Responding to Criticism

Criticism is a reality whether we like it or not. We can work to become more of a contributor to the solution by decreasing our own criticizing ways - but you and I know that many people are not interested in changing their ways.

So what do we do when someone levels criticism at us?

My first instinct is to give up, defend myself or lash out. This is why first instincts are often so destructive. Here are some other options:

First and foremost, get curious about the source of the criticism. Some critics are not worth your engagement. Critics on social media do not know us and we do not know them. People who we know only tangentially, or who have taught us that they are unreliable narrators, or dare I say it? People you already do not trust? These folks are not going to be helpful to engage with - even if their criticism may have validity. It is ok to tell the truth and admit that sometimes there are people we simply cannot accept feedback from. It’s ok to know this and act on it. Don’t take the bait!! Save your conversations for folks who have invested in your life and have earned your trust.

Is the criticism of an anonymous or random critic valid? Maybe. File it away or take it to trusted individuals for processing. But without a trusting relationship, the exchange of information will be less than helpful. Particularly when there are witnesses to the criticism, and if the witnesses are reliable sources, we can ask them for feedback. We can pause to prepare and consider the criticism.

When the deliverer of the criticism does a super bad job, is an unreliable narrator, or a stranger - we can redeem the exchange for good, even if we feel as if the criticism was unfair. Many times I have learned from criticism and applied it in future relationships, even if the delivery system was faulty. I may do my due diligence and discover that their criticism was not supported by others who know me well AND discover legitimate issues that need to be addressed.

Criticism is hard to take - that’s for sure. But we can grow into a more secure, comfortable way of living with criticism as we find acceptance of our own humanity and reduce our need for perfection or approval.

How do you handle criticism? What can you change that will help you in situations when you are criticized?

Receiving Criticism

I am so old. Over the years, probably less times than many people I know, I have received criticism via social media or in a group or during a one-on-one session. I am learning how to tell the difference between criticism and contribution. A person who wants to contribute responds from a place of empathy. They are not reacting. They learn how to discuss what they perceive needs changing with constructive tips and suggestions for change. Criticism usually involves name calling. It lacks curiosity or clarifying. It is rigid and refuses to consider other options. My professional and personal growth is always enriched by the contribution of others. But criticism is often more about the person who is complaining than the person being criticized.

If we want to help someone change in a situation, we are wasting our breath and perhaps doing more harm than good until we learn how to be a contributor rather than a criticizer. What can you do to become a bigger contributor?

Turning into what you despise

One night over dinner we had an interesting discussion about power dynamics. My youngest, who is working as a barista, was lamenting the many ways he has seen customers treat baristas and other service providers over the years. He also expressed some feelings about how managers or owners of the small shops where he has worked either create a environment of safety or not, based on their capacity to lead.

Our daughter, who is a bit further up the food chain in her job, shared her perspective as it related to being a manager. Oftentimes a manager has to implement a decision that they vehemently disagreed with behind closed doors with others in higher authority. A decent manager, in her opinion, throws herself in front of the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune of having to present an unpopular idea to a team. She believes you protect your superiors, which means that sometimes team members blame their supervisor for decisions the supervisor doesn’t agree with. She says she learned this from her best bosses over the years. Ahhhh, perspective.

Whether we are the boss or the employee, we all have an instinct about power dynamics. It’s human nature. The less power we perceive we have, the more likely we are to distrust authority. Our son, who perceives he has no power, wants the people with power to learn how to do better. Our daughter, with a teeny tiny bit more authority, ALSO feels sympathy for the authority figures who have tough calls to make.

This led to a discussion about what that looks like. I pushed my son, asking what he would do differently if he were the owner or boss. To which he said, “You know, the thing that concerns me is that I am worried I might turn into my worst boss rather than live up to the quality of my best ones. It just seems to me that power can be very corrosive; sometimes we become the person we once judged.”

Wow. Yes. As we grow and have more responsibility, maybe even a bit more authority, we might want to consider how we have automatically adopted some of the practices we hated when we had no power. Or, we can use our authority to be the boss we wanted, not necessarily the boss we were given over the years. This can be applied to parenting, in a marriage, or of course, at work.

Who are you imitating? How can you live out the way you want to be treated rather than repeat the mistakes that you criticize in others?

Exhaustion breeds criticism

Ever notice how tensed up we get when we are tired and cranky? It happens. In recovery, we talk about HALT - do not get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired - for that is a slippery slope.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

~ Matthew 11:28-30 NIV

Jesus is not a fan of exhaustion. He is not looking for an army of codependent Christians who do not practice self-care.

Jesus said - rest.

How can you add rest to your day? Remember - this is not exhausted slumber or power naps. This is rest for the soul. How might you find a way to rest?


#17 - Contribute!

It’s not enough to squash our tendency to criticize - if we want to grow and change. We need to learn how to be a helper. Here is what a helper can do:

* Effective helpers do not criticize.

* Effective helpers learn how to offer feedback, when asked, with clarity, kindness and support.

* Effective helpers are those who do not talk about a problem without being willing to labor over a possible solution.

