Some suggestions about how to create the appropriate mental structure or thought process when dealing with criticism.
It does not have to be this way.
There is a better way to take criticism and make it of use to not just us but everybody.
Before I explain that way, allow me to first define criticism: it is simply the act of pointing out and explaining what is wrong or does not meet certain necessary or required standards. The necessity of an explanation is very important. Without it there can be no valid criticism, only unfair abuse.
From this we can appreciate that criticism is a vital and necessary expression towards improving something, be it an institution, a person, an idea, etc. It is applicable any and everywhere because perfection does not exist in reality – only in our heads or on paper (wherever reality does not need intervene).
The implication of reality’s imperfection is that everything can be improved in some aspect, facet or other. Whoever thinks otherwise ceases to live in reality and enters the realm of illusions. It follows that whoever resists criticism in that same moment resists reality. It also means that that person is very deep into and enthralled by their own illusions, which would undoubtedly find little evidence in reality. If there were an abundance of it that person would rather live in reality and face up to it.
This is generally why many people do not like criticism and some cannot stand it. The act of criticism inevitably results in the shattering of powerful personal illusions. It draws a person back into reality. It reminds them of reality’s harshness. It insists that they face up to their weaknesses and failings. And at the end of it, criticism implicitly demands improvement to those areas that illusion used to rule. Those areas usually tend to be personal and intimate areas of the self. This is also why some people become enraged when they are criticized – those areas tend to be the most sensitive to one’s ego.
A lot of this hurt and pain felt from criticism, I strongly believe stems from a lack of understanding of what criticism is and how to deal properly deal with it. I have explained already how important criticism is as a tool for improvement and growth.
Before I explain how criticism should be handled better, I need to first address the supposed distinction between ‘constructive criticism’ and ‘negative criticism’. Sometimes I hear those being criticized lashing back, for example, by saying, ‘I don’t want to hear negative criticism. I will only listen to constructive criticism!’
This is of course utter nonsense for this simple reason: constructive criticism is simply criticism with suggestions on how to improve. Negative criticism does not contain suggestions; it only focuses on the negative aspects. With ‘negative criticism’ the person criticized has to work out where and what those areas for improvement are from the criticism. With ‘constructive criticism’, the critic identifies those areas and offers suggestions for consideration. So the difference between them is only the effort the person criticized has to put into discovering those areas for improvement. That is why whenever I hear someone lash that in reply, I know that they are either lazy or do not want to hear criticism.
Now let me return to the main: how to deal with criticism better. I will use the concept of an idea to illustrate this.
Nobody likes to be told their idea is not good enough. The seemingly natural implication of being told your idea is not good enough is to think that you, as a person, are not good enough. We tend to think this because the proposed idea emanates from us, from our thoughts, our brains and so in a sense, it is personal to us.
This is perhaps why some people take criticism so personally. They think a criticism of their idea is a criticism and judgment on their integrity as a person. They think because their idea is defective in some sense, they too are similarly defective in their person in some respect.
This thinking is, of course, deeply flawed. Allow me to explain why.
Firstly, though an idea maybe shaped by us personally, the moment it is expressed, it ceases to become ours. It becomes everybody’s idea. The idea of flight may have come from Leonardo da Vinci, but he does not own it. The idea of the wired communications came from Alexander Graham Bell but he does not own it. Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the internet and he now does not own it. Though an idea may come from us, it is never personal to us. We are merely the fortunate or unfortunate vessels through which ideas pass through into expression. Though a part of us will always be a part of that idea, it is limited only to the idea’s heritage – not its ownership or future development.
The first lesson we can take from this is that do not be too personal about our ideas. They are not really ours. Ideas may come from man, but they are the property of mankind.
Secondly, though ideas spring from us, they will never be complete or thorough enough to define us. From philosophy we can observe that even the greatest of philosophers (men vastly wiser and more intelligent than the common man in terms of refinement of thought) are still unable to craft a general theory so wide, deep and thorough and so complete to define human nature. If the most powerful of philosophical ideas cannot define our nature (but they do provide great insight), common ideas are far less capable of representing the core of our being.
The implication is that though we are related to our ideas, they do not define us. And so criticism of our ideas cannot mean criticism of our integrity as a human being. These are two separate things. This is why it is said that our ideas are like our children. Children spring from us but they are completely separate independent beings with their own arc and path of development. Just like children, ideas though they reflect us in some ways, that reflection will never be enough to define us completely much less permit judgment about personal and intimate areas of ourselves i.e. our integrity.
The third lesson to be drawn is that criticism of our ideas is not a criticism of our person. It has nothing to do with us. Our narcissism just makes us think it does. So ensure that your narcissism levels are suppressed when you listen to criticism. If not, you will think the criticism is all about you instead of your idea.
Fourthly, all ideas are potentially flawed, especially at their germination and even at later, higher levels of refinement. An influential idea in one era may be discovered to be wrong or obsolete later. If you want examples just go through the history of science, medicine, and technology. So many times have ideas and theories been revised through the course of their respective histories. In another sense, ideas are also like art. There is always a sense of incompleteness about them and so room for completion. The great Picasso once said,
Woe to you the day it is said that you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul – to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.
Paula Bachtiger Kling, also an artist, explains the thrill of an artistic piece of work, “The best part is: I’m never finished! There are always new angles, new shadows, new lights …”
And what is art really but the mere expression of an idea in a less explicit and obvious medium? All of art, philosophy and science demonstrate that all expressions of ideas are necessarily incomplete, flawed and perpetually ready for improvement.
So to expect to propose an idea of such perfection expressed with such perfection that it becomes impervious to any sort of criticism is misguided as it is impossible.
Fifthly, criticism is subjective. Though the criticism itself may be objective (in the sense that it is free from bias and attempts to address reality), each critic comes from a subjective point of view – his (in the sense that it is unique as each human being is). Any idea therefore bears the potential to be criticized from infinite point of views. Not all of them are accurate, correct, strong or bona fide. These are often obvious and we can quickly dismiss them. But much criticism is also valid (because each idea has many facets) and this is when we must pay close attention to them.
How would we know?
If our mind does not discover it then our heart will tell us because it would sting if not hurt; make us angry; and provoke us to lash back maliciously. This is when we must resist the reflexive urge to do so, shut up and listen as attentively as we can. Valid criticism is the one that stings the most.
Finally all expressed ideas are inherently flawed and incomplete. If we see neither, we just have not looked hard or waited long enough. Do not hope or expect to come up with ‘the perfect idea’ and to express it perfectly. It does not exist. So either learn to expect and deal with criticism correctly or waste yourself in getting angry about it each and every time.
If we can understand these lessons, practise them to the point of internalization and recall them whenever we are criticized, I am certain that we would in time learn not to fear criticism but to welcome it. We would also learn that each instance of criticism is an opportunity for improvement, an opportunity to refine our ideas and be more productive with them.
We would learn not to look at the critic as a source of annoyance or hatred but as a friend. This is perhaps what Jesus meant when he commanded mankind to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44).
We only think someone our enemy because we do not understand yet how they can be our friend or a useful source of improvement for ourselves.
Once we train ourselves to take criticism we may find those we thought our enemies to be our best friends in waiting.