For most of us, criticism stings and burns. I couldn’t count how many times I reacted negatively, sometimes aggressively, sometimes with embarassment and shame, to honest feedback from someone close to me… I do so less and less, although I still occasionally fall back into my old ways of being. I even remember, months ago, a client telling me that any form of criticism – what is childishly called “constructive feedback” in the corporate world – made her physically shrink and want to vomit!
Why is it key to develop a healthier and more powerful relationship with criticism?
When you create anything, you express your deeper self. Whether this creation results in a product, a service, an artwork, a child or a company, it is an extension of you. What you are creating is part of your self-expression. As you create your inner world and manifest it externally, you begin to share what you do and who you are with the world. And suddenly, you’re at risk! What was previously safely guarded inside only for you to know, is now out in the open for everyone to see, comment or ignore.
The bigger your impact and the further your reach, the more people will come to interact with this expression of you. You then begin to get feedback from other human beings on your creation. People start giving their opinion, judging you, assessing if your creation is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and by doing so throwing it left, right and center… Along with your self-esteem. At least that’s how it works for most of us. But that’s just life. Some people will like who you are and what you do, and others won’t. We’ve all experienced both praise and criticism numerous times, and there’s nothing wrong with either of them.
The problem is that we can deal with praise too easily. Sometimes we modestly dodge it, having learnt not to stand out from the crowd or because of a low self-esteem developed through our early years. But most of the time, praise is a feedback we appreciate to receive. Deep down, it validates our creation – our words; our actions; our work; our results.
But here’s the thing. Everything in nature regresses to the mean. The average keeps pulling us in. Average, in this sense, does not mean “mediocre”. It means somewhere between extremes. Time and time again, we see the same pattern occurring. Extreme highs are compensated by extreme lows, and vice-versa. If critics love you, the crowd hates you. If the crowd loves you, the critics destroy you.
This leads us to an interesting paradox. If we take it at face value, praise is nothing more than short-sighted poison. Genuine praise is generally seen as kind, well-meaning and desirable. But genuine praise only says something about the person giving it. This person is being genuine because of his/her perception of your creation, which he/she appreciates. Genuine praise does not say something about you, the person receiving the praise. It does not mean that this judgement of your creation is “true” in absolute terms.
And this is where we get it wrong. When receiving praise, we make it about us and internalise the positive judgement from others, as if it was true and meant something about who we are. This is why criticism, on the flip side, hurts so much.
But the truth is: you’re not as good as they say. Practice hearing their praise as not having impact on your being. Listen to it, take it in as potentially useful information, but don’t let it affect the view you have of your own self. You’re not almighty. Stay grounded.
When you do so, you’ll begin to realise that you’re equally not as bad as they say. Criticism will begin to wash over you, like praise. You’ll be able to take it as potentially useful information without letting it have any particular impact on your being, unless you choose to use it productively to better yourself.
If you adopt this understanding, criticism won’t hurt and praise won’t elate. You’ll understand that both are not about you. They’re about a perception of you, while who you are is much richer, much deeper, and forever falling somewhere between the two.