The American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard once advised that, if we wish to avoid criticism, we should say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.
Tempting as it might be to heed the advice, it would surely make for a dull life. Dealing with criticism is, like death and taxes, one of the certainties of life that all of us are bound to encounter.
Recently, I was asked by a reader for suggestions on how to avoid criticism, particularly as it deeply affects them whenever someone offers their disapproval. It’s difficult to top Hubbard’s advice, although it would be difficult for most of us to actually apply it in our lives!
The next best thing, then, is to develop a perspective that allows us to cope well with any criticism so that we can avoid taking it to heart and enduring the needless suffering that follows.
If people found fault with Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and the Buddha, it’s unrealistic that any of us would be without critics. Our words and actions will never be to everyone’s liking, and this is just a fact of life that applies to every single person. Therefore, the first step in dealing with criticism is to realise that none of us is free from it: it’s something that everyone faces. There’s nothing unique about having shortcomings.
A story from the time of the Buddha talks about his visit to a local village. Everyone was so happy to see him and to hear his words of wisdom. But there was one young man who hated the sight of the Buddha and thought him to be a fake who charmed the gullible.
During the Buddha’s talk, the young man began to shout and scream at him. The Buddha paid him no attention, which only served to make the young man angrier. Finally, the young man confronted the Buddha face-to-face and said, “You have no right to teach anything to others. You are as stupid as everyone else. Stop fooling everyone. You are fake!”
Some followers attempted to intervene, but they were waved away by the Buddha who posed a question to his critic. “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?” Startled, the young man replied, “Since I bought the gift, if it wasn’t accepted, it would belong to me.”
The Buddha replied, “That’s correct. It’s exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not feel insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”
When people criticise us, it can sometimes be valuable to reflect on it. If a colleague tells us we haven’t done something right or that we’ve behaved in an unhelpful way, it can help us to see what we could do better next time to avoid repeating the same mistake.
However, if someone criticises us unfairly or delivers a personal insult, the chances are that they are looking for a reaction – and since none of us like to be criticised, our impulsive reaction is freely offered up.
When people criticise us, it can sometimes be valuable to reflect on it… However, if someone criticises us unfairly or delivers a personal insult, the chances are that they are looking for a reaction.
By reacting to unfair criticism, we are accepting the so-called gift of another person’s negative emotions and taking them on as our own, whether they leave us feeling sad or inadequate or angry. In other words, we are giving someone else permission to control our happiness, which is something we would never consciously choose to do under normal circumstances.
People who needlessly criticise others usually feel inadequate or unhappy themselves, and so it makes them feel better if they can pass their discomfort on to someone else. A person who is content tends not to feel the need to belittle others. On the contrary, they’re more likely to try to empower others and lift their spirits.
The trick to coping with criticism is to try to avoid taking it personally, even if it’s constructive criticism, which focuses more on a specific behaviour or action rather than ourselves. By refusing to buy into harsh criticism, we refuse to accept the “gift” and so the giver is left with the consequences of his or her actions. And if we think about whose opinions truly matter to us, there’s probably only a few people who fall into that category, so why worry about what anyone else thinks?
The moment we stop outsourcing our sense of self-worth to others is the moment we stop needing to wonder whether we’re good enough according to other people’s standards.
From there, the realisation begins to unfold that the only expectations we ever need to meet are the ones we set for ourselves.
Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.