* Effective helpers are careful; they do not assume that their position is correct. They are curious, asking tons of questions before diving in and pointing out a problem. Oftentimes, when we hear another’s perspective, we realize that the problem is more complicated than our imagined solution can handle or maybe the solution is better than we realized.

* Effective helpers do not try to solve problems that aren’t theirs to solve. They save their helping energy for issues that they have earned the right to speak into, they have sweat equity in the solution, and they have earned the seal of trustworthiness.

Are you as effective as you’d like to be? If not, what do you need to find support and skills to help change and grow?

Other people's inventories

Criticism is a sure fire way to slow progress. I’m not talking about feedback, or brainstorming, or even making an honesty inventory of our strengths and weaknesses. Criticism is never helpful. Let’s be clear - there may be times when we think we are being helpful. But if there is a hint of criticism, your best efforts at helpfulness are blown before you even start. There are times when our fears or insecurities are handled using the misdirection of criticism. This will not make us less afraid or more secure.

Signs that you might be a critic: People do not respond well to your feedback, you say things like, “I am just being honest,” you might be told you are negative or your standards are unattainable. Sometimes we sneak criticism in sideways. “You may not know this but SOME PEOPLE think/feel that You….” Not EVER helpful. It’s the equivalent of Christian saying “Somebody is going up the stairs.” It’s a LOT cuter on a two year old than an adult.

Are you concerned about an issue or for a person? That’s kind of you. Do other people’s problems make you nervous or freak you out? Beware. You might be moving into codependency territory.

Criticism, at its heart, is a way to distract ourselves or others from our own shortcomings, insecurities, and fears. There’s just no useful place for it. We do not need to criticize ourselves and we certainly do not need to criticize others.

There are very few relationships that rise to the level of accountability that make us the people responsible for criticizing another person.

How do we set aside criticism and learn how to be helpful when there is an issue that needs addressing? We’ll deal with that tomorrow. For today, notice if you are distracted from taking your own moral inventory by finding what you perceive is “missing” in others.

Criticism Precedes Crisis

Another predictor of marital mayhem is criticism.  This is different than a good old fashioned lament or complaint.  A criticism is when we take a complaint and turn it into an indictment of another’s personality.  Maybe you are upset that your spouse drinks sodas and lines the cans up on the counter (as opposed to throwing them in the recycling bin).  Suppose I am irritated with my husband about this habit (which is totally bogus because he doesn’t drink soda in a can but work with me).

A criticism might sound like this:  “What is wrong with YOU? Why do you line up these empty soda cans like tin soldiers on my brand new quartz countertop?  Why are you so inconsiderate?”

A complaint on the other hand might go like this:  “I hate the irritated way I react when I come into the kitchen and we have an army of soda cans lined up on the countertop. I need us to find a better way to honor our desire to recycle without leaving the cans on the counter for days.”

See the difference?  Option one accuses, option two admits stuff (true stuff) about myself and expresses what I need.

In healthy marriages there is plenty to complain about but spouses are careful to not criticize.  This is a skill set we can learn and practice.

When I spoke to a couple recently and suggested this principle the wife rolled her eyes and said something like this.  “For God’s sake, don’t be such a pansy. There is nothing wrong with telling someone who is a dumba** that they are one.”  All I can say is this response is indicative of a future marital parting of the ways.

There is a healthy way to complain about something without criticizing.  What would work in your situation?


Pointing out other people's problems can be costly

In our community we work hard to be students in the field of addiction and recovery.  Our community was founded on the big dream that families suffering from addiction, abuse, trauma and mental health issues needed a safe place to explore spirituality that suits their unique needs.  We felt there were many wonderful worshiping communities that supported the perspective that “Every day with Jesus is better than the day before.”  We wanted to be a place where it would be ok to say, “My life sucks; I want to know what God has to say about that.” Recently we were presented with the idea that calling another person an “addict” or “alcoholic” is shaming.  We offered families new language and suggested they try on this phrase, “My loved one suffers from a substance use disorder.”  My Lord, you would have thought we had suggested that the Pope wasn’t Catholic. Change is hard.  People pushed back.  Folks in recovery said, “Hey, I’m not ashamed; I identify with the label addict/alcoholic, whatever my ism is.  Why pretty it up?”  Family members said, “Hey, it took me ten years to acknowledge his/her addiction, are you suggesting that I pretend they AREN’T ADDICTED?”  Plenty of frustration and attitude came with the feedback - until I offered further explanation.  So the next time I pitched this idea, I said all the usual blah blah blah of new language and shame reduction, and then I said this:  “Hey, it’s like this.  If I ask my husband:  do I look fat in this outfit?  And he responds yes - that’s on me.  I own the fact that he responded to my feedback request.  BUT IF HE SAYS WITHOUT MY SOLICITING INPUT, ‘Babe, your backside is the size of Texas.’  Life at the McBean house is going to get very chilly.”


Everyone went, “Oh.” And from that day forward, there was no pushback.


