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Get Some Perspective On Criticism & Conflict

I’m going to lay bets that you’re in one of three camps:

a) The I’m Afraid Of All Criticism & Conflict & Take It All To Heart Camp

b) The I’m An Equal Opportunity Battler Camp

c) The I’m Afraid Of Conflict/Criticism Unless It’s In a Situation Where I Feel In Control (like at work) Camp

Why do I say this? Because nobody who has self-esteem issues is hot on dealing with criticism and conflict. When there are some areas of your life where you will handle them, it’s likely because you’re the boss or for whatever reason, you feel more powerful and self-assured. In fact, you may only feel tempted to rise to the conflict or criticism occasion when you think that you can ‘win’.

It’s critical if you’re going to continue to build your self-esteem and actually get on with the business of living and enjoying your life that you get to grips with your beliefs, feelings, and attitudes about criticism and conflict. I’m not expecting you to be all singing and dancing at the prospect of them, after all, who is unless they’re someone who relishes the prospect of taking someone down to Chinatown and opening up a can of whoopass?

Most people and I do literally mean most, have some level of fear of criticism and conflict including people who to you seem very confident. Most people on the planet aren’t Teflon coated and we all have our ‘hotspots’, the things that will speak to our insecurities or light a match to the petrol of our tempers or argumentative sides. This is human. We all want to be accepted and none of us cope very well with what we perceive as being rejected, which is why the issue of rejection is so closely linked to criticism and conflict.

Change how you feel about you, change your perspective on criticism and conflict, which in turn contributes to helping to change your perspective on rejection, which in turn reduces the amount of self-rejection you indulge in, which in turn increases your happiness and confidence in your capability to handle life’s bumps.

Let me give it to your straight: criticism and conflict are completely unavoidable.

You can avoid them in the sense that you suppress your opinion, needs, desires, and expectations and people-please, apologise even when you’ve not done anything wrong, and even allow people to take advantage of and abuse you, but you will still experience conflict and criticism and in fact, you will experience even more because you’ll be feeling like crap and still having to go through life and not having the self-esteem to cope with it.

Now you can make a choice right here: You can experience the inevitable criticism and conflict in life and grow your self-esteem which will strengthen your C-situation (conflict and criticism situation) muscles and handling skills or you can experience the inevitable criticism and conflict in life and get flattened out like a doormat because you won’t step up.

Having self-esteem and dodging all C-situations are mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other and if you choose the latter, it’s like a gradual crushing of your soul because you will not make your opinions known and you certainly won’t step up for your own needs and assert your boundaries.

Let’s look at criticism first.

Criticism is in essence an expression of disapproval based on perceived faults or mistakes. ‘Perceived’ is very important here – it’s based on the person’s perception of things and it may or may not come from a realistic or even respectful place. That and it’s just their perception.

Why do people struggle with / take issue with criticism?

  • Because the criticism speaks to something that they already think and may even agree with.
  • Because we have unrealistic expectations of what people should say to and about us.
  • Because it’s unfair / partially true.
  • Because we ourselves are dishonest about our true feelings and hold back criticism.
  • Because we feel disapproved of and in turn rejected.
  • Because we feel that we have to ‘do’ something.
  • Because we’re reminded of another chief critic in our life / from our past.
  • Because we forecast negative consequences.

Because the criticism speaks to something that they already think and may even agree with.

While criticism is upsetting when it’s unfounded, I think where it can become particularly upsetting is when you actually agree with it. This can leave you feeling exposed or even embarrassed because now this person is pointing out something that you feel that you ‘should’ have addressed and in turn you’re automatically giving you a hard time for not ‘fixing’ it before they said something. When you’re inclined to be quite hard on yourself, you’re already judging you for the very thing that they’ve mentioned so you assume that they’re judging you for it too and then your mind goes into overdrive imagining that they feel the same way that you do. Actually they could very easily just be expressing an opinion based on an observation. If you take the criticism to heart, you’ll decide that you’ve ‘obviously’ gone down in their estimation and that they’re rejecting you, which is actually more projection than anything else. From the moment you’re judging you, you’re not listening anyway.

Let’s also not forget that if you have low self-esteem then you have unhealthy beliefs and you may be aligning yourself with people who reflect your unhealthy beliefs while validation seeking. This all leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you believe X, you think and act like a person who believes X which affects your choices and ends up confirming your beliefs. You may also be choosing people who reflect your beliefs so that you can try to get them to challenge those very beliefs which is basically setting you up to fail. You may even be choosing people who you have to work really hard to get what may be non-existent love from them and because they are abusive / taking advantage, of course they’re going to say and do certain things in line with this, which means they’ll end up agreeing with your judgement. Remember this isn’t because what you think is true; it’s because you’re around someone of a certain mentality. Why would an abusive person be a source of goodness for you?

