"If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself, you should say, "He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.'" -- Epictetus
Imagine this scene. A child wants to get up before a class to give a speech, but decides not to do it. He is afraid that others may criticize him if he makes a mistake.
A teenage girl wants to take a role in a school play, but chooses not to do it. She fears that some of the other kids will make fun of her weight.
A young man wants to run for public office, but opts out of the race at the last minute. He doesn't want his family subjected to the vicious scrutiny of the press.
The list of examples goes on and on. There are multitudes of people who could have, should have, would have done great things, but decided not to even try because of the fear of criticism. Many of us can still remember the childhood jingle that went, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Not true, not true! In my judgment, nothing is as powerful as critical words to stifle enthusiasm, suffocate creativity, squelch initiative, stomp on a self-image and kill joy.
Karen Carpenter was a very popular singer in the 70's. I heard that once, during an interview, someone referred to her as "chunky." Not a very flattering thing to say to a young girl. The word burrowed deep into her consciousness. She started to diet. She dieted some more. Then she couldn't stop dieting. She developed a serious case of Anorexia Nervosa, and eventually died of it. A great loss to the entertainment world. Would that the name-caller had thrown sticks and stones at Karen rather than that deadly critical word.
A. When can I criticize someone?
Some say that criticism is necessary, that we need to correct others and tell them what's wrong with them. I say that criticism is seldom necessary, that we need to affirm others and tell them what's right with them. In my judgment ninety-five percent of all criticism is useless, hurtful and counterproductive. The one who dares to criticize another should first ask himself/herself, "Will this criticism be helpful to this person, or is this criticism springing from my own feelings of inadequacy, my inability to deal with diversity, my need to have things my way, or my personal jealousy?"
Five percent of the time criticism can be helpful, even necessary. So I would like to offer the following guidelines.
1) Remember that silence can be a virtue. All human beings are imperfect. That's a given. And how do imperfect people live together in peace? They simply ignore most faults and foibles in others. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher, "Everyone should keep a fair-sized cemetery in which to bury the faults of their friends." That would include spouse, children, neighbor, fellow-worker, etc.
2) Don't sweat the small stuff. And most people's faults and failings are small stuff. The advice of Ben Franklin about marriage is good advice for all situations. He sagely suggested, "Enter marriage with both eyes open, and live it with one eye closed."
3) There is a hierarchy of importance to issues. A few years ago I remember reading about a church community struggling with a controversial issue. Some of the members were upset about girls serving at the altar. Those protesting couldn't change the pastor's mind, so they appealed to the local bishop. The newspaper reported that, "the bishop could not be reached for comment regarding altar girls because he was in Washington, D.C. discussing nuclear survival." If you have energy with which to criticize, save it for the big issues. Write letters, raise funds, and speak out against world hunger, oppressive governments, violence in our streets, human rights violations, drunk driving, etc. Don't waste time and energy on the small stuff. When I was a pastor I heard the usual criticism about the music in church being too loud, the decorations too gaudy, or the garden too shabby, etc. When someone finally voiced a criticism that we were not doing enough for the poor in the city, I smiled. It showed an awareness and concern for a genuinely important issue.
The petty chitchat and negative blather in the gossip columns of today is forgotten by tomorrow. Critical literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or an eye-opening analysis such as Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, were classics that inspired generations into action. They teach us to concentrate on the genuinely important issues.
4) Criticize the action, not the person. For instance, drug abuse is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Terrorism is wrong. And we can rightfully criticize such action. But we don't know how aware or intelligent or knowledgeable the ones involved are. How free are they from emotion and pressure? What is their background and education? What are their fears? What kind of self-image do they struggle with? William Longfellow observed, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find there suffering and sorrow, enough to disarm all hostility."
5) Realize there are no experts in anything. To know all of reality is beyond our grasp. The most intelligent persons among us have a very limited amount of knowledge and experience. A graduate degree means that a person has acquired a significant beginning in learning. Even Pulitzer Prize winners and Ph.D.'s are just novices to truth. Most controversial subjects/situations are quite complex. We never have all the facts or understand all the feelings involved. The truly wise person is humble and realizes how little he knows. He is always ready to listen, to seek further information, to understand more deeply. His words are chosen carefully. Often he is silent. He has learned, "A closed mouth gathers no feet."
