Just like swearing, criticism is nothing but a bad habit; it’s just something we get used to doing. When I criticize, that is I judge another person, it says nothing about that person; however, it says something about my own need to be critical. Being critical does not solve anything; however, it does contribute to anger and distrust. None of us like to be criticized. The natural reaction to criticism is to become defensive and to be withdrawn. The person being criticized may retreat in fear, shame; he or she will attack or will lash out in anger.
When I take a moment to observe how I feel immediately after I criticize someone, I have noticed that I feel a little deflated and ashamed, almost like I am the one who has been attacked. The reason this is true is because when I criticize it is a statement to the world and myself that:
I have a need to be critical.
This is not something I am usually proud of to admit.
The best way is to catch myself in the act of being critical and observe the frequency and notice how bad it makes me feel. I try to catch myself being critical and do remember to say to myself, There I go again! This hopefully turns my criticism into tolerance and respect. This is fine for me to enact myself. However, I cannot possibly stop criticism directed towards me.
Very often I am immobilized by any slightest criticism directed towards me. I treat it like an emergency and defend myself as if I am in battle. When I react to criticism with a knee-jerk defensiveness, it hurts. I feel attacked, feel a need to defend myself or to offer a counter criticism. This fills my mind with angry or hurtful thoughts directed at myself or at the person who is being critical. All this reaction takes an enormous amount of mental energy.
In truth, the criticism directed towards me is nothing more than an observation by another person about me, my actions or the way I think about something that does not match the version I have of myself. Big deal!
An incredibly useful exercise is to agree with the criticism directed towards me. This is not talking about turning into a door-mat or running down my self-esteem by believing all the negativity that comes in my direction; this is only suggesting that there are many times when simply agreeing with criticism defuses the situation, satisfies a persons need to express a point of view, offers me a chance to learn something about myself by seeing a grain of truth in another position, and perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to remain calm.
Here is an episode. My wife once told me, Sometimes you talk too much, and do not listen!
I do remember feeling hurt before deciding to agree. I responded by saying: You are right, I do talk too much sometimes.
I discovered something that has changed me. In agreeing with her, I was able to see that she had a good point. I often do talk too much. What is more, my reaction helped her to relax. A few minutes later, she said, You are sure easy to talk to.
I doubt she would have said that had I become angry at her observation. I have since learned that reacting to criticism never makes criticism go away. In fact, negative reactions to criticism often convince the persons doing the criticizing that they are accurate in their assessment of me.
Who has not winced at expressions of criticism, seeing them as a personal attack on the poor fragile vain ego inside us, who demands self-love at all times? Bal, as usual, speaks for every man in this regard. Yet he is able to reflect so well on this counterproductive reaction that undermines so many of us. Before reacting angrily, as he has rightly observed we all seem to do, we should take a step back, and agree with him that being overly critical of others or reacting angrily to criticism are bad habits. And like all bad habits that are learned from the social environment and the need to protect our own fragile egoic selves, it can be unlearned with sincere practice and patient self-observation.
We need to follow the 12 second rule and not react angrily to criticism. Then we will notice that the hurtful feelings subside and we have given ourselves the space and time to behave differently to our usual knee-jerk reactions which only aggravate the tension between two people, usually husband and wife, as in Bals case. We need to have the humility to accept that, although the attack may have been motivated by jealousy, pride, envy or any of the cardinal sins, and the attacker rarely has our best interests at heart (unlike Bal in the instance with his spouse), still there is always a kernel of truth in even the bitterest and most outrageous criticism. Pausing for those 12 seconds helps us to remove the dross of anger, contempt, and other even worse emotions, and find the nugget of gold in the criticism, as we reflect on what could have brought about such an angry outburst and our own defensive reaction, and what could we have done better to produce a more constructive outcome.
Having the patience and humility to find the nugget of gold – that teachable moment – in the criticism, one should be thankful to the one criticizing us and realize that there is always a kernel of truth in any criticism, and we need to learn from this, and strive to do better.
Conversely, and counterintuitively, it is prudent not to criticize others, and certainly not harshly, for in the final analysis, we can never really know what it is to be in the shoes of another person, and what the exact circumstances were that caused the behavior, so we cannot fairly and equitably judge others. The best we should do is to offer constructive advice and suggestions for improvement without diminishing the worth of the other person in our eyes or theirs in any way.
It is safest to leave true judgment to a higher power who can see the totality of the life circumstances that may have provoked that less than stellar behavior, and truly knows what is transpiring in the heart of another. Only the pure in heart are capable of judging others, and, we humans – most of us very far from purity of mind and heart – act badly when we forget who we truly are, which sadly is a hundred times or more every day. And the pure in heart, who are capable of true judgment, are invariably filled with compassion and love rather than criticism.