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Day 26. Calming Down Your Fear of Criticism

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In this class, I want to offer you a perspective on criticism that will help you, not only with outer critics but also when you hear critical chatter within from your inner critic.

The way to calm down fear of criticism isn’t to avoid it or to always agree with it; it’s start responding. Criticism is a muscle; the more you respond, the more you strengthen.

Criticism is a form of feedback. It’s not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; it’s just feedback. Not all criticism is constructive; a hell of a lot of it is inaccurate, and it’s not a court order to change who you are.

Feedback tells you about a person’s reactions to something which means that whatever you’re hearing is mostly informed on their perspective.

This is one of the most vital things you can learn about criticism: When a person criticises you, most of what they’re telling you as about how they see things. It tells you about their position, their perspective.

Criticism, especially when it lacks boundaries, tells you a hell of a lot more about that person than it does about you.

This is not to say that what they say isn’t useful (although not always depending on source and context) but criticism (and yes feedback), tells you one person’s view about the way in which they want you to do things.

If that person behaves in a way that makes it clear that they are a major stakeholder in you doing whatever they want (correcting what you’ve done to relieve the criticism), that criticism is biased. That criticism tells you one person’s view about the way in which they want you to do things for them.

It is an opinion, not a court order and no matter how useful a criticism might be, criticism only has limited use if what you do next has the bulk of you in it.

This means, a person can give you feedback, and yes, criticise you, but whatever you do next has to be you-oriented in the sense that it must be informed by your values, not about solely appeasing their ego or demands. If you treat that person as an authority on what is right or wrong with you as a person, you are letting what may be views that are informed by their own criticism of themselves, which may be quite well hidden from them, orient your journey.

When you feel wounded by a criticism, it is because on some level, you are already criticising you about that which means that because you are now learning to calm your inner critic and to be more compassionate, that you will no longer get as wounded. I’m not saying that it won’t hurt at times but what am I saying is that you will start to be more like, ‘Whoa! Hold up a frickin’ second here! That’s way off! That’s not mine, that’s theirs and I’m sending it right back!’

Equally, when people criticise, on some level, it’s about where there they themselves are critical and when that person lacks self-awareness, that criticism along with any irrational fears gets displaced on you. This doesn't mean that their criticism doesn’t contain nuggets of insight but it’s skewed due to the lack of self-awareness where they don’t take responsibility for their own feelings.

And that’s another thing - Criticism always contains really useful information. The mistake we make is thinking that it’s mostly telling us about us but even if the criticism is not true, we learn something about that person’s perspective.

The source, true motivations and boundaries of the critic, heavily influences not only the accuracy, but also how much you need to take it on board.

When your inner critic is too over-zealous, criticism, warranted or not, tends to automatically trigger a sense of being under attack, auto-acceptance, and compliance, or of knowing that it’s BS but remaining silent while secretly simmering. These either cause a great deal of anxiety or frustration, plus your responses affect your confidence  which impacts your self-esteem and self-image.

Criticism from an assertive, respectful source whether it’s justified or not – we all get it wrong sometimes – is not founded on trying to control you or take you down. That person will not have a vested interest in an end goal of making you compliant.

Healthy criticism has something that you can learn from.

Not all criticism is created equal. Every single criticism situation is unique and has something that you can learn from in the sense that each time you respond from a more boundaried place (so you don’t attack you), you are less sensitive to it.

It is too much to expect that you won’t feel wounded or even angry when you feel criticised. You are human. Most people feel some level of something even if it’s only temporarily. The difference is how you deal with the feelings and thoughts.

  • If you accept stuff as true without question, you will feel bad.
  • If you continue to see it purely as an attack, you will still feel bad.
  • If you know it’s not true but you say nothing, you will also still feel bad.

Ultimately, whichever of these three paths you choose, you learn nothing and you won’t support you.

The answer isn’t to keep responding to criticism as you always have or from a place of wanting to caretake that person’s feelings and behaviour so that you can limit their behaviour and criticism; the answer is to change the relationship that you have with criticism and step up.

