How to Survive Being Scolded

Surviving criticism when every rebuke feels like a death blow.

Posted Feb 14, 2012

I was scolded today. I dislike being scolded. I imagine that everyone dislikes being scolded, but maybe not. Maybe some who love themselves don't mind. Maybe some even welcome being criticized as a chance to flex their self-defense skills or even prove themselves superior. Oh yeah? Screw you!

Some people like to spar. Just because I cannot imagine this does not mean it cannot be true. Some people thrive on friction, conflict, strife. They have a talent for antagonism. Scold them and it might inspire them. Scold them and it might make them feel strong.

When I am scolded I feel like imploding, crumpling ever inward with the slow sad glint of that thin foil in which Hershey's kisses are wrapped. It shines like steel but crushes at a touch.

We who hate ourselves are forever waiting to be scolded, reprimanded, criticized. Like the condemned, we pace behind bars shuddering with rage and resignation. Those who reprimand us do not know that Your report is overdue or This soup needs salt can be death blows, because we have said worse to ourselves all our lives, much worse, and each such word left a wound.

We walk around half-savaged all the time.

Because we hate ourselves, the slightest sign of disapproval from another, almost any other -- from the CEO to the tantrum-wracked toddler to the raving ragged wastrel in the park wagging a finger in our direction -- undoes us. Because we believe we pass for normal, if we pass for normal, only through elaborate deception or invisibility, the slightest hint of disapproval makes us feel as if we have been caught red-handed. Exposed. Apprehended. Klieg lights in our eyes, we fall to our knees, seen once and for all for what we are.

We know, even if they do not, that they might as well pull out the stops and call us stupid, ugly and worthless outright. We could help them. We could spell it out, get it over with, save them the future shock of disappointment once they see how wholly unacceptable we are. Coming out right now with our hands over our heads, we could simply confess.

But instinct demands self-defense. Like cornered animals, we want to snarl and scratch, to fight -- although we think we have no right. Rebuked, we are torn between two extremes: collapse or kill. We cannot see anything in between. We are at once battling for our very lives and waving limp white flags. This war is ostensibly between us and our critics, but whose side are we on? We fight against them but also beside them. We are at once their foes and comrades-in-arms. Whatever weaponry they bring we can outman. Oh yeah? You say I suck? Well, LET ME TELL YOU how I suck!!

We have already beaten our critics. We have won because we have lost.

Call us thin-skinned. Call us hypersensitive. Call us whatever -- and we who hate ourselves will call that criticism too.

How then can we respond responsibly to criticism? First, by stepping back. Observe the situation as would a neutral observer. To what degree is the criticism accurate? This is the hard part. It might take a lifetime to achieve just this: Discern to what degree your critic is correct, and to what degree he or she means harm. Inasmuch as your critic is correct, resist the urge to lump this criticism in with all the other criticisms you have ever received in your life, from others and especially yourself. Resist the thought that this lone rebuke reveals or proves anything conclusive about you. Breathe. Resist the urge to fall on your sword.

Inasmuch as your critic is correct -- this time and only this -- is it too late to right your wrong? To what degree can you play reasonable catchup? Breathe. Apologize, but briefly and sincerely -- not as if you're begging for your life. If time permits repairs, then do your best. This is the meaning of humility, that healing space between screaming and sulking and seppuku. Do your best, then move on, facing straight ahead.