Criticism is a universal but painful experience. Being criticized may trigger fear, shame, or anger, and feed into your insecurities about being unworthy or incompetent. Winston Churchill likened criticism to pain in the human body—an unpleasant experience that is necessary for growth and learning. He also stated that being criticized is good because it meant you have stood up for something. Criticism can be a way of asserting power and social control, or of neutralizing competition, but it can also be a way of communicating a genuine grievance or speaking up for oneself, even if unskillfully. Not all experiences and situations are the same, and becoming emotionally intelligent means understanding the subtler nuances and context so you can respond mindfully and skillfully.
Below are 30 possible reasons why a friend, partner, colleague, relative or acquaintance may criticize you:
Understanding The Critic's Motivations
The majority of the reasons listed above have to do with the critic’s own agenda or perspective, but some may be the result of your behavior, or of an unskillful attempt to connect with you. When partners or spouses criticize each other, there are often softer feelings underneath, such as feeling hurt, rejected, or not important. It is best to try to understand the critic's agenda before responding so you can tailor your response to best meet the situation.
These are some important questions to ask yourself so you can be more mindful and strategic in your response:
How To Respond to Criticism
The answers to the above questions will determine your response. If the person seems to be a narcissist, dirty competitor, or bully, you will want to set some kind of limit or boundary on how they can talk to or about you. In a public forum, such as a meeting, you will want to defend your performance, argue for the value of your decision or work, and correct any misperceptions. Restating your genuine good intentions or motivations and taking responsibility for your share is a good strategy in many situations. If the complainer is a partner, child, friend, or family member, you may want to let them know that you care about them and genuinely want to understand their concerns and perspective, even if you don't always agree. In some situations, you may want to indulge the person’s underlying need by telling them that you respect their opinions or appreciate their efforts. Depending on the situation, you may want to assert your independence or right to have a different opinion—"Let’s agree to disagree." With a whining toddler or teenager, a good strategy is to acknowledge that their feeling or need is legitimate but that they need to work on the delivery so it’s more respectful. You may set a limit, try to find a compromise, or let them know what choices are available. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can make you feel more patient and empathic. If the criticism is legitimate, you may want to take corrective action.
Common Traps to Avoid
In dealing with criticism, your goal will likely be one of the following:
Unfortunately, because criticism triggers your “fight-flight-freeze” response, your first reaction will most likely be to feel blind-sided; to run away and avoid the conflict; to try to prove you are right without listening to the other person; or to counter-attack. None of these responses are particularly effective. Some will make the critic angrier or leave you defenseless. So when confronted with criticism, take a mindful moment or two to take a deep breath, notice how you feel and what the other person is communicating nonverbally, and refocus on what you want from the situation. Feel free to use delaying tactics such as reflecting what you think the person is saying (“Are you saying that...?”) or saying that you need a minute or two to think about what they’ve said before you respond.
Nobody likes to be criticized, but it is part of the human experience. Sometimes it is just a power play or someone’s projection, but it can sometimes be a valuable piece of information about how you are being perceived. It may be a signal to pay more attention to office politics, to be more thoughtful about picking up after yourself, or to be more attentive to your partner's need for intimacy. Try to find the middle ground between taking too much responsibility for other people’s issues and being too defensive. Remember to be compassionate to yourself for this (perhaps small) experience of deflation and use your wise mind, rather than your reactive mind, to move forward.
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