Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

A Guide To Anger, Conflict and Respect

WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR?

In the last couple of blog posts, I have been trying to make the case that if we are to become wise we will learn to thank people whenever they criticize us, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice because criticism has the potential to make us wiser (see post titled Criticism and Wisdom). If this is so, why do so many of us feel insulted when we hear someone providing criticism to us?  Today we will discuss three reasons for this and why it is important to come to understand them.

The Style that Criticism has been Provided to us in the Past

One reason is that when we think about the times criticism was provided to us, something that struck us as mean occurred at the same time.

Perhaps Ed recalls how, when he was young some bullies would shove and slug him while at the same time criticizing his glasses.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

Perhaps Ed recalls how his mom, whenever she criticized him, yelled, called him names, threatened him, and smacked him on his rear end.

Illustration by Aviva Maltin

If such negative actions have been paired with criticism often enough, criticism does become associated with uncomfortable feelings.  The feelings and the criticism blend together.

But even if these negative actions were not part of your personal experiences, you may still find yourself feeling insulted and experiencing defensiveness whenever you are criticized.  There are two reasons for this—we have an inherent desire to be liked and to maintain freedom.

Being Liked and Criticism

It is no secret we desire to be liked.  People don’t only desire to be liked, they desire that their clothes, their appearance and their actions are liked as well.  When people provide negative criticism to us they are telling us there is something about us they don’t like.

Because the vast majority of people have the desire to be liked, it has led some to put forth the theory that in ancient days people who were not liked were banished from the tribe. Those who were banished were less likely to survive in the wild on their own and therefor were less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.  In contrast, those who were concerned about being liked and therefore worked hard to find ways to become liked were less likely to be banished from the tribe and therefore were more likely to survive.  Thus, the desire to be liked became more likely to occur in the human species.

Maintaining Your Freedom and Criticism

People desire to be free to make their own decisions.  When people criticize us, it suggests that they desire that we make some change.  Oftentimes a criticism is provided not simply as a suggestion, but the criticizer soon begins to put pressure on us to change even against our will.

As criticism is being provided to us, we often begin to think something like, “I’m not going to let this person push me into doing something I don’t want to do.  I’ll do whatever I want and I don’t need anyone pushing me around.”  This stance is part of what we call defensiveness.  In the conflict resolution literature the feelings and actions that come along with the desire to resist a loss of freedom is often referred to as “reactance.”

Why Bother to Learn the Reasons Criticism is so Hard to Bear

Learning that criticism is a path toward wisdom prods us to seek ways to hear criticism without becoming defensive and to design our criticism of others in a manner that will lessen the likelihood that they will become defensive.  The first step toward this goal is to understand the reasons why criticism is often very difficult for us.

One reason we become defensive upon hearing criticism is because the way we were provided criticism in the past struck us as mean.  Understanding this can prompt us to start thinking about how we can negotiate ways to be provided criticism in a more comfortable manner.  Moreover, it can help us to design our criticism of others in a manner that will be better received.

To become aware that when people are criticized their desire to be liked and to maintain their freedom may become threatened can also be very helpful.  There are styles of providing criticism that lesson defensiveness.  Moreover, as we receive criticism, there are styles of thinking and responding that will lead to enhancing our reputation and to protect our freedom.  In next week’s blog post we will delve further into these issues.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

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15 thoughts on “WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR?

  1. Criticism can be directed toward ideas and criticism can be intentionally personalized too. In group dialogue, criticism of ideas can be interpreted as personal attacks, and this can lead to shutting down from members who feel that they are likely to be attacked if they express their thoughts. At the same time, a dialogue that is not both an expression of critical and creative thinking will be shallow and unfulfilling to participants. To avoid attack individual authors of ideas, structured dialogic design (a methodology discussed in Bodywisdom in Dialogue [http://createspace.com/3707378]) resists criticism of an idea and instead invites critical judgment about the influence that one idea may have on another idea. In this way, criticism is directed to the “space” between ideas and not onto the source of ideas.

