The Good Life – On Accepting Criticism

I think that no matter how mature we may be, or how many life experiences we have had, accepting criticism is something that rarely comes easily to human beings. Unfortunately, this is usually true, even if the criticism is totally constructive, valid, and delivered with the best of intentions.

Perhaps criticism tends to sting so much because many of us have had unfortunate experiences with being on the receiving end of unjust critical remarks, such as remarks delivered in anger or frustration. The unkind remarks could have been delivered with the intent to bully, hurt, harass, or demean. These remarks ?- and this is a key point to keep in mind -? certainly say more about the person delivering them than their intended recipient.

We have all heard the schoolyard saying that goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Of all the trite aphorisms that get passed around, this one is possibly the most egregiously untrue. Words can harm. They can cut a person to the bone, as effectively and efficiently as knives. And the words can leave an invisible scar. Perhaps, it is this scar that causes so many of us to be over-sensitive to anything we perceive as a criticism or a slight.

In truth, though, having the ability to discern the difference between criticism and insult is a vital skill for us to have. Thoughtful criticism of the ways we do things (at school, at work, in the course of our personal relationships, etc) has the potential to transform and elevate us. No matter how perceptive we may be, it is always difficult to see ourselves clearly. Insights into ways we can improve, coming from fresh eyes, can provide a revelation and an unveiling of the self.

If we are honest with ourselves and confident, we can gain valuable insights even from people who do not necessarily have our best interest at heart or whom we do not greatly respect. One of the first jobs I held was as a secretary in a large office. I was a temporary replacement for the person who was training me. She was leaving on maternity leave. Right off the bat, I had the perception that she “hated” me. It seemed to me that she would criticize my every move. She made me so angry, and undermined my confidence so frequently, that I would often go home from work in tears. It was only years later, after much more experience, that I realized that my feelings toward her uncharitable and hyper-critical manner had obscured the fact that she actually had had some very insightful advice about how to organize myself. In retrospect, I realize that if I had taken note of her advice, I would have saved myself a lot of future anguish.

I think the trick is to know ourselves well enough to understand our weaknesses and our strengths, our gifts and our faults. When we can do this, we can hopefully discern the difference between a worthless remark that should be discarded as the projection of someone else’s issues, and a potentially valid insight into something about ourselves that could be improved.