In the past several weeks I've found myself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Some of it has been mean-spirited, some of it misplaced, and some of it accurate. But all of it was painful to hear. Though intellectually I know I'm capable of error, emotionally I like to believe I'm free of it, and when I'm reminded that the way I view myself and the way others view me are at odds, it creates a particularly painful cognitive dissonance that most people (at least, those not burdened by a narcissistic personality) know well.
No one likes to be criticized. We all want to imagine we're without flaw. And yet, of course, none of us are—which some others will invariably, at various points in our lives, point out to us. Unfortunately, many of us seek to resolve this cognitive dissonance by discrediting any and all criticism that comes our way—not only criticism about ourselves but also criticism about anything that emanates from us (our work product, our material possessions, our opinions, and so on). We often even bristle when groups with which we identify (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Democrats, Republicans, teachers, doctors, men, women, and so on) come under fire.
But as many know, criticism, like failure, also represents an opportunity for self-improvement. If no one ever tells us how we're going wrong, we're far more likely to continue to perform inferiorly, whether as an artist, musician, teacher, doctor, or human being.
Which is why it's actually a good thing that criticism stings. Certainly we'll do almost anything to avoid that sting, including deny the truth of that which stings us. But that same sting also provides the impetus for us to examine ourselves with a critical eye so we can make positive changes. After all, if we didn't feel bad when criticized—even if only a little—what incentive would we have to consider the criticism on its merits?
Thus, there are really only two questions we should ask ourselves when someone criticizes us: 1) how can we prevent ourselves from dismissing it before we have a chance to evaluate it, and 2) how can we sort out valid from invalid criticism?
For me, this is all about silencing my ego. This is how I try to do it:
- Don't respond immediately. I presume my first reaction will be dismissal based on my desire to preserve my self-concept. Much of the time, however, I fail at this. But that's okay because I can always...
- Consider the criticism in a cool moment later. Just because I may vigorously defend myself against whoever may have criticized me at the moment they bring a criticism up doesn't mean when I'm done I automatically dismiss their criticism from my mind or forget it. But in order to do this I must...
- Spend time on a regular basis asking myself how I can improve. If I've established this as a habit and do it alone when I can have an honest dialogue with myself, I just may have a chance to consider a criticism on its merits. Which is when I try to pause and ask myself...
- What if what s/he said is true? I ask myself this question as a hypothetical and begin to explore the implications. Which is how I...
SORTING OUT CRITICISM
...figure out what criticism is valid and what criticism is invalid. Just as a scientific hypothesis should make predictions that can be scientifically validated (supporting the hypothesis as true), if a criticism is valid, it should predict or explain other things. For example, if my wife is right that I often become inappropriately angry, I should be able to remember multiple instances in which I lost my temper and regretted it. Further, such instances should occur in the future (these should be even more apparent than instances from the past), and if criticisms accurately predict our future behavior, that's a sign we should take them seriously.
Sometimes, it helps me to evaluate criticisms more objectively if I imagine I'm watching a movie of myself so that I can better judge my actions as if they were taken by someone else (in fact, actually watching a movie of yourself can be quite a revealing experience, as I wrote about in an earlier post, The Importance Of Tone). Ultimately, though, what really gets me to take a criticism seriously is the consequences of not taking it seriously. Which means, of course, I take some criticisms more seriously than others. For example, if my wife threatens to divorce me if I don't get my anger under control, I'm much more likely to take that criticism seriously. Or if my agents tells me she can't sell my book proposal as it's written, I'm also more likely to take that criticism seriously. In general, then, though we may lament having to face the consequences of ignoring accurate criticism, those consequences, like the sting of criticism itself, can also be our friends, motivating us—as the threat of such consequences can like nothing else—to actually make changes we likely need to make.
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!