It’s hard to listen to criticism. This is especially true if it is coming from your significant other, a family member, or a close friend.
The immediate reaction by most people is to become defensive and angry. They want to defend their decisions and actions. If they feel disrespected or hurt, they want to say something back that hurts the criticizer even more.
Some people are so intolerant of criticism that any comment that even remotely resembles it will be met with an inappropriately harsh response. These people are often so averse to input from others that they even see helpful suggestions as being critical. These people usually develop a reputation that you have to be very careful about what you say to them and that open, honest discussions are not a possibility. Unfortunately, this person will miss out on a lot of valuable constructive criticism that could significantly improve their life and especially their relationships.
Our family and friends can offer us the most valuable information of all because they know us so well. By now, you’re probably thinking of someone who criticizes you frequently and in a way that is “not” constructive to your well-being or your relationship. Although there could be bits of valuable information found in their comments, the fact that it’s happening repeatedly says as much about you in allowing it as it does about them in being critical.
A friend that I’ve known for many years recently sent me a long email full of criticism about a number of issues. This wasn’t just ordinary criticism. This was contemptuous and attacking criticism.
This was the second or third time in the last few years that I had received an email like this from him. It was not the first time he had been critical of me, however. This has been an ongoing pattern throughout our friendship.
My initial reaction to his email was anger. After recalling the last email rant and his history of criticizing me, I immediately decided that I was going to end our friendship. But before I did that I was going to send him a reply that put him in his place and held up my honor.
I started feverishly writing a reply filled with anger and vindictiveness. I immediately concluded that he was wrong about everything he had said and that he was the one with the problem. Much of that may have been true, but I realized that it was an immature and shortsighted way to evaluate the information that he had provided.
This incident with my friend made me stop and think about the issue of being criticized and being critical. “What can a person learn from this that could help them be a better person,” I thought. I came up with these questions.
“If a person completely shuts offs and ignores all criticism, what does that say about them? And what potential benefits are they missing by doing this?”
“If a person is excessively critical of others, what is that saying about them? And what affect does it have on their relationships?”
“If a person allows other people to criticize them excessively what does that say about them? And how does allowing it affect them?”
The answers hit me like a bolt of lightning.
If I completely disregarded everything my friend said in his email I could be missing out on a few pieces of information that could really help me. Being that the information was coming from a person who had a history of criticizing me, I evaluated it from that standpoint and disregarded most of it. Had I been of the mindset that he’s all wrong, he doesn’t know what the “blank” he’s talking about, I would have missed out on receiving a few bits of valuable information.
The next area of consideration in a situation like mine is whether you should continue the relationship. My first reaction was to end it since it was the second or third time that I had received such a letter.
As I evaluated whether to end our friendship, I looked back on all my close relationships to see if I saw any patterns. I did! I allowed myself to be criticized in other close relationships as well. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t taken any responsibility for allowing my friend to criticize me!
Although he most likely has issues that cause him to be excessively critical of others, and me in particular, the responsibility falls on me as to whether I allow it in the quantity and manner in which he delivers it. It all boils down to that saying, “You teach others how to treat you.”
I understand that there are situations where re-negotiating a relationship is not possible. I acknowledge that there are relationships that are just downright toxic. And I am aware of the fact that there are relationships that are simply a bad match, which can bring about a lot of criticism. In these cases, it is best to end it.
Then there is the person who is completely resistant to receiving “any” criticism or helpful suggestions whatsoever. We all know a person like this. I’ve got a tendency to be like this myself from time to time believe it or not. I try to keep myself in check on this so that I don’t develop a reputation with others that I don’t want to hear “any” criticism or helpful suggestions. The key is to teach others how to approach you, what subjects are off-limits, and how many waves of criticism you’ll allow on a single topic.
If a person doesn’t allow anyone to criticize them on any topic at any time, it is unlikely that they will grow much. So what does this person miss out on if they reject all criticism?
