How we handle criticism affects our capacity to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit in the ups and downs of our everyday life. If we can learn to befriend our critics, we will discover that they are actually our best teachers in the process of becoming a mature follower of Christ. Growth in the spiritual life requires self-knowledge, humility, and trust in God’s unconditional love whether our behavior happens to be right or wrong. So what is your experience of dealing with criticism?
In his book, Feeling Good, cognitive therapist Dr. Dave Burns describes three possible responses to critique, which he calls: “sad, mad, or glad.”* If you go the sad route, you will automatically conclude that the critic is correct. You never take time to explore what actually happened. Instead, you jump to the conclusion that you were wrong. You magnify and personalize the negative message. “I’m always screwing up. I’m a complete failure.” Because you live with the expectation that you should be perfect, you assume that your mistake means that you are worthless. As a result, you will experience sadness, anxiety and diminished self-esteem. Your response will be ineffectual, as you withdraw in isolation and avoidance.
If you go the mad route, you will defend yourself against the ravages of imperfection by attempting to persuade your critic that they are the problem. You refuse to admit even the possibility that you could have made a mistake, that you are less than perfect, because to do so means admitting that you are worthless. Ready for a fight, you attack your critic with fierce accusations. In the heat of the battle, you may feel emboldened by your self-righteous indignation. But when it’s over, your response will also be self-defeating because you have done irreparable damage to the relationship.
If you go the glad route, you will need enough self-esteem to accept yourselves with all of your imperfections. When under critique, your first response is inquiry. You ask yourself: “Is there any truth to the criticism?” Having taken the time to prayerfully investigate the situation, you are now prepared to offer a solution. If compromise is called for, you can negotiate. If you were mistaken, you can offer an apology, if appropriate, and then make the necessary amends to address the problem. If your critic was wrong, you can find a way to address this reality in a respectful fashion. This response will enhance your sense of competence because you have handled the situation in a way that respects your own integrity and that of others.
Take some time this week and explore your experience of handling criticism. What have you learned?
*For a more in-depth discussion, see David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 146-147.
Every once in a rare while, we can have a particularly intense encounter with God. I would like to share an encounter I had with you.
I was at my favorite place to do a retreat, Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. I was sitting in the chapel in the evening. A few lamps cast a dim light in the space. I sat in a chair off to the side. I don’t even remember what led up to this moment: I believe I was praying with scripture. All of a sudden I had the sense of God as a burning flame. But I wasn’t separate from God. I could feel all the atoms that make up my body intermingling with the atoms of God in the flame. I was completely part of God, and yet I was still conscious of my own identity. I felt full of peace and joy. I could sense all the false thoughts and beliefs I carried just melting off me. I realized it didn’t matter what anyone thinks of me, how anyone might judge me. All that matters is union. Not only that, I also sensed that everyone and every part of creation is part of this union. Our separation is false. We are really all one in God and it will all be okay.
Now, of course, I couldn’t stay and live in that intensity for long. But whenever I recall the experience, I feel more free and hopeful and am reminded that there is a greater reality.
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
A vicious enemy of the spiritual life is perfectionism. If we succumb to this compulsion, we become our own worst critic. We monitor our every move out of fear and shame at the prospect of being imperfect, mediocre, or, worse still, someone unworthy of love and connection. We believe our perfectionism will make us successful and admired, but in reality it sucks the joy out of life.
Perfectionism also urges us to focus on the deficiencies of others, blaming them for our irritability, upset, or unhappiness. We often project our weaknesses onto others, accusing them of faults we fail to admit in ourselves. Sometimes putting others down becomes a strategy to prop up our own collapsing self-esteem. If we persist in perfectionistic fault-finding, we will lose our capacity to feel warmth or genuine like for ourselves or other people.
One effective way to free ourselves from the burden of perfectionism is to discover our motivation for maintaining this compulsion. Imagine doing poorly at a task that is important to you. Ask yourself, “Why would this be a problem for me?” Repeatedly ask this question of yourself until you discover the hidden assumption that is at the root of your perfectionism. Perhaps you have been deeply hurt by the put-downs, disapproval, or abuse of others. Perhaps you fear being disliked and abandoned by others. Perhaps you fear being incompetent or vulnerable and out of control. Whatever the particulars, embrace your wounded heart with self-compassion. Hold your pain with tenderness and allow God to wrap you in unconditional love. Gently address your fears with sound reason. By facing your fears in this way, they begin to lose their power over you.
Do you struggle with perfectionism? If yes, what do you think is the hidden fear that grounds your compulsion?
Consider these three roadblocks to discerning the call of God.
Is following the call of God your top priority in life? Are there other obstacles to discerning God’s call that you would like to add to this list? Write us a comment on your reflection.
Who am I? What do I really long for in life? What is my heart’s deepest desire? How can I serve the world?