Because we have unrealistic expectations of what people should say to and about us.

You may have this expectation that the other party should hold you in a higher esteem than what you do. You may in fact expect them to perceive you as perfect and not mention any flaws. It’s more than a tad unrealistic to expect that someone who is genuinely getting to know you and who in fact loves and likes you and accepts you for who you are, is going to think that you’re perfect. That would be bullshitting so being pissed off with them for being honest with you (assuming it’s in a respectful manner) is to shut down the lines of honest communication between you both. Issues can also arise here when you have a predetermined idea of what you wanted the other party to say which sets both of you up to fail and means that you’re closed to feedback.

Because it’s unfair / partially true.

Partially true criticism can be a bit of a mind screw because depending on how level-headed you’re being, you may be inclined to focus only on the untrue part or you may assume that the existence of the true element makes the false element true. This is where you have to recognise that criticism is just another form of feedback and it is not the gospel truth. Just because something is partially true doesn’t mean that ‘everything’ is true – people do get it wrong, especially if their perception is based on a dodgy foundation in the first place.

It can also be perceived as unfair if it takes no account of the other party’s contribution so they’re in essence criticising you for something that they themselves are guilty of but are in denial about, excusing themselves or even blaming you for. They may be criticising you for how you’ve behaved in a situation where they themselves haven’t exactly behaved flawlessly themselves.

It can also be unfair if you’re criticised without allowing for contributing factors that are outside of your control. That’s not to say that you cannot and shouldn’t take responsibility for your part but if they’re criticising you for not being able to control something that’s not under your control, that’s unfair.

It’s also unfair if you’re criticised for what others are doing, especially if you haven’t done anything but the person has a one size fits all policy. You are likely to experience this from parents. If my mother is pissed off with one of us, suddenly it’s time for her to criticise all of us. I used to think it was just me but so many people experience this it’s ridiculous! Can’t they just be mad at one child?

Retrospective criticism is also unfair. This is where it’s 2012 and the person is criticising you for something you did last year or back in the eighties (bringing up ‘old shit’) which they’re either rehashing or even worse, bringing up for the first time.

Because we ourselves are dishonest about our true feelings and hold back criticism.

Are you passive? Well if you are, you may have unspoken agreements with people that they’re unaware of. It means that you suppress your true feelings and don’t criticise and as a result assume and expect that they will do the same for you and then when they don’t, you feel offended and hurt. Hard as it is to hear, you have no right to expect that people should do this in exchange for your passiveness. In reality, you’re still not going to feel comfortable from guilting or over-giving / people-pleasing into holding back because you will know that this is not a healthy interaction plus you still have all of these suppressed feelings and opinions to deal with.

Because we feel disapproved of and in turn rejected.

This is basically taking the literal meaning of criticism and judging ourselves off the back of it. In reality, actual disapproval is the difference between disapproving criticism and what is actually feedback. When we treat any and all forms of criticism as disapproval, we treat any and all forms of criticism as rejection and this means it’s treated like a permanent judgement which is actually a pessimistic, all or nothing, perfectionist blame absorber outlook. Actually someone can criticise and give feedback and yes express disapproval and still love and like you. It has a lot to do with the delivery, the deliverer, and our own perception.

Can a person love / like you and have a criticism? Hell yes!

If you’re saying NO or thinking/believing NO then you are effectively putting a crater-sized hole through the logic behind every thought, action, words, or expectation expressed within an interpersonal relationship where you weren’t happy and couldn’t continue to be with or around someone as they were or even tried to change them. Your whole argument falls down.

Because we feel that we have to ‘do’ something.

There can appear to be this pressure to go and do or be something immediately or ASAP. A criticism does not mean that you have to do something. If you feel that mandate is there then yes it can feel quite ominous and threatening depending on what the situation is. Criticism is a form of feedback. Do you think that every company takes on/responds to and makes changes based on every single piece of feedback? Oh heeeeeellll NO.Do you think that every artist, actor, performer etc., adapts to every criticism?

It’s just an opinion, not a court order.

If you feel like you ‘have’ to change or do something so that you can hold onto the person even if it just comes down to holding onto their approval, something is very wrong here. In, for example, mutual, healthy relationships, couples can express criticism but there isn’t an ominous threat of withdrawal or the demise of the relationship.

