Absolutely everybody receives some criticism in life. Some of us have the misfortune of growing up with critical parents, while others bump into their first critic at school, but we all have to face criticism at some point, right?
Also, every two people are different in some way and so, when person A’s actions affect person B’s life, invariably there is some form of feedback from person B to let person A know. In the purest sense of the word, this is criticism.
A quick look at Internet-based dictionaries reveals the following definitions:
- Feedback is “The return of information about the result of a process or activity; an evaluative response”
- Criticism is “A comment expressing fault, interpretation, analysis, verbal disapproval”
Say your partner likes vanilla ice cream and you like chocolate. Your partner goes shopping and comes back with vanilla. No chocolate. Bummer!
Obvious criticism that will get you shaking your head and saying, “This is not the way to behave” is when you frown and say angrily, “You’re so selfish, you know? You only got the kind of ice cream you like, but what about me?”
Name-calling is just bad form, and so is the assumption of selfish intent, so we will just label this example as a clear-cut no-no and move on.
Here is another approach. You help your partner unpack and put away and casually say, “Honey, could you get some chocolate ice cream next time?”
If you are in a good mood as you read this, or if you take criticism easily, it may seem to you that this is a very nice way to deal with the situation – it is future-focused, presented as a request and contains nothing obviously negative. But there are people and there are times and moods when this request can be taken just as badly as if you were being horrible about not getting your kind of ice cream.
The way I see it, even the most well intended, forward-thinking, let’s-work-together comment will be taken as (severe) criticism if one or more of the following is true:
- The recipient is past-focused and interprets the comment as “You didn’t get me the ice cream I like this time”, instead of “please do it next time”
- The recipient over generalizes and interprets the comment as “You never get me the ice cream I like”, as opposed to “this time”
- The recipient personalizes and interprets the comment as “You are a selfish person” (identity-level), instead of “You didn’t buy my ice cream” (action-level)
- The recipient presumes to tell the future and interprets the comment as “Now he/she’s going to be mad at me”
- The recipient catastrophizes and thinks “This is horrible and I can’t live with it”, instead of “It’s only ice cream”
Put together, a seemingly innocent request for ice cream is received as “You never get me my ice cream, you are selfish and I’m going to be mad at you forever!”
The magic cure for criticism
You will be happy to know there is a very good cure for criticism. It is so good it applies equally to both people in any relationship and can boost their respective self-esteems. It involves the following belief:
I always do the best I can
- You are doing the best you can subconsciously. You may be aiming for things you are not aware of, like satisfying your need for significance or variety or protecting your sense of identity.
- You always do the best you can for you. Whenever others are hurt by your actions or words, this is not what you mean. Even when you deliberately and knowingly say or do something nasty to someone else, your true goal is to improve your own feeling and the other person is an unfortunate casualty.
Essentially, believing that people always do the best they can will stop you from blaming them for not doing what you want just because you want it. Any feedback you give them will then be positive, future-focused and presented as a request. If they think your request is good for them and is within their power, they will do it.
Believing that you always do the best you can will stop you from being defensive when others present their view of things and their desires. Maybe you did not know something, maybe you were tired, maybe you were angry, it does not matter. You always do the best you can.
Unfortunately, most people do not have this belief. This is not surprising, because we are surrounded by self-centered people who put demands on our time and attention and do their best to link our self-esteem to how happy we make them. Most notable is parents’ (and teachers’) habit of saying to kids “Good boy/girl” (identity-level statement) when they do what they are expected to do and “Bad boy/girl” when they do not.
How to believe the best about yourself
Find a quiet, private place for this exercise, where you can spend a few minutes undisturbed. After you read the rest of the instructions, sit comfortably, take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
Think of something in your life you deeply regret. It may be something you have done or something you have said and even something you “could have done/said” but did not. With the memory, you may feel a variety of negative emotions, such as guilt, shame, inadequacy and sadness.
Now answer this question: If you rolled back time and went back to being that same person at that time and place, could you do anything differently?
Many people say, “Of course. With what I know now…” But you are going back to being the same person. No new knowledge, no new abilities, not even from 1 second later. The exact same person, in the same mood and with the same mindset.
As long as you think the answer is “Yes”, keep asking yourself, “So why didn’t you?”
If you get tempted to think, “But I should have”, keep asking yourself, “But could I?”
Eventually, you are bound to realize the person you were at that time and place, following the events that came just before, having your unique background, beliefs and needs could only do the very thing you did. It was your only option.
The only conclusion possible from this exercise is that you always do the best you can. If it was in your power or within your (emotional) abilities to do anything better, you would have done it for sure.
And the same is true for everybody else!
Have an empowering life,
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