People generally don’t enjoy criticism. It’s often received as undermining and offending. I used to count myself as one of those people.
But when you think about it, criticism is an opportunity. An opportunity to learn about yourself, or make something you do better. Then why don’t we like it? How can we look at criticisms so that we stop dreading and avoiding them, and take advantage of the opportunities?
Consider Where the Criticizer Is Coming from
The first thought that comes to my mind is, where is the criticizer coming from? By that, what I consider is the person’s background, context, exposure to information, personality, and intent.
For example, my mother is one of my greatest cheerleaders, but she’s not exactly a fan of my music. She’s told me that it’s not “understandable” — too complicated.
Now, I know that she grew up playing the violin in orchestras (background). She listens to classical music mostly (context). And when she checks out my music, she’s doing just that — just checking out bits and pieces, instead of listening with an intent to get to know the music (exposure to information). She has a pretty direct personality and tells it like it is (personality). Finally, she means well — she wants me to succeed in whatever I do, she is just stating that she doesn’t understand my music (intent).
So all things considered, I come to the conclusion that while I love my mother and trust her with my life — she is not my audience. Music is a subjective thing. I’d take in an opinion of someone who likes a lot of the same acts I like, someone whose sensibility should be compatible with my music.
Everyone is entitled to her/his opinions but they don’t have to universally apply to you. As the receiver you get to decide what the input means to you. When I came to this realization it freed me up from being afraid of some opinions.
But sometimes, regardless of where the criticizers are coming from, you can’t help but be stung by what they say. It’s because you may be afraid that that what they are saying is true.
Do you believe it’s true?
If you find yourself reacting emotionally to criticisms, it may be because you agree with it. You may not want to, you may not even be aware that you secretly fear that it’s true. But these things can reveal itself when faced with criticisms.
Think about it. If what they’re saying doesn’t ring true at all — will you get mad right away? For example, if someone was to accuse me of being a sexist, the first thought that comes to mind is “that’s absurd.” In my family and at my job, I’m surrounded by strong, smart women. Sure, I can admit to perhaps applying some gender stereotypes here and there — but being called a sexist feels more perplexing than maddening. I’ll have to ask for more details. If the accuser keep insisting then eventually I may get mad — but not for a while.
But some criticisms hurt more, immediately. I can admit to you that if someone was to say I don’t sing well, that stings. It hurts when you are afraid that they are right. You wouldn’t have this reaction if you didn’t secretly agree with them — and you knowing that you agree with them is not a requirement here. If anything, unrecognized fear may hurt even more, because an unpleasant surprise adds some punch.
Whether it’s actually true or not is not the issue here. The point is that you believe they may be right. So when you find yourself reacting with anger, then that’s a sign to stop and take a good, hard look at yourself. As painful as it is, criticisms create opportunities for you to learn something about yourself. It may reveal something you should really address or fix.
What Are You Going to Do about It?
So let’s say that you came to see that the criticizer has a valid point.
Now it’s up to you to decide what to do about it. Denying or saving your face is an option but it really doesn’t address the underlying issue. What you do about your vulnerability or problem is outside the scope of this post, but suffice it to say you owe it to yourself to face the issue, if you want to stop being afraid of that particular criticism. Of course, sometimes the issue isn’t the real problem — it’s your belief. And there are ways to deal with your beliefs, so you can feel more comfortable about something that used to be a vulnerable spot for you.
But then other times, instead of making you feel vulnerable and challenged, a criticism can fuel your resolve. You heard the message, you agree there’s some truth to it — but you’re going to do it anyway. For example, someone may criticize me for writing music that’s too long, complicated and inaccessible — and I can see that it can come across that way to some people. Am I going to “fix” that problem? No. I will continue to make music that I want to hear — and if it happens to be simple, short or accessible, it’s because that’s how I wanted it to be, not because I think being otherwise is a problem.
So in this instance, criticism serves to help me uncover a belief or principle, and I feel more strongly about it precisely because it was challenged. This is a very useful process. Challenges, when looked at it correctly, are growth opportunities. In this instance a criticism helps me to grow stronger in my resolve. It may not be the easiest experience, but growing in one’s conviction contributes to being at peace with yourself. It’s also possible that you may just be sullen and stubborn about something you should fix — you can probably spot this if your anger appears to grow each time you are criticized. A healthy resolve takes the sting out of criticism — while what the criticism describes is true, you no longer feel that it’s a problem.
Criticisms Can Help You, If You Let Them
So I walked through three considerations regarding criticisms:
- They help me see if they have relevant context, and filter out noise coming from irrelevant sources.
- They help uncover issues, problems and beliefs that I may have been unaware of previously.
- They create opportunities for me to face issues that need to be addressed, or help strengthen my resolve.
Of which, #2 can certainly be rather uncomfortable. I don’t relish the sting of being criticized where it hurts. But given the thought process I walked through, I have come to realize that they can all lead to positive outcomes. That’s not to say that everything comes out peachy in the end, but I’ve grown comfortable with it enough not to be afraid of it any more. I don’t go out of my way to seek criticisms — I think affirmations and recognizing and then capitalizing on one’s strength is a better approach — but they certainly don’t stop me from doing things the way I think they should be done.
Criticisms are part of living a creative life. Fearing what others think can stifle us in our pursuit to live the life we want to live. I wish for everyone to learn to handle criticisms — so that we can each live a free and empowered life, and perhaps even offer constructive criticisms to each other without worrying about being taken the wrong way.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you have your own ways of handling criticisms? Let us know in the comments! Thank you.