In discernment, paying attention to questions like these propels us along the path of self-knowledge and into the loving arms of God. Our deepest and truest desires come from God and help us to dedicate our entire selves to God in the fulfillment of our unique potential as human beings with a world to serve. Our desires are the power behind our actions.
An important spiritual exercise in discerning God’s call for your life is simply to begin to surface your heart’s most basic desires. Start with prayer. Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to discover your desires and to respond to them faithfully.
As you sit quietly in God’s presence, ask yourself again and again, “What do I really want right now?” As these wants emerge, you can then ask, “What desires are even underneath these desires?” Also, pay close attention to contradictory desires, which often cause inner conflict.
As you sift through and evaluate your desires, identify those desires that distract or divert you from your authentic direction in life. Likewise, identify those desires that are most important, most full of energy and represent your truest values.
In her book, The Way of Discernment, Elizabeth Liebert suggests that even before we can enter this kind of prayer that searches our heart’s desires, we need to believe that our individual desires are important and worthy of our consideration. If we are convinced that what we want is of no significance, that someone else must tell us what matters for our life, or that any desire that we have will surely go against what God desires, we are unlikely to trust our desires or even know what they are. If this is the case, we will never come to know who we truly are.1
Authentic discernment of God’s call in our life, therefore, requires self-respect and a deep listening to our heart’s desires, which will lead us more fully into God’s life and mission. Our heart’s desires reveal our vocation. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2
What are the desires of your heart? What more would you like to do with your life? What is your deepest joy? What need in the world could you meet through an exercise of your gifts and talents for others?
1 Elizabeth Liebert, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26.
2 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
I had an unexpected holy moment in the City Chambers of Adrian, Michigan, last night. It was the result of serious discernment taken by our local mayor. He presented a resolution supporting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Dreamers, the people who were brought to this country as children and who consider the United States their home. As you may know, their permission to stay in the U.S. is at risk now, even though this is the only country they have really known.
We Dominicans pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We are called to be aware of what is happening in our world and to engage it in prayer and action. DACA is one of those areas. Our former Prioress, Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney, spoke first to address the issue, setting the context of the twenty-year failure to institute immigration reform and speaking in support of the resolution.
Six other speakers followed of varying ages, faiths, political parties, and cultures. Each one had discerned, mostly through actual contact with Dreamers they knew, that the only just thing to do was to pass the resolution. Several of the City Commissioners spoke of how important diversity is to our small city and how they had encountered Dreamers (and their parents) who needed our support. They know we are stronger together.
The passion and sincerity of those present was palpable. This was not a perfunctory decision or some rote task that needed to be passed. The resolution meant something essential for those there – it was about justice and mercy.
The resolution passed and the room erupted in joyful applause. And God saw that is was good.
Learn more about the Adrian City Commission’s resolution.
For the U.S. Bishops’ statement click here.
For the Adrian Dominican statement click here.
If God is all-loving and all-powerful, how can God cause or allow such devastation and suffering as was perpetrated by Hurricane Irma this past week? Human tragedy can trigger serious doubts in the provident love of God or shatter belief in God altogether. How do we understand the mystery of God and suffering?
Theologians who are also scientists can help us wrestle with this question. They suggest that because the vast expanse of creation is loved by God, not only do human beings have a freedom appropriate to their nature, but all living creatures and processes also have a type of freedom as well. As human beings, we cherish our independence and freedom to make choices in life that will help us realize the fullness of our human potential. In giving us the gift of free will, God freely chooses to limit divine power and control in our lives. Never forcing us to act against our will, God makes us partners, not puppets, in the ongoing care of our world. This gift of human freedom, however, has a “shadow side,” making us vulnerable to the moral evils of violence, war, poverty, hateful prejudice, and oppression of every kind.
Like human free will, all living creatures and processes exercise a type of freedom according to their nature that generates the flourishing of life for the continuous development of the evolving cosmos. In the ongoing creation of the universe, God acts, but does not control; God guides, but respects creation’s autonomy. These free processes, however, also produce situations of “natural evil,” namely, the suffering caused by experiences and events of nature such as Hurricane Irma. While hurricanes produce rainfall that can end droughts, promote the dispersal and growth of plant species, and produce biodiversity, they also cause the destruction of human lives, vegetation, wildlife, and infrastructures. Our abuse of the planet is also increasing the intensity of these natural disasters. Unfortunately, suffering and death make up a necessary and purposeful part of the evolutionary process.
The crucified, self-giving love of Jesus Christ reveals a God who freely chooses to be vulnerable to suffering. The resurrection of Jesus shows that while God allows suffering and death, God will bring newness of life out of suffering and death for the transformation of the whole world.
Take time this week to ponder the mystery of God and suffering. Do moral evil or natural disasters trigger doubts in you about God’s unconditional love for all creation? If someone told you that all the pain and suffering in the world caused them to doubt the existence of God, how would you respond to them?
