How to Receive Criticism and Still Enjoy Your Day
Fear of rejection is a social animal’s worst fear: when your species survival depends on cooperation, you become hypersensitive for all the clues towards or away from belonging: validation, affirmation, appreciation and reward.
So when there is criticism coming at you and you haven’t done your homework on how to respond, you’re most likely to be unhappy about the words you hear or read, and likely to respond in ways that will further make you - and the others concerned - unhappy.
Before we look at happy-making strategies of response, let’s take a look at criticism, as not all criticism is equal. As we human behaviour in general, what a person does doesn’t always weigh as much as why a person does it. “Why” has two components to it: cause, and purpose.
So when you are at the receiving end of criticism, and have time to ponder (before replying to a comment, for example), become curious about the “why”: What causes the person to say what they do, and with what purpose.
Purpose-wise, criticism comes to either lead to improvement, in which case we call that “constructive criticism”, or it’s meant to cause pain, in which case we call it many other things, including “destructive criticism”, “trolling”, “put-down” and so forth. Criticism is aimed at one’s behaviour, at an object: someone’s athletic performance; someone’s acting; someone’s cooking. When directed at a person, when it’s personal, it is not criticism but an insult, and an act of violence.
For example, it is one thing to say to a baker: “Your cake dough is uncooked and gooey” (criticism is directed at an object) or “Your baking skills suck” (criticism addressing a behaviour); and it is another thing to say: “You are a lousy baker” (criticism directed at the person).
When someone offers you a value judgement or some specific criticism regarding something you did or do, with a clear purpose of improvement, accept it as a gift, and start by thanking the person for it. Then inquire into what could be improved and how.
When someone’s criticism is not clear to you whether it’s a gift or an attack:
1- Do not make the assumption that it’s an attack. Easier said than done when you have trauma or such past conditioning about criticism. And even if you have a rather intense emotional response to the criticism, just because you feel a certain way does not reflect the intention of the sender. So do not make any assumptions, make yourself not know, and stay curious.
2 - Ask for clarification: “What makes you say that?” The answer usually makes it clear if the person tried to help you improve or to cause you pain.
When it is clear to you that the criticism directed at you is an attack, consider this: in most cases the attack is unconscious, and emerges from the attacker’s own pain. So someone whose parents were harshly critical when they were young, might repeat the parents’ pattern and say something to you in order to shame you, and they aren’t aware that this is what they’re doing. People hurt each other every day with words without a conscious intention to inflict pain, but out of unconscious reaction. When that happens, your response can help the attacker bring the motive of their behaviour from the shadow of their mind into the light of their awareness. Simply ask:
“Are you saying this in order to shame me?”
If you’re dealing with someone who values personal growth, they may - after an initial discomfort - actually thank you for your inquiry, as it will bring out an insight from within themselves.
When the criticism emerges out of the attacker’s hate, you need to play the game by other rules. Hate is different than anger: anger fuels action towards some justice or repairs, whereas hate arises with the desire to inflict pain (physical or emotional).
A hate attack will seek to belittle you, undermine you, doubt yourself, will attack your sense of self and identity, will gaslight you (cause you to doubt your own reasoning and instincts). Here are a few options to consider with hate attacks:
1 - Do not engage with the attacker. Step aside. Unfriend, unfollow, divorce, leave, go away. If someone’s engagement has as its purpose inflicting pain, unless you have strong reasons to want to engage with them, and have brilliant negotiation skills, keep out of the way of this person’s attacks. I wish I knew this years ago…
2- If circumstances prevent you from disengaging, two things will help you deal with the attack and still enjoy your day: the words “Yes and” and humour.
Comedy improvisation is entirely based on the “Yes, and…” principle: you agree with whatever is coming at you, any line, any statement, and you run with it. If you practice Aikido, you will find a similarity there, in the agreeing to the attack. Both practices build mindful spontaneity which is rooted in compassion and joy. Humour diffuses the tension, and when applied skilfully, it turns hate into laughter. “Yes, and…” means you first agree to the attack, and then take it somewhere else more constructive.
This part was explored, as a game, in the last Embodied Connection Games circle of 2020 (an Embodiment Circle Online): participants practiced a “wrong round” first, getting defensive, disagreeing to the criticism, returning the insult and all the usual self-defeating strategies we all do unconsciously, but done intentionally and with humour, playfully. Then there was a “Yes, and…” round, with even more fun and laughter.
Let’s try some examples. Let’s name the two categories of response “Unhappy” (as they are bound to make defender and attacker unhappy) and “Happy” as they are your chance for still enjoying your day even after being nastily criticized or insulted.
Unhappy response: “How dare you speak to me like that!” Or, “Jerk!”
Happy response: “Woof!”’
Attack: “Your food tastes horrible”
Unhappy response: “That’s what you have to say after I’ve cooked for you the whole day?” Or; “I’ll never cook for you again” Or: “Your food isn’t much better” - you get the idea.
Happy response: “Yes! Thank you! My food is tastes so horrible I’ve been approached by hit men to sell it to them as poison for their targets, and the pay is fantastic!”
One strategy I learned from Paul Linden, Aikidoist, philosopher and linguist, founder of “Being in Movement” is to ask for help in response to criticism.
Attack: “You have bad posture”
Happy response: “Yes, thank you! And I admire your posture. I wish I had a good posture like yours. How do you do it? Would you help me with some movement exercise that will help me improve the way I stand, sit and walk?”
This should give you some good tools to practice and get you better prepared to deal with criticism, as well as, covertly encouraging you to only offer constructive criticism when it’s appropriate, requested and useful.
If you have more strategies for happily dealing with attacks, write them in comments, as well as any criticism directed at mine.