Criticism can be difficult to endure, our initial reaction might even be to retaliate or dismiss the critic as wrong, negative or deliberately hurtful.
We have been taught that it is important to stand up for ourselves and not feel victim to other people's negativity; but we also know that it can be important in these instances to try and understand where the criticism is coming from and perhaps even learn from it.
Fortunately there are ways we can learn to better endure criticism. Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne, has put together some strategies for dealing with criticism and avoiding damaging relationships or your own self-esteem in the process.
"1. Resist the temptation to criticize back. It’s all too easy when you’ve been attacked (or think you’ve been attacked) to lash out at your attacker. It’s the old children’s comeback: “Are, too!” In the playground, such retorts are not only commonplace but perhaps even adaptive. However, in the realm of grownups, by answering a criticism with a criticism, also called atu quoque, you only end up looking as if the critical shoe fits you just fine.
Making the problem worse is the fact that people tend to respond to the initial critical comments by feeling offended so they escalate their comeback, exacerbating the conflict even more. For example, your romantic partner complains that you don’t seem to return phone calls or texts very regularly, and you respond by pointing out your partner’s clinginess. Not only are you invalidating your partner’s observation, but you’re also ratcheting up the level of the argument by criticizing your partner’s personality rather than behavior. What started out as perhaps a reasonable request now becomes the basis for a critical free-for-all.
2. Avoid projecting your insecurities onto the criticism. When we hear criticism from others, we sometimes amplify its magnitude by interjecting our own insecurities into the picture. The process is similar to the defense mechanism of projection, in which you transfer your own anxieties onto those around you, reading far more ominous meanings into their words than they intended. You might feel unhappy with the state of your home at the moment, recognizing that some solid closet cleaning is in order. It’s late on a Friday afternoon when a neighbor stops by to chat. You notice that she seems to be taking in the scene with a bit of a furrowed brow. She remarks that she’s looking forward to the weekend and having a chance to catch up on her spring cleaning. Immediately, you jump to the conclusion that she’s accusing you of being a slob. If it weren’t for the guilt creeping around the edges of your consciousness about the sorry state of your bedroom (which she might not even be able to see at the moment), the comment would go by unnoticed. With your insecurities primed, however, you’ll see the otherwise innocent comment as a condemnation of your housekeeping abilities. From there on, the interaction will almost invariably go downhill.
In this scenario, nothing critical was even uttered by your neighbor. What about if someone actually does share a critical observation about you, with you? In this case you are being criticized, not imagining it. Again, however, unless the criticism is an attempt to bring you to your knees in tears, projection can put you at risk of over-reacting. A co-worker may be offering what he believes to be helpful criticism and has even given the matter careful deliberation. However, because it touches a sensitive nerve, you find yourself unable to hear the positive tone in your co-worker’s voice, or even his attempt to embed it in an otherwise supportive remark. People often do try to soften their criticism with counter-balancing statements (“I really liked the way you did X, but Y could’ve used some improvement”). A good personal critic uses the “criticism sandwich.” You place the critical statement between two positive statements so that the person you’re trying to help with your comment is better able to hear it. Many of us are savvy to this strategy, however, and ignore the top and bottom of the sandwich, only hearing the problematic middle section. By overcoming the tendency to use projection, you’ll be better able to focus on the positive elements of this type of communication.
3. Try to understand where it’s coming from. It’s possible that you’re not the one projecting at all, but that your critical partner is the one struggling with feelings of inadequacy. For some people, criticizing others is the only way they can feel good about themselves. Threatened by your happiness and well-being, they try to throw you off your game by incessantly pointing out your inadequacies. It may be hard to fend off these attacks, especially if (as I noted above) they are particularly well-placed barbs that tap into your insecurities. If you value your relationship with this person, or if you have no choice but to be around that person, then you’ll have to figure out a way to reframe these interactions. Seeing their need to criticize as stemming from their weaknesses will help you protect not only your self-esteem, but could also potentially help this person overcome the need to criticize. Without feeding into their need to feel superior, you can offer them a kind word or two that can help alleviate their anxiety. Point out their strengths, and they’ll be better able to acknowledge yours.
4. Ask whether there’s truth to the criticism. So far, the general assumption I’ve made is that the critic is being overly critical, even if that critic is you. What if there’s something about you that could truly benefit from improvement? Perhaps you’ve been wearing the same (now-filthy) sneakers or comfortable shoes every day, all day, from the workplace to the backyard. They’re looking pretty tattered at the edges and although they may be fine for a walk in the park on a muddy day, have no place in the home or office. A friend offers you the criticism sandwich, noting that it’s great that you like to wear comfortable shoes outside but you might want to consider keeping a spare pair for indoor use and that (here’s the top of the sandwich) you look great in the sweater you’re wearing today. Instead of reacting with outrage at the thought that this person has the audacity to attack your taste in footwear, you might take a quick peek at your feet and see if perhaps the comment bears taking seriously. In fact, if you really thought about it, you might come to appreciate this person’s bravery in bringing up such an awkward topic.
5. Try to resolve destructive criticism in constructive ways. The criticism sandwich is only one way to provide criticism in a supportive context. In "constructive" criticism, you focus on the behavior, not the person; "destructive" criticism aims to eviscerate its target, and it can truly erode relationships. In a study of 118 married couples, University of Notre Dame psychologists Kristina Peterson and David Smith found that couples who expressed destructive criticism toward each other, as judged by observers, felt higher levels of perceived criticism than when their interactions showed higher levels of constructive criticism. This study supports the idea that destructive criticism contributes disproportionately to a couple’s perception of general discord in the relationship. In marriages, high levels of perceived criticism are what go on to erode both the relationship and each individual partner’s mental health.
In any relationship, if you sense that criticism is taking a destructive turn, it’s time to take a step back, put the brakes on, and look rationally at who’s being criticized, for what, and why. By taking as objective an approach as possible, you can help support both your and your partner’s feelings of self-worth."
By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
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