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Why Criticism Stings

And water of a duck's back

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We all know the feeling. You’ve done something you’re rather proud of and expecting at least a tiny “Well done!” from somebody. And then along comes some smarty-pants or other and with a roll of the eyes, a twist of the lip and a little snort, makes a snide remark that they clearly think is witty. Or if they’re somewhat lacking on the witticisms front, perhaps it’s something rather more spiteful and obviously intended to take the wind out of your sails.

            How we feel about this attack on our ego depends more on who’s making the criticism than what the criticism actually is. It might be fury, despair, irritation, disappointment, anguish, frustration or any mix of those, and almost always accompanied by a fair-sized dose of self-righteousness. It’ll more often than not produce something between a verbal “Go away!” (though put more bluntly, perhaps) and a silent “OMG, I’m dying from a terminal dose of humiliation,” the latter being especially the case when others were present during the event. But it actually doesn’t have to be like that. It’s entirely possible to acquire a ‘water off a duck’s back’ persona. And we’re not talking here about putting on a brave exterior while the interior is crying its eyes out, but of being genuinely unfazed by the prognostications of they-who-feel-superior.

            An important step on the way to achieving this is to forget all that justification nonsense that sometimes comes with such stuff. Things like: “I hope you can accept this in the spirit it is meant.” Yeah, right. Translated, that means something like: “I want to destroy you, but I don’t want to be the bad guy.” Or maybe it’s more subtle. “I’ve always found constructive criticism helpful so I hope you can accept this in the same way.” Yeah, right, again. That one usually means: “I think you believe you’re better than me, so I’m shooting you down.”

            The human mind never does anything without good reason and criticism is no exception. No matter how its couched, it’s aimed at reduction. A reduction of their fear that your ideas are better than theirs, especially if they happen to be more educated than you. A reduction of their fear that others might view you as superior to them in some way. It’s nothing more than a blatant attempt to stop you in your tracks so that whatever it is you’ve come up with is either (a) strangled at birth; or (b) revealed to the world as somehow inferior. In other words, it’s all about them and their own insecurities and is based on their own life, life events, doubts and fears… not yours.

            To put it succinctly: the one who criticises is not really talking about you at all but about their favourite subject – themselves. They are seeking to deflect the cannon ball of your idea that threatens their sense of self in some way. They are trying to unload what they are feeling onto you, and the greater the criticism the more you have inadvertently hit the target. Of course, if what they are criticising really is a pile of doggy doo, their joy at discovering that they are still the clever ones knows no bounds…

It’s actually quite easy to learn how to avoid smarting under their attack with this four-point plan. When somebody levels a criticism:

  1. Ask yourself what’s in it for them.
  2. Ask yourself why it’s affecting you.
  3. Whatever you feel at (2) is the answer to (1)
  4. Decide to not play ball and hope they feel better soon.

The most important thing of all is to avoid knee-jerk responses designed to make them feel as bad as you do. It won’t work and is likely to end up in a seemingly endless tit-for-tat fest that just ends up amusing the onlookers. And there almost always will be onlookers even if you don’t know who they are. They who criticise need an audience and they more often than not make jolly well sure they have one.

            If you want or need to make a response, reasoned and sensible justification of your position is good but anything akin to: “Yeah? Well, who pulled your chain then?” is almost an admission that you believe they might be right.

            And there’s just one last thing. If they manage to prove their point and show, however triumphantly, that they were right and you were wrong, you can maintain your own integrity with a graceful exit. “My goodness, I can see that now, thank you! I’ve learnt something today.”

Yes, it will probably stick in your throat, but it also effectively disables their gloat!

©Terence Watts, 2020

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