I got a desperate call from a friend this morning. She had been stewing all night over a criticism and wanted my advice.
She passed the first test which is not to react or become defensive.
The next step is to remember that criticism is all about the criticizer. What were the motivations of the criticizer? Once we uncovered the motivation, she could decide what do with it.
This is not about criticism of ideas, which is a means of discourse (although I recognize that some criticisms devolve into personal attacks). This is about personal criticisms.
When to accept or reject personal criticism and is all about the motivation of the criticizer.
Criticisms to consider:
Those that come from love or expertise (but sometimes the love is disguised).
- Expert criticism/solicited advice. This is where you have engaged an expert, a boss, or an expert has reached out to you. Be receptive but recognize that the person giving the advice has a bias.
- Love wearing a “Fear” jacket. A lot of criticism (or unsolicited advice) comes from someone who loves you but is afraid of the path that you are taking. This type of criticism or advice often begins with “You should…” It comes from love, so consider it.
- Mistake. No one likes making mistakes. But if the criticism cuts deeply, and there are no apparent biases, it could be that you made a mistake and, sadly, we learn through our mistakes.
- Fixers. These people (and I am one of them) want to make things better. They are often perfectionists (guilty again). Consider these because they are usually coming from a genuine desire to help.
- Inadvertent criticism. This is where someone makes a statement, and you take offense to it even though it is not intended as a criticism. (For example, someone doesn’t know me mentions that she doesn’t like white dogs; and I have white dogs.) Own your sensitivity.
None of those categories fit the criticism that she received. Then we started to talk about criticisms that should be ignored.
Criticisms to ignore:
Many times criticizers are projecting their issues onto you. While you should ignore the feedback, the better angels of our nature can practice compassion.
- Emotional. This is coming from the criticizer’s mood or feelings in the moment, it could be fear, anger, pain, or just plain grumpiness. Pass.
- Critical/Judgmental Person. The goal is to find fault rather than help. Pass.
- Other Than. These criticisms come from those who see you as “other” and are threatened or uncomfortable. These are frequently generalizations. “You people” “Why can’t you….” This is often not directed at you, but your tribe. Definitely Pass.
- Self-Elevation. These people need to criticize others in order to feel good about themselves. They need compassion because they have such deep-rooted insecurities. Nevertheless, pass and avoid these people.
- Envy. Psychologists have a saying “follow the envy.” Therapists use envy to uncover a deep, unsatisfied need. But envy can also be used to understand criticism. If the criticism comes from envy, ignore it. After a lengthy conversation, my friend realized that this was the source of the complainant’s criticism.
My friend ended the conversation saying that she would try to put it in perspective, but she reminded me that even inappropriate criticism hurts. She’s right. And that may be the most important lesson of all.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.