Reacting to Criticism

Being criticized may not be such a bad thing, if we take time to reflect on our own reaction and our reasoning.

At a few times during recent months, I have found myself feeling some familiar but unpleasant feelings. This happened when comments or criticism “hit a nerve” or triggered a defensive reaction. Usually we just react, but I forced myself to stop and think about why. Why did that comment from that person cause such a strong emotional reaction? No one really likes to hear criticism, but there are different kinds of criticism. It is one thing to have a mistake pointed out. Errors can be corrected, often without major damage to the ego. But often, as I think in these cases, the criticism is not so much about what was done or said, but includes an element of shame. There is some inference (maybe intended, but also possibly just perceived) of judgement associated with it – an underlying message that we are somehow a bad person, an idiot, or a fool. The feeling is that we are being personally attacked. The feelings may be more intense when the giver of the message is someone we feel has no position of authority or superiority to judge us. “How dare they” we think and want to strike back. We may also feel a need to defend ourselves and our position.

There may be some intent on the part of the person making the comment to get us to question our position. Most of us don’t like to be questioned, hence the defensive reaction. Some people are just critical because it makes them feel superior. Some apparently cannot see any other opinion than their own as being right. Some may be trying to sway us to another position or to tear down our faith or our confidence. Some may actually have our best interests at heart and are trying to help us to learn. The source of criticism and the relationship and trust we have in that person makes a big difference in how we react.

Judging the intent of another is difficult, but our reaction can tell us much about ourselves. Are we overly sensitive to criticism? Are we taking personally something that is not intended to be personal? Could we possibly be wrong or not seeing another side of a situation?

Though our reaction may not be indicative, such criticism may actually be a good thing – If we take the opportunity to reflect on what we said, how we said it, and our underlying beliefs and conclusions,. Then we can go back to our sources of information, re-assess their reliability, and review our reasoning process and conclusions. It can be very healthy to question ourselves in this way, to assume that there may be more to the story, we may not have all of the available information, or there may be another perspective to consider.

After this evaluation we may see a need to make a correction or alter our view, but it is never a good idea to change or retract what we say just because another person told us we were wrong. If after a personal review, we still feel we are correct, there is one more step to take.

I often repeat to myself Paul’s counsel to Timothy: “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them.” (2 Timothy 3:14)

We can seek and receive this reassurance, a confirmation that we are correct, that we understand and are speaking truth as best we can. With that confirmation we can be confident with what we know, whether or not others agree.

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