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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.
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.
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Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!