Here’s the principle:  we are a community that practices reciprocity.  We are usually a fairly safe place to tell the truth.  I introduced a new concept but didn’t explain it clearly.  They taught me that I needed to improve my communication.  We kept working together and ultimately they showed me how I could illustrate a pretty big recovery point:  There are things we can (and arguably should) say about ourselves but are not as ok with having said about us. 


Reciprocity is a way to learn how to help us all grow up without a side order of growing resentful.  Do you have skills that make reciprocity possible?  What skills might those be? 

Stay tuned...


Humility and the willingness to change our minds is a gift.  I want to be the person who can listen to feedback and learn from it.  But there is a distinction between receiving feedback and paying attention to harsh criticism from strangers (or people who you know do not know you even if they have met you).  It’s like that old quote about porn, I may not be able to define it but I recognize it when I see it.  And in this way, there is a sometimes intangible but distinct difference between feedback and judgmental criticism. 


Example.  When criticism from strangers is in play, because of what I have learned from Brown’s work, I have a note I refer to that says, “Teresa, if the criticism doesn’t come with a reciprocity agreement, return to sender.”  Shortcut phrase that sometimes works to remind me of my core values:  reciprocity. 


Translation:  In my community we operate as equals.  No one is an expert.  We are all Bozos on the bus and we love Bozos.  We try not to crosstalk or tell each other what to do (although we slip often and forgive regularly our slips).  We try to stay in the #metoo space of relationship.  We are all equals, we all have something to contribute, we don’t boss each other around, we do practice giving and receiving feedback in safety.  Reciprocity goes like this:  “Hey, I read that you said this ______ and I am wondering if it might mean that you hate Jesus.  Do you?”  That statement invites reciprocity - a conversation.  Or, “Hey, from what I experienced of you when you did _____, I doubt whether or not you know anything about spiritual transformation.  Do you?”  Again, a bit critical for a sensitive soul, but still, it invites reciprocity.  It invites a conversation, not condemnation.  If someone I do not even know tries to tell me who I am then it is okay to return that comment to the sender without spending valuable energy on it.  However, if my husband or my kids or my best friend tells me I do not love Jesus and I know absolutely nothing about spiritual transformation I better sit down, pour the coffee and ask hard questions about myself.  How do you process criticism and feedback?  Do you make distinctions re: source?


Tomorrow, more on the nature of reciprocity...

What happens after a relational offense?

In addition to following Brene Brown through her words and imitating her ways, I practice this thing I call reciprocity.  Reciprocity is nothing more than a phrase that reminds me of core principles that I hope to live by in the heat of my own freak out moments.  For example.  I get an email which explains to me how I hate Jesus and clearly know nothing about spiritual transformation.  I feel automatically defensive, irritated and worried - Is she right?  I mean, she could be. This is what happens to anyone who dares to put themselves out there in the world.  There will ALWAYS be folks who criticize.  And since Brene admits that she used to listen to her critics (even though it is a bad idea and she tries not to do so now), I can certainly follow suit:  it is hard for me not to doubt myself when others are telling me I should.  Vulnerability teaches me that I can acknowledge that I am tempted to give criticism from strangers sway in my sense of self-worth.  There.  I said it.


It isn’t enough for me anymore to know this about myself without developing some skills to change my response.  How about you?  Are you ready to change some aspects of yourself that do not serve you well?


Tomorrow we are going to talk about a skill I practice to help me weather criticism in a way that is constructive.

On Being Brave

Recently I received an email criticizing me for a particular course we were offering in our community.  This person evidently is on our mailing list.  It felt great.  Not the criticism, no, I do NOT like to be criticized but it turns out I have other feelings as well about criticism and THAT is what felt great.


In Brene’ Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness she opens up about her own fears and uncertainties.  In particular, when her research teaches her that she will “challenge long-held beliefs or ideas” (p.3), she confesses to self-doubt and fear.  Her plan of action, an antidote really, for this kind of personal freakout, is to “search for inspiration from the brave innovators and disrupters whose courage feels contagious.  I read and watch everything by them or about them that I can get my hands on...I do this so that when I need them, when I’m living in my fera, they come to sit with me and cheer me on.” (p.3)  For me, Brene is one of MY go-to peeps for times like these.


So it was GREAT when I received the email while I was studying Braving.  Brene has all sorts of amazing vocab and stories to help us figure out how to be brave especially in the midst of criticism.  Read her book.  It is so good!  What I love the most about her work is that she teaches me that brave does NOT equal fearlessness.  It doesn’t have to mean we are instantly calm and kind and cool in the face of criticism. 


Brave as illustrated by Brown means that we keep plugging away; we learn stuff; we develop strategies that allow us to practice bravery even when we feel like a chicken.  She harps, quite eloquently, on this thing called vulnerability and it is working for her.  So I will continue to follow her lead.


Along the way, I have a couple phrases of my own that I have incorporated, and tomorrow we will talk about one of them.  In the meantime, let me ask you:  how do you feel when a stranger criticizes you, your work, and/or your character?

PS.  Here’s hoping you totally cannot relate to criticism from strangers!!