1. Listen to what is being said.

Stay conscious, aware, and present. Have a go-to message that you train you to say when you experience the feelings that are triggered by that sense of being criticised. I say, ‘I am safe. I am secure’, or ‘It’s OK, just hear them out’, or ‘I’m OK’, or even, ‘Keep it together’. This gives you a chance to listen carefully and if you do, you will see what’s going on.

While there are instances when you are ‘under attack’ from an aggressive person (it will be exhibited in tone, language, body language etc) or a passive aggressive person (the smile and faux concern veiled with spiky comments and backhanded ‘compliments’ plus there’s often double standards too), in other instances, you’re not ‘under attack’ and you certainly won’t be if you maintain responsibility for your feelings and you don’t let inner criticism, conscious or semi-conscious, go unchecked.

2. If you’re unsure of what they mean, ask for clarification.

‘I’m not sure what you mean – could you re-explain please?’ or ‘Can you give me a specific example?’

3. A general criticism is not useful or respectful.

‘You’re too sensitive’, or ‘You really make me angry’, is that person not approaching you in an assertive never mind respectful manner. Some people are a bit grandiose or just expect to make an off the cuff statement and then you’re just supposed to go, “Um, OK then” and then capitulate to their demands or shuffle off and feel bad about yourself. Erm, NO. See above. Ask for clarification and specific examples.

Do not just accept these generalisations or or fill in the blanks. What you fill it in with may be totally different and what they say may actually be unjustified / inaccurate. You asking for clarification will unseat your average aggressive and passive aggressive person because they don’t like facts and having to back up what they say. No one is entitled to just come along and tell you all about yourself and not have to explain their damn selves. If, for example, they came back with, “Well, you make me really angry when you disagree with me”, you quickly see that the criticism is NOT about you.

4. Qualify the validity of the criticism.

Don’t automatically accept criticism and in fact, other people’s opinions, as ‘fact’. You must make a conscious decision on what the truth is and this governs your response. This is where the application of reasoning and knowledge is.

As you have been compliant with critics in the past, you must recognise that criticism from any passive aggressive and aggressive people in your life, stems from a place of trying to ‘put you down’ or manipulate you into complying and doing as they want.

5. Repeated criticism doesn’t make it valid.

Just because you’ve heard the criticism before, it does not mean that you don’t have to qualify the validity nor make a conscious decision about your subsequent response. The source and type of person actually has a lot to do with where there is a repeat criticism. I have only ever been accused of being “needy” or “too sensitive” by passive aggressive and aggressive people who as a result of me agreeing, would have had me complying in their favour.

6. Be mindful with part-truth criticism

It could be that you potentially get to learn something new about you or the other party but what you have to be careful of is assuming that part-truth means all true. This is like someone being asked to give an account of something that they’ve witnessed, for instance, at the scene of a crime. The fact that they are accurate about something does not mean that everything that they’ve said is accurate or even objective. Equally though, the reverse is assuming that because it’s partly false, it’s all false and going on the offensive. This is why it’s vital to get conscious and clarify the criticism with ownership.

‘I agree that sometimes I do go along with the consensus but I don’t do it all of the time’, or ‘Yes, sometimes I can be a bit sensitive about certain things and I recognise this but I’m not an over-sensitive person nor am I sensitive about everything. I am only human!’

7. If a criticism is completely true, try to own your own in as least a defensive way as possible.

Now it’s not always possible to do this immediately because sometimes we get defensive first and then think later, but when you’ve cooled down, gather your thoughts and make a decision about whether it’s true and see what you can do to learn from it.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to, ‘Well you ___________’ and then fire off a whole load of criticism bullets.

Remember, criticism helps you to grow. You either grow some more a person or grow away from another person!

