through it and process the experiences, and each day I am renewed and stronger than the previous day. I would also say that choosing exactly the direction I want to head into and becoming increasingly better at prioritizing have also been key. The satisfaction of effort well spent each day is sweeter than I ever imagined it would be.

  4. I wanted to comment again on this post after a couple days of digesting it — and to thank you. While I have experienced surprising success in this area, there still lie my areas of weakness, namely with two parallel relationships where I have been extremely fragile. What you shared in this post gave me a key to facing them, which is what I have been doing since reading it. I realized that I was blocking out everything that could be considered as criticism for fear of not being able to handle the pain or the shame. I am not yet ready to face these relationships head-on, but I am moving forward and your sharing provided key clues. Once again, thank you, John.

  5. I wanted to comment again on this post after a couple days of digesting it — and to thank you. While I have experienced surprising success in this area, there still lie my areas of weakness, namely with two parallel relationships where I have been extremely fragile. What you shared in this post gave me a key to facing them, which is what I have been doing since reading it. I realized that I was blocking out everything that could be considered as criticism for fear of not being able to handle the pain or the shame. I am not yet ready to face these relationships head-on, but I am moving forward and your sharing provided key clues.

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