Because we’re reminded of another chief critic in our life / from our past.

If you have an issue with criticism and tend to go into a tailspin, it’s likely because you have a negative association with criticism where it reminds you of either your childhood or some major conflict issues in your adulthood where you may feel that you didn’t handle it well or that you were run roughshod over. I’ve read a lot of backstory’s on the course – as soon as I see something like “very critical mother” then I know that somewhere else in the story there will be admissions of perfectionism, fear of criticism/conflict or possibly being aggressive when faced with it in adulthood. If early on, there isn’t mention of the parent (likely the mother) but there is mention of not handling criticism, perfectionism or being around narcissistic or narcissistically inclined people, I know I’m going to see something about a critical parent. In turn, you will see your old adversary in every criticism and likely react in a child-t0-adult manner which gives your power away and treats the other person as if they’re all knowing and even feel like they’re attacking you. You may feel abandoned and/or rejected and the truth is – and I speak from experience here – you may have a very immature reaction to criticism including lashing out and criticising them back or storming off.

Because we forecast negative consequences.

For some people criticism equals believing that they’ve failed or that they’re going to fail or that they’re going to lose, or that conflict is on the way and this in itself can take criticism into the conflict territory. This brings me neatly to….

The reason why people struggle with conflict is because they:

1) Forecast negative consequences.

2) Feel incapable of handling it.

3) Feel rejected because they treat conflict as a sign of ‘opposition’ of who they are.

When you forecast negative consequences, it’s likely down to a negative association. You’ve stopped seeing each C-situation as unique and when you sense conflict, you may already be making some stealth moves to minimise or even silence conflict. You may go into people-pleasing overdrive to ward off conflict. You remember previous conflicts and assume a similar outcome even though they may be very different or your ability to handle them may be very different. You may be being simplistic by having an attitude like “I’ve had a conflict before that resulted in the relationship ending so if I sense conflict it in another relationship it means that the relationship is ending.” This means that aside from engaging in people-pleasing behaviour, you may actually at times be guilting of sabotaging out of panic about the consequence you’ve forecasted, which may actually be very inaccurate.

When you feel incapable of handling conflict, you’ve lost sight of who you are plus you mistake being afraid of conflict as being the same as being unable to handle conflict which are not the same thing. Thinking you cannot handle something isn’t the same as actually being unable to. You are not learning anything positive from the previous experiences and applying it. Instead you’re actually suppressing who you really are and you’re not stepping up for you. You may be judging you on a previous experience and still feeling ashamed about how you handled it when you could be moving away from that and handling this one. Another possible reason is because when you tend to avoid conflict, you also tend to erupt periodically and then feel ashamed of erupting even if the anger in the main was just and then decide that asserting yourself and expressing anger is ‘bad’ and revert to passive in a “I can’t trust myself” attitude.

When you feel rejected because you treat conflict as a sign of ‘opposition’ of who you are it’s because even though you actually may value the concept of having an opinion, dealing with other people’s opinions and the potential for conflict causes you to doubt you.

You go: conflict = disapproval of my opinion / position = disapproval of me = rejection.

Your opinions and positions come from you but if they’re not agreed with, it doesn’t make you a less valid person and people are allowed to disagree with you or have a different perspective.


So how can you get to grips with C-situations?