6) When angry, report your feelings. "This upsets me." "I feel let down." "I am hurt by your words." I am anguished by your decision." "I am disturbed by your actions." Statements like these give the other person a chance to explain, to question, to apologize, or respond in some way to our feelings. Reporting feelings at least keeps communication open. Avoid making statements that put the other person down. "You dummy." "How could you be so stupid?" Why don't you grow up?" "Act your age." Words like these put the other person on the defensive, invite retaliation, and erect walls that cut off effective communication.
7) They say that the loudness of one's voice is in proportion to the weakness of one's argument. I say the loudness of one's voice is in proportion to the weakness of one's charity. Be gentle. Feelings are everywhere.
8) Set aside a definite time and place (never meal time!) to hash out problems. Don't nag all week long. Put all your nags in one basket and bring them to a once-a-week or a once-a-month session. Settle the issues as best you can, than forget them. The constant pick-pick-pick of criticism is like the constant drip-drip-drip of water. Drops of water can eventually crack a boulder. Constant nagging can break apart the strongest marriage or friendship.
9) Before criticizing another, it is a good practice to first look in the mirror. No mirror? Look down. Notice your feet of clay. Recall Jesus' words to those preparing to cast stones at the woman caught in adultery. "Let the one among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her." (John 8:7) A reminder like that is a lot more effective than counting to ten.
10) If you see something serious that needs correcting or improving, try saying "I will." rather then "Why don't you.?" There is energetic power in the statement, "I will try to improve this situation myself." It is positive action that counts. No statue has ever been erected to honor a critic.
11) Some criticism comes under the category of "Tough love." But tough love is, first and foremost, love. Criticism, in order to be effective, must me accompanied by compassion and affection. I find much wisdom from the author, James Dobson, in his book, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.
"The right to criticize must be earned, even if the advice is constructive in nature. Before you are entitled to tinker with another person's self-esteem, you are obligated first to demonstrate your respect for him/her as a person. When a relationship of confidence has been carefully constructed, you will have earned the right to discuss a potentially threatening topic. Your motives will have been thereby clarified."
B) "What about when others criticize me?"
The former Chancellor of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, confided, "God has given me a great gift, -- a thick skin!" Politics can be brutal. And Chancellor Adenauer still enjoyed public life at age eighty, because he didn't let criticism get the best of him.
Chances are the first words of criticism directed at us probably occurred when we were born. I can imagine the doctor, nurse, or midwife looking at me and saying, "This child is too light (or too dark, too fat or too skinny)." "Her legs are too short, just like her mother's." "His ears are too big, just like his father's." Right from the start somebody noticed that we were not perfect. We weren't then, and we aren't now. So there will always be something about us that people will pick on, denounce, or at least "advise" us on how we can improve. Why people do this is a complex issue. But criticize us and bully us they will, you can count on it. So what do we do about it?
1) Expect criticism. Be prepared for it. Don't be surprised when it comes your way. Ancient Aristotle observed this twenty-three centuries ago. "Criticism is something we can avoid easily, -- by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing." If you are determined to speak true words, do just actions, and be something worthwhile, know that you will ruffle feathers. Good. It means your life is having a positive impact. It is a blessing that you are here.
2) Be bold. Instead of fearing criticism and running away from it, stand up and welcome it. If the criticism is true, you can learn from it and improve yourself. This is especially true if the criticism comes from someone who loves you and is concerned about you. When we are growing up we need parents to teach us right from wrong by correcting us as needed. When we are in school, we need teachers to instruct us in the best ways to study and learn. When we start to work we need a boss who can point out where we can improve performance and thereby keep our job. And if we take up golf, we need a pro to show us all the things that we are doing wrong in our swing.
When I took a speech class in college, I always sought out a particular friend to give me feedback when I practiced my delivery. I trusted him not only to pat me on the back when I did well, but to also let me know where I failed and where I needed to improve. I invited his criticism. How else would I know? Actual delivery time was too late.
You and I are a work in progress. None of us ever reaches perfection. None of us is without faults. Helpful criticism can be the spur we need to grow and improve. The key here is not to take any criticism as absolute truth. It is only the opinion of another fallible human being. Simply listen. Then you judge if what they say is of value. If it is, learn from it. If it is not, ignore it and go on.
