Few people like criticism, and for good reason: other peoples’ negative opinions can prove deadly to our self-esteem. Criticism can deflate self-esteem by arousing and arming what McKay and Fanning (2000) call our “internal pathological critic” (p. 147). Think of your pathological critic as an inner mp3 player that effortlessly streams messages of your personal deficiencies. Who wants to crank up the volume on that playlist? Whether criticism is constructive (motivated by a genuine desire to help) or manipulative or pointless, it’s usually unwelcome. So how can we keep criticism from eroding our self-esteem? First, entertain this idea: “criticism has nothing to do with true self-esteem. True self-esteem is innate, undeniable, and independent of anyone’s praise” (p. 148). Second, consider that much criticism is not based on objective reality, and recognize that “we rarely perceive reality with 100% accuracy and objectivity” (p. 148).
Here’s an example. One recent evening, three activities converged to create a critical response in my family. While my daughter was drying her hair in the bathroom, my son placed a bag of popcorn in the kitchen microwave and pushed “start”. Meanwhile my husband was glued to the TV as he waited to see a famous knockout in heavyweight boxing history. Suddenly, a circuit breaker failed – the microwave lost power and the bathroom went dark, but the television still worked. I descended the stairs, opened the circuit breaker box, and moved the offending switch to “on”. The switch refused to stay “on”, so I moved it all the way to “off” and back to “on”. As a result, the TV lost power one second before the awaited knockout. My husband immediately criticized me for turning off the circuit breaker switch – even though it was necessary to restore power upstairs.
In my family story, each of us perceived the event differently: our teens thought something odd had occurred; I suddenly remembered that one of our circuits has an overload problem (usually observed only when Christmas lights and the microwave are simultaneously in use); my husband, engrossed in TV land, assumed that human ignorance had messed up his evening. My point is that we each regularly and uniquely filter and edit what we perceive of reality, and our emotional reactions fall in line with our perceptions.
It’s like we each play a reality show on a TV screen in our heads. Maybe you and I have cameras aimed at the same scene in real life, but we see different images and hear different voice-overs on our mental TV screens. We each uniquely filter and edit our reality shows, but neither screen permits either of us to see reality directly. I can’t fully know what’s on your mental screen and you can’t fully know what’s playing on mine. I can’t even tell you some of the messages displayed on my screen – they come and go faster than I can communicate. Due to reliability issues, I can’t automatically believe what I see on my screen, and neither can you. Our voice-overs interpret reality and sometimes distort what we see. I may think my reality show is very accurate when, in fact, it is really distorted. I can’t control all of what I see on my mental screen all the time. Yet sometimes I can focus my awareness on one thing when I pray or meditate. Although we can each improve the quality of our personal reality shows, neither of us can eliminate the screening process. Here’s the kicker: critics don’t criticize us, they only criticize the versions of us that show up in their personal reality shows. What critics see and who we are may be vastly different.
Through five senses, we humans perceive reality, but our perceptions are influenced by our genetic wiring, momentary physiological and emotional states, memories of similar past experiences, beliefs, and our needs (McKay & Fanning). These influences provide many opportunities to distort perception. A person who is genetically wired to be gregarious may criticize you for being shy, without considering that you may be genetically wired that way. A critic’s unpleasant attitude may be attributable to a bad enchilada eaten at lunch, and have nothing to do with your job performance. Your loved one may come home angry from work, throwing off rejecting vibes that have absolutely nothing to do with you. Sometimes people criticize us because they are responding to reruns of the past – stuck in past habits: I grew up in a family where sarcastic humor reigned, and I learned that habitual sarcasm feels like a negative, critical attitude. Prejudices, values, and beliefs all influence our perceptions. If a mother values neatness, she may critically exaggerate any sign of sloppiness. A prejudiced person can’t trust what he sees when hated groups appear in his personal reality show. Someone may reject you in the present based on a belief learned from past experience, having nothing to do with you. A critic’s needs distort her perception of reality: a woman in constant need of physical reassurance may regularly criticize the appearance of others.
With all this potential for distortion, none of us can take criticism at face value. Perhaps remembering that will take some of the sting out of criticism.
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2000). Self-esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.