  1. Treat criticism as a form of feedback that you do not have to agree with. Remember, it’s an opinion, it’s feedback, but it’s not a court order and depending on the source of the criticism, it may also be bullshit.
  2. Criticism tends to contain information about how someone perceives you or is reacting to you. Healthy, respectful criticism comes from a respectful source. If the criticism is very accusatory and attacking, the person is crossing the line and potentially projecting, which brings me neatly to…
  3. Criticism tends to have an element of projection in there, even when we don’t intend it to. This means criticism may actually be telling you more about the other party than it is about you. Often what we criticise others for are things that point to lessons within ourselves. That projection also gives an indication of their perspective and they may have tunnel vision so are not being as empathetic as they could be.
  4. People get it wrong. You do, I do, everyone does. We misjudge things, form opinions, say something or act and it turns out to be wrong – that is what the whole point of a discussion is. If someone offers up their opinion and yes a criticism and you don’t agree with all or aspects of it, it’s an opening for a discussion. Yes it might turn into an argument, but actually, arguing is healthy when done without rage / disrespect. When things calm, you can then see each others perspectives. If you shut down discussion and you judge you instead of listening and observing, then yeah, conflict is going to be scary because you make up your mind about you without listening or without even having reason to.
  5. Criticism and conflict can be used as a basis for improvement. If the same things come coming back like Michael Myers out of Halloween, it’s life’s way of trying to teach you something about you. If your C-situations all end in the same way, you have to 1) ensure that you’re adapting your own behaviour but 2) ensure that you’re not trying to adapt your behaviour with similar types of people who are combative and aggressive in C-situations, which brings me neatly to…
  6. Not everybody wants to handle C-situations well. Is it a pain in the arse? Yes, but accept that this is who they are instead of taking a stance of “I have changed my attitude and want to handle C-situations better so they should too.” I see this time and again with people who have grown up around aggressive and passive aggressive people. They get to adulthood, decide that they don’t want to handle things as they did when they were a child so decide to be more assertive and who do they do this with? People like the people from their childhoods! Er, what the what now? Why would you decide to be more assertive with a narcissist for instance? Why would you keep trying to right the wrongs of your past? Just like some people are ‘manager’ or ‘director’ types and some people are more ‘supervisor’ or ‘non-management’ position types, there is a reason why there are different personality types and such a thing as passive, passive aggressive, assertive, and aggressive – because there are people of all types. Stop trying to make people who have shown themselves to have very unhealthy ways of handling C-situations be like you and handle your end of things. While you cannot change them, you can choose what other types of people you want to be around and stop working out your childhood issues on other people in your life.
  7. Assume, unless they really are an assclown, that the person does not come from a nasty place. Do not treat every C-situation like “Ding ding ding – enemy alert!” You will be combative but it’s also disrespectful to the other party. You will force people into submission and no relationship romantic or otherwise can proceed if you are going to make an enemy out of each person that disagrees with you or create an atmosphere of fear where they don’t feel that they can be honest with you. It’s a hostile working environment and no matter how much someone loves and cares about you, if you repeatedly show that you’re going to fall to pieces or turn aggressive when they so much as whimper a difference of opinion, you will teach them that honesty doesn’t live here.
  8. Every C-Situation is an opportunity to grow. In over six and a half years of being with my now husband, I’ve really grown as a person. From someone who started out telling him to take a run and jump and storming out or threatening to, to someone who still feels a bit daunted by conflict but is confident about handling it, I’ve come a long way from behaving in a manner that I’ve apparently been doing since I was three. Yes. On our third major argument nearly six months into our relationship which was actually a mixture of misunderstanding and me projecting my insecurities, I vowed verbally and in writing that I wouldn’t storm off again. I had the itch a few times but I stuck to my word. In your interpersonal relationships, you have to face conflict and criticism because if you don’t, it gives the impression that you either want to run this ship on dishonesty or that you treat each C-situation as if it signals then end. This brings me neatly to…
  9. Recognise your triggers and hotspots. If you evaluate each C-situation you’ve been involved in, how you felt and why, you’re likely reacting to old associations that are being triggered by the current incident as well as something from the past. This means that you have to be aware of what is likely to piss you off and use these as a code red alert for a time out or to force you to listen. Learn to recognise how you feel around and in C-situations and talk to yourself. In the last few months before our wedding, we argued more in those months than our entire relationship but I started to recognise a pattern to the arguments (one or both of our families getting on our nerves) and so over time, I knew when to wind my neck in and step away. In my head I’d hear “We’re doing it again! Natalie just zip it and step away. Come back later.”
  10. Be careful of repeat ‘feedback’ from repeat offenders. It’s true that if you keep hearing the same criticism that you should pay some attention to it and evaluate if there is something that you need to adapt your mentality or behaviour but be careful of inappropriate sources. Putting it plainly, assclowns, as in people who take advantage of and abuse you are likely to make similar types of bullshit criticisms about being “needy” or “too __________” or “not enough __________” or whatever. Genuine respectful criticism is rooted in wanting to see you grow and improve for you not someone else. Shady criticism is rooted in criticising you about things that will help them to gain an advantage over you and keep you in a dodgy position.
