“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
According to Aristotle, criticism is nearly inevitable; however, accepting criticism is becoming increasingly difficult. Anticipating real or imagined criticisms, which is not constructive, often causes intense worry. Everyone occasionally worries, but constant worry leads to anxiety. These obsessive, cyclical thoughts produce intense hyper-vigilance, and a defensive aroused state.
Over many years of providing psychotherapeutic services, I have observed an increased fear of real and/or imagined criticism. From my observations and direct work with others who struggle with these thoughts and feelings, I’ve created a triangle that describes this process.
On the top of the triangle, YOU are your worst critic. I ask my patients to candidly discuss or write down their criticisms of themselves. Perhaps you grew up in an environment where someone criticized you, or was critical of him/herself, or others. Sometimes, unconsciously, you end up doing to yourself what you experienced while growing up.
On the lower left corner of the triangle, YOU sometimes project these criticisms of yourself. In essence, you assume others are just as critical of you as you are of yourself. For example, if you think you are not smart, you will worry intensely that others will think you are not smart. One of my favorites books is Miguel Angel Ruiz's The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do. One of the Four Agreements is: Don’t make assumptions. YOU assume what other people are thinking and/or possibly saying about you, and believe it’s reality, when it’s not. The result is overwhelming anxiety.
On the lower right corner of the triangle, YOU sometimes criticize others. On the one hand, this type of criticism is sometimes harder to see and accept; on the other hand, you may know this about yourself, and not like it.
I’m often told, “Ok, I know where this comes from. I know what I struggle with. How do I fix this?”
Work on your self-esteem. When you work on your self-judgments, you will eventually be less concerned about judgments from others. Explore the origins of these self-criticisms: Did a caregiver criticize you? Was a caregiver the type of person who criticized him/herself, as well as others? For better and for worse, we repeat the patterns of our caregivers. The purpose of this exploration is not to blame them, but to help you understand the origin of your self-criticisms. Write down your self-judgments, and chances are, the next time you think or feel someone is criticizing you, you will recognize that you are projecting a self-judgment from your list. Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung expresses this insight well: "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. "
Don't be overly self-critical. As psychotherapist Brené Brown notes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, as you become aware of your imperfection, be kind to yourself. Remember that we are all human beings, and beautifully imperfect; so aiming to be perfect is aiming for the impossible. Seeking perfection also leads to excessive worrying and anxiety.
Personalize your goals. Seek to always improve yourself, but keep in mind that this is different from perfection. As Miguel Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements,"Always give your best, and your best will be different, but at the end of the day you will know you gave your best." Your best should not be based on the ‘assumed’ expectation of another person. Seeking to always please and to be liked by others sometimes leads to receiving the opposite response.
Accept your true self. Another great read in this regard is Freedom from the Known, by Jiddu Krishnamurti. On page 17, we read, "If you try to study yourself according to another, you will always be a secondhand human being." Finding internal comfort with ourselves, and accepting our human nature, can help liberate us from the constant, hyper-aroused fear of criticism.
Be patient.Is there any quick fix? No; working on yourself is a journey that takes time. However, here’s a coping tip: change your focus, or change your orientation, away from the real or imagined criticism. It’s the oldest trick every caregiver knows. I was riding the subway to the office one day, and witnessed how a mother consoled her crying baby by distracting him with toys and snacks. Likewise, when someone is having an anxiety attack, changing the focus or orientation away from the source of the anxiety sometimes helps.
Still, dealing with criticism in more effective ways does not mean that you won’t care about what others think, but it will prevent criticism from becoming a cyclical obsessive concern that gets in the way of being your "free" self. As long as you are kind to others and yourself, you can accept your imperfections as you strive to be your best possible self. Adopting these attitudes provides a priceless, internal and comforting freedom.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go Of Who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden.
Jiddu, Krishnamurti (2010). Lutyens, Mary, ed. Freedom from the Known. London: Rider Books. 144 pp. ISBN 978-1-84604-213-3
Ruiz, M. (1997). The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. San Rafael, Calif: Amber-Allen Pub.