I have bristles.
You probably have them too.
They come out when someone says something to me that is critical or that I interpret as a criticism.
When they are activated, these bristles set off a chain of internal feelings, thoughts, and physical symptoms. It’s amazing how one comment can’t set this complicated system in motion.
All at once, you might feel hurt, anger, embarrassment, shame, or indignant.
Mentally, you quickly assimilate all of the necessary elements for your defense, your contrary evidence, and possibly a counter-offensive.You might calculate ways to deflect blame or turn the tables.
Physically, you feel tensed up, short of breath, on high alert, or sometimes totally deflated and teary.
All of this happens in a matter of seconds. The words are barely out of the person’s mouth before the bristles are up and the reactions are activated.
If the criticizer is someone close to you, someone with whom you have history, who knows your strengths and weakness, and who has a finger on your hot buttons, then this bristle activation system is super-charged. An avalanche of past feelings and old hurts crashes down on you.
And whether or not the criticizer knows what they are doing, criticism (even if it is well-intended or constructive) rarely brings out our best qualities.
More often than not, our internal response to criticism results in external behavior that is less than stellar. We have the common knee-jerk reactions to deny, defend, deflect, and attack back.
Or if the criticism is proffered by someone in authority, where it would harm us further to have those knee-jerk reactions, then we attempt to shove it down. In addition to feeling hurt and anger, we feel bad about ourselves. Our self-confidence takes a hit because we can’t even properly defend ourselves or let this person know what a jerk they are.
As with every other negative experience, criticism provides an opportunity for learning, renewal, and personal evolution — if we choose to walk that path.
We can view criticism as a random bomb that has exploded in our wake, or we can transform it for our betterment.
Yes, we will always feel the sting of criticism in the immediacy of the moment. But knowing that criticisms are inevitable in life, you can plan ahead and develop some coping skills for the moment and a strategy for later when the bristles have receded.
Here is a simple plan for dealing with criticism:
1. Immediate Reaction
When it happens, and the bristle system is activated, do everything in your power to prevent yourself from saying something defensive, ugly, or reactive. Take a deep breath, and count to twenty to allow the first flood of feelings to pass.
If a response is absolutely called for, then say something like, “Wow, I need to think about that for a few minutes.” If you are so overwhelmed with anger or hurt, then excuse yourself from the person’s presence — not by stomping away, but by saying something like, “Your comment has caused a flood of emotions. I need to step away to process them for a few minutes.”
The goal is to avoid saying or doing anything in the moment that you will regret later or that will compromise your dignity or integrity. This takes some practice and skill, but it is well worth the effort.
2. Consider the Source
When enough time has passed, and your emotions have calmed down, think about the person who criticized you. Do you value this person’s opinion? Was the criticism presented kindly and constructively? Was there any manipulation or meanness behind the comment? Was the person under pressure or stress? Was it the result of an argument or disagreement?
Come to some rational conclusions about this person, how much you respect them, and the context in which the comment was made. This will shed some light on the real power and legitimacy of the source so that you can fairly decide whether to dismiss it altogether or give it further th0ught and consideration.
3. Look for Truth
This is the hard part, because it involves taking an honest look at yourself. But this can also be the greatest opportunity for growth if you are willing to be real with yourself. Ask yourself, “Is there any truth to this criticism?” Is this a criticism that you have heard before? Did it sting because you feel there is truth behind it?
If you have a few close friends or family members whom you trust, ask them whether or not they see truth in the criticism. It hurts to hear validation that the criticism has merit, but it also opens your eyes to a need for growth and change.
If the criticism is related to your work or something you are creating, it is still wise to ask for a second or third opinion to provide additional perspective.
Most often, criticisms are only partly true. They are generally skewed by the criticizer’s own emotions and perceptions. But addressing the issue is still necessary in order to preserve or nurture the relationship (if that’s worthwhile).
4. What Have You Learned?
After you have spent some time thinking about the criticizer and the possible truth or the amount of truth behind the criticism, it’s time to find the take-away.
If there is truth to the criticism, how do you want to change? What can you do to change? Knowing that there is truth, you may need to offer an apology. You may need to show a genuine effort to change.
If the criticism is related to work or a creative effort, you may need to re-group and formulate a better plan or a different idea. Maybe you need more research, better information, or simply to apply yourself more.
Whatever large or small piece of truth there is to the criticism, how can you apply it to your life to learn, evolve, become better at something? How can this criticism actually serve your greater good?
5. Circle Back
A criticism isn’t just about the behavior or work being criticized. It is about relationships as well. This is another huge opportunity for personal evolution. Who do you want to be in this situation?
If the criticizer is a trusted person whose opinion you respect and who offered the criticism constructively and with love, then go back to them with heartfelt appreciation. Share with them how you have learned and grown from their comment. If an apology is necessary, offer it. It will be restorative and positive for both of you.
If the criticizer had less than honorable motives, but the criticism held some truth, go back anyway and offer your thanks. Be the person you want to be in the situation, regardless of the criticizer’s motives or behavior. In light of your mature reaction, they may offer you an apology or healing words.
If the criticism was mean-spirited and untrue, you have a choice. If the relationship is important to you, then it will be your turn to offer a criticism. But present it gently and kindly, the way you would want to hear one. “What you said to me was hurtful and unkind. I reflected on it to see if there was truth to your words, but I found none. You need to know the impact your words have had on me.”
Or you can simply walk away and let it go. Sometimes this is the best option if you aren’t trying to preserve a relationship. Don’t give more negative energy or power to the situation by addressing it. The person might verbally attack again, only causing you further pain. It’s hard to walk away, but it is a choice from personal power, not weakness.
You won’t go through life without being criticized. It is inevitable. But knowing that, you can prepare yourself for your reactions. And you can step back, assess the criticism, and take a higher path for learning and personal evolution. It’s worth a try.
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