    • Hi Tom Flanagan,

      Thanks for you thoughtful comment. You state well what can happen at times when groups are provided criticism–“criticism of ideas can be interpreted as personal attacks, and this can lead to shutting down from members who feel that they are likely to be attacked if they express their thoughts.” (This is true as well for those who are engaged in a person to person interaction.) You go on to say that at the same time participants do want to engage in a dialogue that is an expression of critical and creative thinking. As an alternative to the typical way that criticism is provided, you appear to be advocating something you refer to as “structured dialogic design.” With this approach participants “resists criticism of an idea and instead invites critical judgment about the influence that one idea may have on another idea. In this way, criticism is directed to the “space” between ideas and not onto the source of ideas.”

      Tom, to better understand your position, I would like to “invite” you to provide us an example of what this might look like. After reading your comment, here’s an example that came to my mind. This example involves two individuals, rather than two or more groups, so I understand that it might be a bit off base. Nevertheless, here’s the example:

      A father is about to take his son to see a Yankees game. His son comes into the living room wearing a tee shirt that he has worn repeatedly over the past month and it is reeking of toxic fumes. Rather than criticize his son’s shirt directly, Dad says, “Son, there are two ideas about wearing clean clothes. On the one hand, wearing clothes that are washed regularly looks more pleasant and the smell is more pleasant for those who will come in close contact with the wearer of the clothes. On the other hand, putting off washing clothes saves time and energy costs and people can get used to body odors. Son, I invite you to tell me your thoughts about these two ideas.

      Tom, I understand that this example probably doesn’t quite capture your idea of inviting “critical judgment about the influence that one idea may have on another idea.” And so, if you will, help me to see how this idea would apply to my example, and please give us an example from your own experience.

      • Hi Jeff. You are correct. This is NOT a design situation that requires communicating complex understandings. My understanding is that the situation you describe is far more commonplace in our lives, and thereby deserving of our focused attention. In the situation you describe, two parties are already in “solution space” (going to a ball game in the very immediate future; wearing what is currently being worn). Both parties are focused on a solution with time and convenience pressures. This is not the time for design. In the example you provided — as is also very true in large complex community decision making situations — you are looking at what I might most kindly call “a collision of good intentions.” As a negotiator or a mediator, you would hope to back the parties up into a design space and take a renewed approach to planning an outing together. Life doesn’t often make this option convenient … if possible. The difficult discussion that you are pointing us to consider begs the question “is this a battle that must be fought and won on the turf that it is currently occupying?” If so, I do not profess to have a methodology for you. Much will depend upon traditions of interactions between the participants, and their expectations for outcomes from using those traditions. Concessions … when they plant seeds for resentments … foreshadow future conflict. Seeing each other’s point of view seems reasonable … but expecting an alternative point of view to be adopted is not a universally realistic expectation. I am WAY out of my comfort zone in this dialogue situation, so I speak only as an individual who learns daily from his family. I might offer to “buy” my son a brand new game shirt as soon as we get to the stadium if he would be willing to put on a different shirt for the moment. He might then recognize that my concern about his current shirt causes me sufficient distress to prompt me to make a gesture of kindness toward him. I am giving this option only a 50/50 chance of success, though.

      • Hi Tom. I enjoyed reading your reply. Yes, the example I gave to you that involved a son wearing a dirty, smelly shirt is somewhat different then the kinds of issues you have been seeking to throw light upon. You wrote, “I am WAY out of my comfort zone in this dialogue situation, so I speak only as an individual who learns daily from his family.” If you continue to follow this blog your comfort level and confidence in dealing with these situations will dramatically increase. I can tell that your instincts, however, are already excellent. I particularly like your effort to include a gesture of kindness in designing your response.

        No single exchange between any two individuals can make clear how to handle all of the conflicts we run into in life, but I believe that an ongoing dialogue will prove enormously helpful.