8. If it’s appropriate, you can admit where you’re trying to make changes.

For example, ‘You’re right – I am being too agreeable and trying to dodge making a decision. It’s not because I don’t care or because I want to put it all on you – at the time I genuinely feel that I’m being easygoing. It’s something that I’ve only gradually become aware of recently. How does it affect you?’

9. Completely untrue criticism needs to be rejected, even if it’s in the privacy of your own mind.

Sometimes we don’t get to point out an inaccuracy because most of us aren’t quick to have the ‘perfect’ response plus, yeah, sometimes we feel wounded first, indignant later.

My favourite affirmation: That’s not mine, that’s theirs/his/hers {or insert the persons name}, I’m sending it back.

As a therapist friend pointed out to me, these statements to ourselves are important because 90% of our mind is unconscious and the mind accepts what we tell it. If we consistently refute inaccuracies and rebuttal with truth, we short circuit any leanings towards automatic and conscious self-rejection.

‘No, I don’t agree; I’m not over-sensitive. I haven’t given you a hard time when you’ve made other comments or even called me a name. This time, you are over the line.’

‘No, I don’t agree; I’m not needy. We’re in a relationship and you’ve said that you are committed to me and that you didn’t want me being involved with anyone else. If I’m expected to make that commitment, I expect you to make that commitment too and to demonstrate what you say with your actions.’

Remember, you are not trying to rule the person; you are making your opinions and feelings known both to them and to you.

You may not be in the position to rebuff the criticism but as long as you know the truth, that is the most important thing.

10. Don’t try to convince and convert the person if they won’t back down or agree with you.

It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong and the more that you try to convince them is actually the more that they’ll regard you with suspicion and turn whatever you say around to suit their position plus, they end up looking like an authority.

11. And for when someone is trying to displace their stuff on you…

“I don’t take responsibility for that”, shuts that shizzle right down. Or, “While I agree that ______________, what I don’t take responsibility for is _____________ and _____________.”

11. Feedback, including criticism, is two-way.

This is particularly useful for work. If you are criticised or your work is evaluated, just going, “Um, OK then” and shuffling off, is not a great way to sell yourself. I’m not saying that you need to argue but actually, if a coworker or boss does not understand your thought process and how you came to make decisions, they not only end up not learning much more about you but they don’t get to authenticate the accuracy of their criticism. Even if you have to make changes, you speaking up shows assertiveness skills that are valued when being considered for promotion or other projects. It can also cause them to be more open-minded.

12. Don’t be open to criticism from the same ole sources.

If you stop criticising you about the thing that an outer critic criticises you for, they lose their power. It also helps if you stop looking for their approval plus if you call them out on it when needed, the boundary is clear. For instance, my mom used to come to my home and make comments about the tidiness and whereas I used to feel wounded, I started pre-empting her criticisms. “I know you’re going to say, ‘Why don’t you dust more?’ or comment about the laundry, so let’s just get the comments out of the way now.” Because I was less critical of me, I could be genuinely humorous about it instead of it being resentful. I used this across lots of stuff and not only did the criticisms drop but she even slipped in a compliment from time to time. The key though is that when you do get a compliment, sure, acknowledge it but don’t fall over on it as if you haven’t had something to eat for six months!

13. Give criticism and feedback.

Respectfully but give it. You not giving feedback whether it’s good or bad, is the fastest way to ensure that you feel wounded when people give it to you. Have a stake in the world!

14. It’s OK to feel wounded but don’t let it linger.

Be compassionate and don’t feed criticism with more criticism. Either positively grow out of it or send it packing.

JOURNALING: How do you feel about the prospect of criticism now? Did you gain any new insights about past experiences of criticism, especially with a particular person? Thinking back to the start of this project, do you feel a bit more confident about handling criticism? Can you also see instances when you've treated a criticism as being the same as in the past and if so, what do you learn now that you can help you to heal with?

TASK: Come up with some pre-emptive humour for that special outer critic in your life that helps to diffuse that initial anxiety when you're around them but also lightly acknowledges the typical critical habit that they have?

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