How do you feel about criticism? Is it helpful? Does it just make you feel bad about yourself? Does it matter how it is given? Would you rather live without it?
The dictionary gives two definitions of criticism:
- the expression of disapproval of someone based on perceived faults or mistakes.
- the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.
The first of these definitions smacks of condemnation, fault-finding and disapproval. The second leans more towards observations or objective commentary. In my lifetime I have learned that too much of #1 leads to a strong aversion to all criticism including #2.
A little story from many years ago… In the mid-eighties, my mother asked me to give a keynote speech at a provincial Women’s Institute conference. I was working full time, had two school-age children and a husband (who was out-of-town a lot) to take care of–a typically overloaded working mom. Nevertheless, I agreed to speak and spent many hours researching and preparing for the event. I’d received awards in public speaking contests during my teenage years and my speech on that auspicious Saturday was intended to reflect that success, how I achieved it and how others could be trained to speak in public with confidence.
The day arrived… I delivered my presentation and finished on a positive note to much applause. Elated, I watched my mother make her way towards me. I was beaming and prepared for her praise and gratitude (I had done this as a favour to her–no remuneration or compensation.) Boy, was I in for a shock! Her first words were, “A good friend of mine in the audience pointed out to me that you adjusted your glasses a few times while you were speaking.” She elaborated a bit on this point and then it was time to go home. Nothing more said.
I was so deflated I could barely navigate my way out of the building. I felt like a huge failure even though I was in my thirties, had a successful career and managed a home. I couldn’t get past that sharp criticism from my mom. It echoed in my head for many years, blurring my perceptions of what others said to me.
Fast forward to recent years–yes, it has taken me this long! Writing a book has finally, fully cured me. I have had some harsh criticism, some critical literary observations and everything in between when it comes to my writing. At first, I felt great sensitivity to all of it. Then I took a step back and I began to learn what to take on and what to discard. It took many years for me to understand when criticism was coming from a place of truly wanting to help me improve as opposed to simply forwarding the critic’s personal agenda.
At this point in my life, I don’t blame my mother for her perceptions of long ago. She had her own agenda. She took her so-called friend’s comments personally–after all, she was responsible for the speaker. She just forgot to think about the impact that criticism might have on me. Upon reflection, I now remember that my speech was well-received by the audience. I should never have let one comment spoil the whole experience.
The lesson I have finally learned is how to be still, look inside myself for that true gut instinct, and understand when someone has positive motivations as opposed to personal issues when making criticisms and observations about myself or others. Not a lesson easily or quickly learned but it can be done!