        Warm Regards,
        Jeff

  2. Hey there…I like this blog entry because it aims at getting to the root of why we experience anger or aversion to criticism. I believe that understanding why we experience certain aversions or emotions is key towards beginning to work towards bettering ourselves as human beings. One thing I found interesting in this post is how you say that there’s a theory that in ancient tribes, if you weren’t liked, then you’d be banished. This brought about a decreased chance of survival and this led toward people having more of an evolutionary aversion toward criticism. This is curious to me, because if human beings learned how to handle criticism well, then they’d have a waaaaayyyy better chance of survival. For instance: “Sir, I see that your method for evading angry bears involves you going up to them and making faces at them…I think maybe it’d be better if you ran away from the bear instead of provoked it.” A failure to take this criticism positively could most definitely lead to getting mauled by a ferocious bear. See my point? I think for whatever reason people respond negatively to criticism, if they can come to learn that through learning to take criticism with open arms, they can absolutely better their chances of not only survival, but happiness, skillfulness in their profession and family life, and so many other aspects of their lives.

    • Hi JSR. Thanks for your comment. It’s clear to me that my last blog post is helping you to think more deeply about the value of, as you eloquently put it, “learning to take criticism with open arms.” Thinking about these kinds of issues is a very valuable step toward becoming a master at dealing with actions many experience as insulting.

      Your metaphor of taking criticism with open arms when converted into action may need to be tempered a bit with some caution under certain limited circumstances, but for the most part it is likely to enhance your reputation. Please keep following the blog because future post will be getting into far more specifics about what it means to deal with criticism with open arms.

      As you read future blog posts, if you try out the ideas I believe readers will be interested in your specific experiences. Getting real life experiences is very helpful for integrating ideas. If you do choose to share with readers your specific experiences there is considerable wisdom in substituting made-up names for the real names of people you know. There is no sense embarrassing anyone in this type of forum.

      Thanks again for your comment,

      Jeff

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  6. Kimberly on said:

    I wonder, in the case of children, how you believe the child will interact with the world at large after leaving home if all criticism is conducted in the manners suggested above?

    I am putting forth an honest question vs. offering any criticism if the responses. I have been ample with my praise of my children, partly because I know that the world can use praise to motivate AND manipulate them. To those that say that praise should be used sparingly so that children are held to a higher standard, I counter that a child starved for praise (an innate emotional need) may be manipulated by the world with praise. This could be something as detrimental as making them vulnerable to cults, fanaticism, or a cause they don’t really believe. It could be more benign, such as staying in a job or relationship that is not right or fulfilling because there is an abundance of praise.

    If you accept my theory as being a potential issue, flip that, and please share thoughts on how do we prepare youth for the world’s harsh criticism if our approach to conflict or suggestion is always so accommodating and gentle, even solicitous? We certainly don’t want to set-up bad patterns of associating criticism with intense pain, but how do we help them be sensitized to the world’s approach without being manipulated by it? Thanks!

  7. Hi Kimberly,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am an advocate that children be taught how to respond to all of the styles of criticism that they are likely to face in the real world. Role-plays can be very effective. During the role-plays, parents don’t have to really smack the child in the face just so they learn to deal with the chance that such an event might occur in real life. We might say to the child, “Let’s say somebody begins to criticize you and at the same time, hits you. What would be the best way to respond?”

    If you go through my post one at a time, you will see specific lessons parents can use with their children. Additionally, my novels bring readers into situations in which school age children and teenagers have to deal with the real world of urban-life criticism. The hero portrays responses that powerfully address even the toughest situations. Narratives of this sought are highly effective in getting children to think through tough situations before they occur and therefore helps to prepare them for more mature action.

    I know that there is much more to your question, but in a reply like this, it is hard to give a complete answer all at once. Please keep visiting the blog, and I encourage you to keep our dialogue going.

    With Warm Regards,
    Jeff

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