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?

Resisting power plays

Editor’s note: The editor (Scott) forgot his computer on his recent trip to California and got behind on posting devotionals. My apologies to you loyal readers!

Although I enjoyed the dinner discussion on power dynamics in a system, I prefer focusing on the power we have that no one can touch. Each of us can mature into the belief that no matter the storms that brew around us, we can develop an awareness of our own self-worth, increase our capacity for self-awareness, and translate those powerful tools into treating others with respect. This gives us the wisdom we need to speak into situations where we may feel we have no power or feel the burden of responsibility as a person with authority within a system. We find ways to effect change without violating our own core values. Sometimes the only person that changes is us.

Whatever position we are in, we need to be rested in order to be well. Are you getting enough rest so that wisdom can emerge?

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest...let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:9-11, 16 NIV

We live in tumultuous times. One of the most wonderful things we can do is show up to any and every situation with a bit of wisdom, and a huge dose of mercy and grace.

Power and Belonging

Since the decision I made two years ago to return home to my daughter and trust my mother into the care of others my family has experienced some major relational shifts.  When I told my dad I was leaving, he stopped returning both texts and phone calls.  The only communication I have had with him since that day has been angry written communication clearly expressing his disappointment in me.  For my part, I have accepted this loss of belonging as necessary for my own mental health.  He says I abandoned him in his time of need; I would say that he made it impossible for me to belong.

In Brene’ Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, I gained some vocabulary for what happened when I made the tough call of having a strong back and soft front.  First, let me explain what that means to me.  I practiced having a strong back when I dug deep inside myself, through prayer and contemplation, to make my decision about whether to stay with or leave my mom on her deathbed to return to my daughter laboring away for days in a hospital bed. (And I asked all my loved ones and friends what to do and they told me to go home.) I took responsibility for deciding what the right decision was for me.  Second, I opened up my heart and was vulnerable enough to ask my family, my dad in particular, to grant me grace and mercy when I made that call.  I did not ask for approval, I asked for belonging.  I asked to belong in my family of origin even if I could not say yes to what my dad preferred - me staying on in Atlanta as my mother transitioned into her new life.  

Jen Hatmaker, a writer, pastor, philanthropist, and community leader (as described by Brene’ on p. 150 of Braving the Wilderness) is quoted by Brene’ in a written response to Brene’ Brown’s inquiry to Hatmaker asking Jen to describe her own experience of receiving a hostile response from her own tribe when she addressed her support of LGBTQ rights and inclusion.  Here is what Hatmaker wrote:

Speaking against power structures that keep some inside and others outside has a cost, and the currency most often drafted from my account is BELONGING.  Consequently, the wilderness sometimes feels very lonely and punishing, which is a powerful disincentive.  

Page 151, Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Power.  It shows up in many forms.  Pay attention.  Parents have power.  Bosses have power.  Anyone who has the capacity to strip you of your “belonging” card has power.  Let’s get real - sometimes it is necessary to detach from relationships.  That’s not the point of this post - although it is a crucial relationship issue that is worthy of thoughtful consideration. (I’ll tackle that one tomorrow.) Today’s point is this:  notice how we use BELONGING as a way to keep people “in line”.  Notice how we use it as a weapon to disincentivize conversations that challenge the status quo.  The vendor tried to use the power of belonging to distract from a crucial conversation about her job performance by suggesting that there was something relationally disconnected between her and my kid. (They didn’t have a relationship, get it?  But it is still a powerful weapon to use against people who value relationships.) My father withdrew relationship as a punishment for my failure to do what I had habitually done - come running when he called.  Belonging is a beautiful thing, but sometimes our ASSUMPTION that we belong is proven to be an illusion when we exercise our strong back and make tough calls that are not popular.