All of us need constructive criticism in our lives. We all have blind spots around our personal flaws. An outside perspective helps to bring our subconscious attitudes in check and helps to mold ourselves into the best version of ourselves that we can be.
But not all criticism is “constructive” criticism. Indeed, a much of the critique that we receive tends to be of the “destructive” variety, specifically intended to tear us down. It’s end goal is to make us fit another person’s flawed desires, or simply to make us hurt. This sort of criticism has no value to us, and we would do well to distance ourselves from it.
Further complicating matters, though, is the fact that there is also “mixed” criticism. This is criticism that really does have a good point, a revelation about ourselves that we would benefit from learning, but the speaker of this criticism has impure intentions. What they’re saying is right, but they’re saying it with the intention of hurting us.
Allowing another person to mistreat you isn’t appropriate, but neither is dismissing the fair points they are making about your character. Today I want to focus on a way that you can manage both of these sides at the same time. I’ll start off by illustrating it with an allegory.
Imagine for a moment that a piece of criticism is like getting a shot. Having a needle stuck in your arm, even when administered by a professional, is always going to sting. It’s exactly the same as when we’re being told that we’re doing something wrong, no matter the abundance of tact used, it will always sting a bit. How we respond to this prospect of pain depends on how mature we are.
Children might respond to a shot by arguing against the person trying to administer it, or going limp and falling over so that the needle can’t pierce their skin, or even striking back. We do the same thing with criticism when we start dismissing it as incorrect, entering a depressive state where we tune out everything that has been said, or even start hurling insults back at the person. We don’t care about the medicine that is being offered, we are exclusively focused on the pain that is associated with it.
A more mature person will sit upright and calmly receive the inoculation. They’ll accept the momentary discomfort as a necessary inconvenience, and the whole thing will be over much sooner because of their cooperation.
But so far we’ve been assuming a careful administrator of the shot/criticism. Now let us imagine that the person coming at us is enraged, and they’re swinging that needle wildly! That needle may still have some worthy medicine inside of it, but we’re going to suffer more damage than good by letting this person carve into our flesh with reckless abandon.
The ideal solution (and believe me, this is far easier said than done), would be to stop the would-be attacker, take the syringe into your own hands, and calmly administer its composition to yourself. In terms of dealing with abusive criticism, this means that you will not permit yourself to be insulted or screamed at, and if someone breaks this boundary you will leave the situation, but at the same time you will be sensitive and empathetic to the emotions that are behind the attack.
Let us give a clear example of this. Imagine a lust addict in recovery who goes in public with his wife. An attractive woman passes them by and the wife starts to wonder if her husband is lusting for her. The wife feels hurt and insulted, and after getting home she lays into her husband, accusing him of having been emotionally unfaithful the entire evening. She brings up all the past wrongs that he has committed. She shouts, she insults and disparages, she swears, and she tries to push him back into the role of irredeemable cheater. Maybe she even starts to get physical!
And all the while the husband in this case was having a perfectly innocent, sober-minded evening. Now he’s under attack, though, and his fight-or-flight instincts are kicking in. He wants to shout back, or to disappear into his shame, but that will only aggravate the situation. Instead, he realizes that he needs to disarm the situation and acknowledge his wife’s justified hurt.
That doesn’t mean that the husband has to engage with any false narrative, though. He doesn’t have to take her insults to heart. He doesn’t have to say he was lusting that night if he really wasn’t. But he does speak up and admits that that he has betrayed his wife in the past and he can see that she is still hurting for it and he is sorry. He validates her underlying pain, but he does not condone her out-of-line behavior.
If his wife is able to be in a calm place, then he will remain in her presence and work to understand more of that underlying pain. He will take ownership for past faults and meditate upon them. She will see how he applies the syringe to himself and allows himself to feel sad and emotional for the harm that he has caused. If, on the other hand, the wife remains abusively hostile, and needs some space, then the husband moves somewhere else and has that moment of empathy and introspection in private. In either case, he has done his part to learn and grow from the constructive criticism that was hiding inside the abusive criticism. He has responded to the situation in a way that is respectful and honest.
NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.