Would you agree with the following statement: the only person in the world who has the power to insult you is you and no one else? When another person levels harsh criticism at you, certain negative thoughts begin to flood your consciousness. Perhaps you exaggerate the importance of what is being said or jump to the conclusion that the criticism is valid and accurate. You may see this single negative event as part of a recurring pattern of defeat. “I always mess up! I’m a complete failure! I can never correct this mistake! Everybody hates me! This criticism shows that I am worthless!” Your emotional reaction will be produced by this bombardment of negative thoughts and not by what the other person says.
In his book Feeling Good, cognitive therapist David Burns gives some helpful advice. He suggests that one important way to conquer the fear of criticism involves your own thought processes: Learn to identify and analyze the negative and irrational thoughts you have in reaction to being criticized.* These distorted thoughts can create negative and hurtful emotions. Upon reflection determine whether the criticism is right or wrong. If it is wrong, then there is no reason to feel upset. It was the other person’s mistake to criticize you unfairly. With a spirit of compassion, let it go. No one is perfect. On the other hand, if the criticism is right, still there is no reason for alarm. Humbly acknowledge the mistake and do what you need to do to make amends. With a spirit of self-compassion, gently forgive yourself recognizing that you do not need to be perfect. If you have healthy self-esteem, it is easier to hear and to respond to criticism. You do not require the approval of others to be full of love and at peace.
Take time to reflect on how you handle criticism from others. Do you fear criticism? Do you recognize how your own distorted thinking can create negative and hurtful feelings? Can you grow and learn from criticism in becoming your authentic self?
*See David D. Burn, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, (New York: HarperCollins), 131-148.
I was involved in jail ministry a number of years ago. I loved meeting one-on-one with the women as they shared their struggles and their faith. So many wanted to pray together at the end of our time; it was very moving. One thing that struck me was that those who were arrested for forging checks would say, “Well, at least I didn’t sell my body.” And those who were in for prostitution would say, “Well at least I didn’t steal by forging checks.” Sometimes people feel a need to see themselves as “better than.” This tendency to want to see ourselves as superior affects all of us at some time.
Religious life is varied and holds many different and good responses as to how to live one’s vowed life well. Still, sometimes this tendency toward a sense of superiority can sneak in. A congregation may imply that theirs is the only valid way to love and serve God. If you are discerning and a group tells you why they are better than everyone else, that might be a sign to go a little deeper and see if they have true Christian humility and compassion.
Sadly, I recently had this experience at an out-of-town parish I attended with my Mother. Though the readings were based on God’s welcoming of all, the priest spent the whole time condemning. My Mother said, “Everything he talked about was either bad, sinful or evil. Not one positive word in his entire homily.” This pastor conveyed that he felt superior to all the various groups he condemned, including those who care for creation. This superiority will close him off from both finding and sharing Christ in these situations.
The self-righteous of Jesus’ day criticized him for spending time with sinners. Shouldn’t he be with the “better” people? Jesus preferred the company of people who recognized their own weakness and need, and who were open to receiving his love and mercy.
Do I catch myself feeling superior to others sometimes? What calls me to a healthy humility?
The perfectionism trap is the belief that we need to be perfect, look perfect, and act perfect in order to be worthy of love and acceptance. Anything less than perfection — illness, disability, family divorce, accident, addiction, unemployment — threatens to eclipse our unique beauty and ability to live in the light of love. Whenever suffering overshadows our life, we can feel trapped in a nighttime of painfully low self-esteem, isolation, and blame. Where does God stand in the midst of our human struggle? Do we image God as a harsh judge who reinforces our guilt and shame? Or is our God a loving liberator who frees us from the snares of perfectionism?
I believe that the solar eclipse we experienced this week is God’s way of expressing the truth that the darkness we suffer is temporary and will never defeat the radiance of our authentic identity. As we bask in the invincible light of God’s love, we hear the gentle truth speaking from within: No one is perfect. Join the human race! Let your love grow strong enough to accept yourself unconditionally and come to know the joy of being imperfect. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Anna Quindlen puts it, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning to work on becoming yourself.” As witnessed by the solar eclipse, our light is not meant to be hidden, but to shine forth for all to see.
Our liberator God calls us to let go of perfectionism in our determination to love ourselves unconditionally. Can we begin to see our imperfections as neutral realities with both good and bad aspects? Perhaps our limiting disability has taught us empathy and compassion for others or our destructive addiction has taught us to trust in the saving help of God. Struggling to amend our moral imperfections builds our character and makes us better, more loving people. In our journey to become our authentic selves, God will be our compassionate guide and gratitude for our life will dawn like the sun.
Take time to reflect: Are you in the perfectionism trap? Can you give thanks for your imperfections? How has struggling with your imperfections made you a better person?
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!