Criticism can be good for us, if it is wanted.
But handling unwanted criticism is a burden in all our lives.
A PERSONAL STORY
I want to tell you about the least successful therapy I’ve ever done. (In order to understand this story you will need to know that I conduct all of my meetings in my home.)
A few years ago a woman was referred to me by her doctor.
When I met her at the door she mentioned caustically that there was a lot of snow out by the curb and that it was difficult for her to climb over it to get to the sidewalk. While she took off her boots she said: “You ought to have a bigger mat for these boots, they’ll make a mess on your floor!” And when I offered to get her some coffee she proceeded to give me step-by-step instructions – first of all on how to measure the coffee as I made it, and then on the process I should use when I cleaned the pot, how often I should do it, and which brand of vinegar I should use. (At this point she had been in my house about five minutes!)
Needless to say, when our meeting started I asked her rather quickly if she was angry. She said “absolutely not!” and then proceeded to blast me for the implied supposition. When that had its desired effect of shutting me up, she proceeded to blast her doctor, her husband, her children, her coworkers, and as far as I could tell everyone else in her life (also for thinking she was angry…).
I breathed a sigh of relief when she told me at the end of the meeting that she wasn’t coming back and that she thought therapy was “a bunch of bull.”
I was in a unique situation that day. As a therapist I know that the only way to start a new relationship with a client is to let them tell their story without unnecessary interruption. I was, at least for that one meeting, duty bound to let her have her say.
But when she left my heart was pounding in rage. I thought: “How dare she tell me how to live my life! I didn’t ask for her opinions!”
I know she was in great pain, but I only offer to help people with their pain, not to absorb it for them!
ABOUT ASKING FOR CRITICISM
Asking someone for their opinion of your work is one of the most mature things you can do.
Caring about the opinions of others,
allowing yourself to learn from others,
and being willing to learn and change
are all hallmarks of competence, autonomy, and maturity.
But accepting the unrequested criticisms of others can be a sign of gross immaturity,
acceptance of humiliation and abuse,
and a life lived on the edge of rage.
WHAT YOU DO, NOT WHO YOU ARE
Some people criticize you,
instead of what you do.
Employers, parents, teachers and many others have a responsibility to offer criticism of our actions,
but they have an even more important responsibility to avoid criticizing who we are.
CRITICISM IS UNAVOIDABLE
There is no behavior everyone accepts, and critical people will criticize anything!
Over the years I’ve challenged more than a thousand students with this question:
“Name any behavior that is certain not to be criticized.”
Every answer ever given was immediately shot down by other students in the class.
FOR SOME PEOPLE, CRITICIZING IS A LIFESTYLE
Critical people almost always operate under the guise of “helping” us.
They can always find some “better way” we could have behaved,
some higher goal we could have achieved, or some opportunity we shouldn’t have missed.
I could tell you a lot about how painful a critic’s life is,
but I don’t want to help you to be “understanding” about them.
Your responsibility is to protect yourself from their attacks on your self-worth!
Never be so caring or understanding that you lose sight of your responsibility to yourself.
Critical people are universally loathed.
But they carry a lot of clout in any office or in any family because we give them power.
We do this by believing there must be something wrong with us if we aren’t perfect.
ENFORCING OUR DEMANDS WITH OUR ABSENCE
The only way to protect ourselves from chronic critics is to
demand that they stop criticizing us and
to threaten to stay away from them if they don’t.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, and I don’t care what it is.
If you keep treating me this way, I will stay away from you.”
Usually this threat will be enough, because chronic critics are lonely people.
But for those who still refuse to change, leaving them is long overdue anyway.
When someone criticizes us repeatedly, it’s as if they take little bites out of our self-esteem.
After you are around such people for a long while, you need an antidote.
The best antidote is the touch of someone who loves the imperfect you.