If a person is resistant to all criticism, they will miss valuable information that could significantly improve their career, finances, health, and relationships. If a person were not receptive to any criticism whatsoever, they’d just as well become a hermit, which many of them do. Why? They don’t acquire mature social skills because they reject the input that they receive from anyone who comes around them.
Here’s a mild example. Let’s say a person has a habit of making very high-pitched screeching baby-talk vocalizations whenever they greet their dog and it drives a family member or friend crazy. So much so that they have to leave the room or cover their ears. If this person completely rejects the criticism about the obnoxious routine and keeps doing it, their unwillingness to stop will create a growing aggravation for the irritated person every time they hear it. It’s a small issue, but their relationship would be better if the noise stopped.
If you consider that your family and friends are observing your life from an objective point of view, they can see things that you cannot. In addition, they know you better than anyone else does. This is not to say that they are always right, however. Many times, they have their own unhealthy or self-serving motives, both conscious and subconscious. It’s up to you to sift through their comments and decide what’s worth considering further and what should be thrown out immediately.
There is, of course, a fine line between constructive criticism and being critical. There is also a fine line between helpful suggestions and criticism. These descriptions highlight their differences.
- It is constructive criticism and suggestions when it serves the best interest of the recipient and/or their relationship with the deliverer.
- It becomes destructive criticism and suggestions when it serves the deliverer in some unhealthy or selfish way. For example, if a person is angry with themselves about the conditions in their life, it’s possible that they may project their dissatisfaction onto you in the form of excessive criticism.
A person who finds fault in others will have a difficult time in their relationships. There is an old saying that goes something like this: “When you look for faults in others, they will find faults in you. When you look for the good in others, they will find the good in you.”
It’s easy to fall into the fault-finding trap. It’s one of the ways we avoid taking full responsibility for the conditions in our own lives.
I think Dale Carnegie sums it up best when he said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
There are several possible causes for the person who allows other people to criticize them. They…
- Learned this behavior from a critical parent(s).
- Have low self-esteem so they literally attract it.
- Have no skills in how to deal with criticizers.
- Haven’t taken responsibility for managing it.
If a person allows and more importantly accepts, all incoming criticism their self-confidence will suffer tremendously. The opposite will happen when they confront it.
The most important point is taking responsibility for it now. By taking responsibility and confronting it, you’ll learn how to deal with criticizers.
Looking back at your childhood or past relationships is interesting information, but don’t spend a lot of time on these issues. Instead, use your energy to develop the skills and courage you need to confront criticism as it happens.
I wrote most of this article before I found out that my friend was fired from a new job about a month before he wrote and sent me that email full of criticism. This information certainly supports my belief that people who criticize excessively are really projecting their own self-criticism and low self-esteem onto other people.
Being critical of other people is really an underhanded and cowardly way to avoid facing the truth and accepting full responsibility for the conditions in our life. Most of us have done it, however, including me. But looking at this issue head-on in the way that I’ve described it here is certainly an incentive to stop!
The only remaining question is whether anything can be gained from a letter like the one I received from my friend considering his circumstances when he wrote it. I would say yes, but the information must be considered from the standpoint of his state of mind following being fired from a new job and his history of being critical. On that basis, I disregarded 90 percent. I found that about 10 percent was valuable and worth consideration.
If you’re committed to developing the skills for dealing with criticism constructively, eventually you will become a master at listening to criticism without becoming defensive, controlling your tendency to criticize others, and managing people whose criticism is destructive.
Update 1 – My friend contacted me (several years after this article was posted) and apologized for the critical letters he had sent me. He said he had become addicted to prescription amphetamines and had lost several jobs and became homeless as a result. This highly educated man is the last person I’d expect to become addicted and homeless. A few months later, he discovered that he had a brain tumor and that it had probably been affecting his judgment for years. This information explained a lot.
Update 2 – My friend died of brain cancer on April 26, 2015. In the year prior to his death, we put the issues regarding his letters to rest and renegotiated our friendship. From that point on we maintained frequent contact as dear friends until the end.
Update 3 – I greatly miss the good times and the thousands of laughs I had with my friend.