  11. Do the “Am I actually being disapproved of?” check. Yes a criticism is a criticism is a criticism but really, is it disapproval in the sense of feeling disliked, condemned, denounced, not up to standard? If not, calm yourself and listen. Stop judging you and stop judging them because actually, they may be just expressing an opinion and may not even view it as being criticism. They may believe that you’re open to it and if you judge them and react like you’re under attack, a far bigger issue will be created.
  12. I would strongly caution you to distance yourself from any criticism that is 1) a character assassination and 2) tapping into your current negative but hopefully improving perception of you. Nobody has the right to tell you about your value or quality as a person and if you latch onto this criticism, you take their crap and burden you with their negativity that you’re piling onto your own negativity. Quite frankly, if you’re not feeling ‘good enough’, you’re not in an objective position never mind the fact that you’re not actually able to tell them to jog on, which is what you would do if you had better self-esteem. If the respect is missing, it’s not honesty and it’s certainly not honest feedback so you have no business listening to it because you end up being inadvertently complicit in their perception of you. They are not some sort of higher power and if they are abusive / shady, what you can do with this ‘feedback’ is recognise that this person isn’t worthy of your time and that you need to do something to remove yourself / distance / protect yourself from them. Saying “That’s not mine, that’s theirs” is a mental reminder not to take on their negativity and put it back where it belongs – on someone you need to see in a more realistic light.
  13. Remember: Certain types of people learn which vulnerabilities to exploit based on how you respond in the first and subsequent C-situations with them. If you are quick to apologise, if you get very defensive, if you break down in tears, if you tell them all about themselves or whatever, they learn which chains to yank. How you handle yourself can be your ‘tell’. If they say something to test the waters and you respond with people-pleasing and handing over all of your power, they know that they can get away with a lot and tip the balance of power in their favour. This is all the more reason why you need to face criticism and conflict and practice through experience how to come out of the other side of them. Strengthen these ‘muscles’ and you will not be attractive to people who do not mean you well.
  14. Stop seeing C-situations as ‘bad’. Yes some of them are ‘bad’ but all of them provide you with lessons. Treat each one as unique and don’t live in the past. Take the insights you’ve gained and address each situation on merit. This means that you need to have levels. You cannot have a fight with a paper bag. It’s like fighting everyone. Not everything requires a response. You do not have to take on mentally or verbally / physically address every criticism and as the saying goes, you don’t need to accept every invitation to each conflict. If you’re an equal opportunity battler / litigator, it’s quite exhausting. It’s like trying to make up for lost time ‘defending’ your corner.
  15. Don’t use C-situations to try to control other people because it’s not going to happen. Short of performing a lobotomy on them and inserting controls, no matter what you say or do, people will think what they’re going to think and say what they’re going to say. Remember what I said above – people get it wrong. Yes sometimes you can ‘correct’ them if the situation warrants it but don’t spend your life going to battle with everyone trying to make everybody see and think what you want. The harder you try, the more suspicious people are of you. Learn to be secure in your own identity and reflect who you think and say you are in your actions because it makes it very difficult for someone to say something that isn’t true and to project their own behaviour and perceptions on you.
  16. Honesty, which is speaking your truth with respect cuts both ways. I don’t trust people who engage in one-way criticism and ride your arse like Zorro when they themselves are faced with criticism.
  17. That said, don’t be petty. Just because someone criticises you, it doesn’t mean that you have to ‘retaliate’ because depending on the manner in which it’s done, you can end up looking ungracious and immature even if what you’re saying is true.
  18. Don’t argue by text, IM, email, letter. Seriously, it’s very passive aggressive and at times aggressive. Yes it may feel ‘safer’ to write but if you wouldn’t or cannot say it to their face or over the phone, you shouldn’t be writing it. The internet has made critics out of a lot of people who are dangerous with an internet connection and their ego bent out of shape. It can be extremely intimidating to open up a written tirade from someone and I say this as someone who was stalked several years ago. Written communication is very open to tone and people tend to read it in the way that they would write it. If you are the recipient of this kind of ‘communication’, don’t participate. I find that people can be tempted by these means of arguing because it’s one-sided and they have all of the control in that moment. They can get everything out without interruption but they invariably bust boundaries. Ask them to meet or arrange to speak on the phone. If they won’t, then you know that you’ve got someone who is all bark, no bite.
  19. If someone is crossing the line, you do not have to stick around. “Let’s pick up this conversation later”. “If you’re going to continue saying stuff like ________________, I’m not going to continue this discussion.”
  20. When in doubt, ask “What did you mean when you said ______________?” or “What do you mean by ______________?” Ask the person to explain their ‘feedback’ further as you may be jumping to conclusions or they will be forced to put some proper thought into their comment.

Along with this rather hefty class, you should also check out How To Have An Uncomfortable Discussion When You’re Not Used To Raising Concerns and How To Argue Without The Sky Falling Down as well as all of the classes on boundaries in module 2.

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