Before we ask ourselves the question of how we respond to criticism let us understand the word. Criticism, on the face of it, is almost always understood in a negative way because it proposes or points to deficiency, or fault or some such similar shortcoming in every case. So whether it is someone else or our own selves, criticism is almost always a negative observation. But criticism is also an integral part of improvement—the fine arts have always needed critics to translate to audiences what was possible and what was missing in any work of art.
Criticism is what we receive almost ever day as advice from our superiors, teachers, parents and best friends. So it is clear that we are partial to certain types of criticism; able to accept it better in some cases and not at other times. What is the difference?
It is important to understand this because while this may seem like an unpleasant act in itself, it has to be seen in the correct perspective before we can modulate our response to it. Now question yourself: Do you tend to take criticism personally? Are you quick to jump to the conclusion that someone is being critical of you just because of something they said or did? Or perhaps you are someone who needs the praise of others to feel worthy and validated—to give you the security of feeling you are good enough?
If you feel affected by criticism or praise, you need to practice increasing your self-sufficiency. Become familiar with your own strengths so that you can feel good about yourself without the need for others to tell you. When you feel the first hint of criticism, try giving yourself a little space, so that you can see it for what it is, rather than immediately taking it to heart and feeling hurt. Is the criticism helpful in any way? If yes, that’s great—take it as a lesson and a chance to grow or learn.
If it has come from ignorance, then have the courage to look closely enough to see if there might still be a lesson there, while understanding that it may have little relevance for you and be more about the person who gave it.
Be aware that if you react very strongly to criticism, you may, in turn, be a harsh critic. If you can practice being less critical or judgmental of others, you will go a long way to being able to handle criticism with less drama yourself. If you are always striving for perfection, and feel burned when people point out the reality that you are less than perfect, practice patience towards and acceptance of other people’s points of view.
If you think someone is being rude to you, ask yourself, ‘So what? Does it really matter to my life?’ It’s usually a case of misunderstanding, anyway. Even if the other person is very ignorant, you don’t need to respond with ignorance or anger. Your beliefs and standards may seem exactly right and ‘proper’ to you, but they are just one set of labels. They are not the ‘universal truth’.
I know that having ‘good judgment’ is something that many of us wish for, to feel proud of ourselves for having formed the right impression about someone or something or about a situation. ‘I knew it,’ we whisper to our egos, puffing up like a balloon so that we can hardly fit through the door. While it is important to listen well to our inner wisdom, it’s useful also to be aware of the difference between wisdom and ego to let things be mentally, rather than judge and be critical. The Tibetans have a great saying for this—it is easier to spot the fly on another person’s nose than a horse on our own!
Criticism that cuts is most often the most accurate observation in retrospect. In such cases, try and differentiate the deliverer of the criticism from the criticism. For instance, if a colleague you dislike makes a nasty comment about your style of dressing, separate the two and become conscious of your established dislike for the colleague and his statements. Evaluate then if the statement on its own has value or merit. If it turns out to be personal opinion, you can ignore it. If it is an opinion you have heard often about yourself from others too, pay attention and internalise it. There may be truth in it.
If the statement comes out of the colleague’s loathing of you or fear or jealousy, see it for what it is and feel a little sorry and promise yourself never to make similar remarks of such insecurities. In each of the three responses, there is a lesson learnt, practice reaffirmed and control established. Take this exercise further each day until criticism has no impact, except good, on you. The author is the spiritual head of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa Order based in theHimalayas