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Self-Reflection Without Shame

Sometimes we need to heed our critics.

Key points

  • When being criticized, we tend to reject the criticism, but sometimes we should do some self-reflection.
  • The more wholesale and condemning the criticism, the more likely it is virtue signaling and not a reflection of the target.
  • By reflecting on how we act and react to criticism, we can have a better sense of how others perceive us.
  • Self-reflection is not the same as self blame. Reflect on your own flaws with the same compassion you'd have for a child.

It’s hard to get through a day without being criticized for one thing or another. As a rule, most criticism is more a reflection of the one making the critique, than it is the one on the receiving end. But what happens when the criticism is coming from multiple directions, as coworkers, colleagues, neighbors, or others we interact with in group settings begin to heap on the criticism and put-downs? How do you respond when it seems like everyone is dumping on you, most often with unfair characterizations that have you feeling worthless?

I’ve written a fair amount about workplace aggression, particularly group bullying or “mobbing.” One of the points I’ve made has been that when so many people turn against us, we would be well served to reflect on why they’ve done so. Rejecting the notion that they’re all “bullies” and “psychopaths,” I’ve been criticized for victim-blaming, as anti-bully advocates remind readers that if they’ve been bullied, they have done nothing to bring it on, and the only reason people act aggressively toward them is that they’re too capable, too successful, too nice, and a whole lot of other wonderful qualities the target has in abundance.

This line of reasoning suggests that poor workers cannot be bullied. This advice tells targets that they will always be victimized, as long as they are envied. And this conclusion disempowers targets who are encouraged to demonize those who attack them and exempt themselves from any role in human interactions—in other words, don’t reflect on your own actions and reactions, don’t spend two minutes thinking about why so many people have turned against you, and don’t make any changes in your own behaviors.

When people organize to persecute someone in a group setting, they will always escalate their criticisms and quickly revise their initial annoyances into a litany of flaws that paint their target as inherently bad, if not dangerous and worthless. That will always happen when aggression shifts from the individual to the group level. So it’s critical that the target not internalize those messages. But it’s equally critical the target reflect on how others have perceived them, if they are to grow emotionally, socially, and cognitively.

As Maya Angelou famously noted, people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. And what group aggression tells us is that rightly or wrongly, the target of that aggression has made people feel defensive and aggressive. Reflecting on your own role in such a scenario does not weaken you. It strengthens you.

So when a reader recently asked me to suggest some techniques for self-reflection, without falling victim to self-blame or internalization, I felt her question merited some reflection on my part. When being harshly criticized, whether at home or at work, or on social media, self-image takes a wallop. Caving into self-blame can only worsen anyone’s state of mind. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take inventory. Here’s how.

Techniques for self-reflection

  • Reject the wholesale denunciation of you as a bad person. The more thundering the denunciation, the more likely it’s just virtue signaling by those making the denunciation. Don’t join the chorus by beating yourself up.
  • Don’t discount that there may be areas where you can improve your social interactions. How people perceive you is based not only on their own biases but also on how you present yourself and interact. Recognize that self-reflection and self-blame are two entirely different acts. The first gives serious thought to your own actions and reactions, the second ascribes guilt for the way other people act. Don’t go there.
  • Do you criticize other people? Gossip about them? Tattle on them over minor offenses? If so, how might you work on those qualities so that you do so less often?
  • Do people perceive you as a complainer? Raising legitimate concerns may be well-intended, but doing so can give the perception of constantly complaining or being too negative. Can you refrain from raising minor concerns and soften your approach to raising bigger concerns? The more you can encourage others and offer praise, the more positively you’ll be viewed—and the more your concerns, when raised, will be heard.
  • Have you tended to discount red flags when they’re waving right in front of you? What behaviors have others engaged in, what things have they said, that in retrospect, should have given you pause for what it revealed of their own character? How might you become more attuned to these red flags—and learn to be more cautious around those people in the future?
  • How have you reacted to critiques in the past? Do you whimper and recoil, or lash out at those who give them? If so, they sense your insecurity. Focusing on their aggressive nature won’t help you. That’s their burden. Focus, instead, on gaining confidence. The more confident you become, the more you will be able to discern the difference between legitimate critique, and insults. Gaining confidence doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth your time to reflect on your reactions and recognize where they come from a place of insecurity and vulnerability, and where they come from a place of genuine confidence.
  • Reject the notion that you’re perfect. Reject the notion that everyone is jealous of you and that’s why they’re going after you. Instead, listen to what they are saying. Back to my first admonition, don’t buy into the notion that you’re inherently bad, but do consider that maybe they’ve gone after you because you aren’t a good worker, or because you aren’t all that friendly, or because you do treat people badly, or whatever it is. And then do something about it. Work harder and better. Be friendlier. Stop treating people badly. There is no one on this earth who can’t do better and be better, and you are no exception. Give yourself the gift of growth, and reject the notion that you’re perfect.

It’s hard to look at ourselves objectively without caving into self-loathing, and there is no paucity of social messaging that we are so vulnerable that the slightest emotional discomfort is retraumatizing, or the slightest critique is overwhelming. The truth is, we’re tougher than we think and more vulnerable than we realize. If you’re under attack from one or many, chances are you’ve focused plenty on that vulnerable side. Now it’s time to toughen up and look inside—from a place of self-love, not self-loathing. From a place of strength, not fragility. And from a place of courage, not fear.

Get to know yourself in the same way you’d get to know another, warts and all. Fix as much as you can, but always, always, with the compassion, you’d extend to your own child. If you wouldn’t hate your child for helping them recognize a character flaw that they should work on, why should you hate yourself? Life is cruel, and people are cruel. Don’t be cruel to yourself. Be kind and caring toward yourself as you do the hard work of self-discovery. With time, you’ll come to see that yes, you could have done and been better. And so could those who have done you harm. You can’t change them, but you can change yourself. Give yourself the freedom to grow into an even better person than you already are.

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