3) Know that you are in control of your feelings. Oftentimes criticism is not spoken to help us but is meant to hurt us. Let's say a person comes up to you and says, "You're a stupid idiot." These words could be spoken by your boss, your parent, your neighbor, or even a stranger. Obviously this kind of statement is meant to hurt you. Will it work? ONLY IF YOU LET IT! Eleanor Roosevelt made this keen observation. "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." The key here is what you say to yourself after someone says something to you. For instance, you might say, "I guess he's right. I am a stupid idiot." Then it is you who makes yourself feel bad. Or you might say instead, "Oh, the poor fellow. He must be too blind to see the goodness and intelligence I have. I hope someday he'll take the time to really know me." Then it is you who makes yourself feel good. Or you might say, "Wow, I wonder what's eating him. I wonder if he is sick. For his sake, I hope his attitude improves." Or again, "What a grouch. He doesn't seem to like anyone. I'll bet he would criticize Mother Theresa."
4) Be sure of what you are. If someone calls me "Shorty," and I know I am six foot four inches tall, their words can't possibly hurt me. Their perception is clearly wrong. But if someone calls me "ugly," and I am unsure about how I look, their words can bother me. If you are insecure and filled with self-doubt about your looks, your talents, or your accomplishments, then the words of others can get to you. "Know thyself."
5) Be sure of what you stand for. In the words of Winston Churchill, "So long as I am acting from courage and conviction I am indifferent to taunts and jeers. I think they will probably do me more good than harm." Oftentimes, the taunts and jeers of others can strengthen our resolve and spur on to victory. It certainly worked for Churchill.
Be sure of what you stand for. A striking example of this quality was Edmond G. Ross. In 1868, facing enormous political pressure to vote for the impeachment of President Andrew Jackson, Senator Ross chose to vote his conscience. He cast the deciding vote to acquit, knowing full well it would earn him vicious criticism and bring an end to his political career. Nevertheless, for him, fidelity to principle and loyalty to his oath took precedence over popularity and advancement. (Cf. Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy)
6) Be sure of where you are going. It was Leonardo da Vinci who stated, "Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed on a star does not change his mind." In conducting the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln encountered heavy opposition and endured constant insults. But he was focused. He was resolved to preserve the Union, and no obstacle could swerve him from his purpose. That's one reason we honor him as one of our best presidents.
7) In the ever bumpy journey through life, it certainly helps to have support from our family and friends. The early Christian martyrs facing persecution and death strengthened each other, singing and praying together right up to their last breath. Soldiers in battle have performed heroic deeds thanks to the encouragement and example of others around them. Politicians join a party to have the collaboration and backing of others who believe as they do. An understanding family can be a great refuge and source of rejuvenation as we face the challenges of living. And if we choose our friends carefully, we know we can count on peer support in doing the right thing.
The best way to insure that our family and friends will stand by us when we need them is to be a loyal family member and a loyal friend.
8) Forgive yourself. The most harping critic most of us have to face is the one we encounter in the mirror. "I'm such a klutz." How could I say something so stupid?" "I can't do anything right." It is very important for our personal happiness to take the points in section "A" and apply them to ourselves:
- Don't sweat the small stuff.
- Concentrate on important issues.
- Criticize your actions but not the person you are.
- Express feelings about yourself but not judgments; don't put yourself down.
- Set aside a specific time to deal with your faults, and then get on with your life.
- You are only human, so be understanding.
- Love yourself.
9) Give yourself credit for trying. "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." -- Theodore Roosevelt. When I was a kid, I was proud to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs, even though the team was regularly in last place. I saw the players as a bunch of guys who always gave the game their best effort. Every once in a while, when the team was behind five to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, they would amazingly pull it out and win six to five. Wow, what a team! They never gave up. When I die, I would like only two words engraved on my headstone. "I tried."
No matter who we are, where we live, or how old we are, life is tough. We all could use some help getting through it. The fact is we actually CAN help each other. We actually CAN make life more bearable and more enjoyable for everyone. The rock foundation for a peaceful and productive life together on this planet is to see ourselves as brothers and sisters who come from the same Creator. This Creator loves each one of us unconditionally. This Creator has given us the power to do the same. But we have to choose to do so. Choosing loving thoughts is the first step. Then loving words. Then loving actions. Then...peace.
Fr. Alan Phillip, C.P.