How to deal with criticism is an important point on our journey to a more peaceful existence. Being wrong or making a mistake isn’t something we wish for. There are many emotions attached to it and they are seldom positive. It is something I still struggle with, but I’m training myself to get the most out of it and improve myself.
In this post I’d like to examine what criticism or negative feedback is and how we can prepare ourselves for it. To take that first sting out of it and how we can use it to our benefit. As you might be used from me by now, we are doing this based on Stoic principles. Criticism isn’t always bad and we should learn to welcome it. Because it could prevent a lot more hurt or anxiety. When you’ve finished reading this, I’d welcome you to leave an honest comment. This will go towards my personal training in dealing with positive or negative feedback.
Criticism is an opinion
One major component, a place where we should start, is the influence of our ego. The ego is sensitive and shaken easily. It is also full of greed and needs feeding all the time. Which it helps itself to, by absorbing all the input that it gets. Our wants and desires are shaped here. But that’s also where our vulnerabilities lie, our fears and doubts. When we know who we are and understand what is important to us, we can better come to terms with our ego and strengthen it. But that’s something for another post because it requires a bit more insights.
Along the rest of this journey we take our ego with us and we can give it some comfort here or there. But now we will look at what criticism is and why it affects us the way it does. Criticism is an opinion of someone else on something we think or do. This post could be short if we apply pure Stoicism to it. Because the Stoics would say that the opinions of others are external and therefore not to our concern. They should not affect us because they’re out of our control. But that’s not how it works. So let’s look how we can come as close as we can to this Stoic ideal.
One look could send us in to turmoil
First of all, to receive criticism, we need to remove ourselves from it. As a content creator, I’m putting myself out there every week. And that’s a conscious decision I made to improve myself in the area of criticism. But you don’t have to be a content creator to receive criticism. By living your life there will be people who won’t agree with the way you do it. Whether they express it or not, you will have critics. Which can be a comforting thought because it doesn’t matter what you do. And if that’s the case then why not be who you want to be. Like Marcus Aurelius shows us here:
“If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature-along the road they share.”Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Book 5.3
If we can receive criticism around any corner, why does it bother us so much? We may have decided to wear a combination of clothes that someone doesn’t like. One look or word could send us in terrifying turmoil, conscious about that thing that one person said. Their motive might be far from hurting us, they might not even be aware of it, but yet it affects us as such. But they are still opinions and views from someone who doesn’t know our full situation. As we’ve seen in another post on the story of the Sword of Damocles.
Criticism often reflects back on us
There are also degrees of criticism. From one person we can accept a lot more than from someone else. There are people in our lives from whom even a compliment can come as an insult. What do these remarks do to us? They attack our ego, our confidence, and make us question our choices. They might go deeper, maybe even to the core of who we are. It makes us doubt ourselves, which is not a state we want to be in. That takes us away from the peaceful existence we have in mind. Then let’s look at how we can take the sting out of criticism.
When dealing with criticism we must not lose sight of what it is. It’s an opinion. Ours are under our control, those of others are not. Opinions on other people often reflect back to us in some way. We pay attention to what bothers us. Our mind has a bias to focus on those things and we use this kind of feedback to comfort ourselves. If we are not happy at our job, it is nicer to see that others suffer the same pain. And it is easier to judge their choices, than apply those same thoughts to our own situation.
But there are also moments when we disagree with people. You might not agree with what you are reading here. First of all, I appreciate the fact that you are still reading and welcome you to share your thoughts. But these differences should be welcomed, if we know how to deal with them in a constructive way. Otherwise we should listen more to Seneca.
“Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and divided.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XXVI
Criticism stings, no matter what anyone says. Even if it is only for a brief moment. Our ego’s don’t like it. The more profound the critique is aimed at our essence, the more damage it does. And if it is perpetual, then it can cause some long-lasting issues. I advocate for you to experiment with ways to take a pause after receiving negative feedback. Taking a deep breath, letting it go for a moment, and calming down works for me. In a state of hurt we can’t objectively look and examine what has happened. Don’t be afraid to take that moment, acknowledge that it bothered or hurt you, and then regroup. Marcus Aurelius gives us clear advice on how to deal with he hurt.
Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed, Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.Marcus Aurelius, Meditation, Book 4.7
I asked people for criticism
Ask yourself why it hurts so much. Is it the person or people who told you? Is it because it is something that is important to you? Or have you not even realized that it has value to you? If you are ready to ask these questions, then we can also see what we can do with this feedback. Our goal is to grow and continue on that journey. We can let the critique slide off, but then it will come back again. If we learn to see where the source is, we can make adjustments and improve our lives. We are all a work of progress. The Stoics, however, are a bit more resolute in dealing with criticism or insult.
“So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5.25
Taking this and acknowledging the difference between what is in our power and what isn’t. We can turn the criticism into something positive. We’ve managed to reduce our emotions to what has been said and can now take it for what it was. When I started this blog, I asked the people around me to look at my writing with critical glasses. I wanted to know if my work was of the right quality to share it or that I should keep it to myself.
The delivery is key
I compared it to being a participant on a talent show. If I’m planning to audition to become a singer, and I can’t sing, which I can’t, then I hope people around me will tell me. It is not my wish to be a prominent member on a viral YouTube video. My emphasis here is on honest critique. If you are passionate about doing something, then those negative words will not matter. Go for it, but if you want to be the best, then use all the feedback you can get.
Receiving criticism shouldn’t mean we need to stop with our goals or feel horrible about ourselves. We need to learn to be confident enough about ourselves to use all the input we can get. This also depends on how it is delivered. There are some forms of feedback that we should dismiss as soon as we receive it. If it is meant to hurt us and nothing else, then we should let it go. It’s coming from someone who might be hurting more. But most criticism can help us grow. We should examine it and see if there is some truth in it.
“Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.53
Feedback is a present
Let’s try to take it for what it is. Someone might have told me to drive slower or stop eating something. I should then ask myself if I’m driving too fast or if what I’m eating is good for me. If the information that I’m sharing isn’t correct and someone points this out, then I should change it. We should try to focus these words onto ourselves. Pointing the finger to someone or something else, is making excuses or covering it up. That’s not beneficial. If we failed a test, we can say that the test was too difficult, but we can also ask ourselves whether we had studied enough. It requires objective examination. If you then find out that your answers were correct then have a conversation with the teacher. If you were driving at the right speed, then keep driving.
We all judge. It’s something that we do and can be important. It can help us build a better frame of reference to our own lives. And it can help us protect our loved ones from bad consequences. As we touched on earlier, the delivery matters. Think about how you like to receive criticism. Giving feedback is an art. That reminds me of something I was told at University.
“Feedback is a present, you have to learn how to unwrap it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.53
Show empathy, Be kind
But that also means that you have to learn how to wrap it and give it. Start with something positive. Then give your criticism in such a way that the receiver can do something with it. That will have much more value. You could provide some tips or share something personal to show that they are not alone. Show empathy and then your observations can have a positive impact. Life isn’t easy, let’s support each other. Criticism is a part of our lives. We must learn how to receive and give it. On both sides, be kind.