After the release of my third book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (and How to Tell the Difference),” I took particular interest in columnist Robert Fulford’s article in Canada’s Globe and Mail, where he coined the phrase, “To kill a Critic: the Fantasies of Authors.” Though most critics are not destined to win any popularity contests, not all criticism is bad. We might ask, “Can I have your opinion about something?” Or, one could volunteer: “Can I make a suggestion?” Or, “May I give you some honest feedback?” In doing so, we’re at least showing some deference to the fact that one doesn’t have to accept one’s advice simply because he or she expresses it.
Criticism can be honest, but it can also be motivated by the critic’s desire to feel superior. Some people heighten their sense of worth by feeling superior. They can be quite convincing, but if you look more closely, they have nothing positive to convey.
So how can you tell if a person’s motivation is to feel superior? Before accepting criticism, consider the source. Is the critic knowledgeable on the subject? If so, then perhaps it merits attention. The final word, though, must be your own mind. Make sure you draw your conclusions objectively, and not simply with an “I’m right, no matter what” attitude.
This is where self-esteem enters the picture. My favorite definition of self-esteem is confidence in your mind’s ability to figure things out. Confidence doesn’t mean knowing everything, but it does mean trusting your reasoning. If you conclude that you did a good job at something, and somebody walks up and suggests that you didn’t, you’ll have one of two responses. If your self-esteem is intact, you’ll think, “What does he mean? What’s the proof that I did a bad job?” If you have poor self-esteem, your internal response might be, “Oh, I thought I did well, but I guess I didn’t. Nobody would say that unless they were sure.”
The honest critic will explain his reasoning. He’ll say, in effect, “This is how I came to my conclusion. Here’s how I think you could have done better.” You can then evaluate that reasoning for yourself. For example, “What a terrible job you did cleaning that window! I see streaks.” Once pointed out, do you see the streaks? If so, then there’s nothing to feel defensive about, at least not if your goal was to actually clean the window.
Honest critics are not above criticism. Because they make their reasoning clear, they are confident in their conclusions, and don’t mind proving them. However, if their goal is to feel superior, they won’t include any reasoning or proof. Such critics have nothing to offer you, and you’re free to dismiss them.
We all know people who can’t tolerate even the slightest suggestion that they made a mistake. They subscribe to one or more of these false ideas: (1) “If I think I’m doing a good job nobody will find anything wrong,” and (2) “I can’t make a mistake! If I do it means I’m hopelessly incompetent,” and (3) “I can’t do anything wrong.” The antidote to these mistaken ideas is to think, “I’m as good as I am, but I can probably be better.”
You don’t necessarily need to know your critic’s motive. All you have to do is evaluate what they say. If it’s arbitrary, ignore it. If it’s useful, then add it to your base of knowledge. This is how the most sophisticated science has advanced through the ages, but it also works with everyday things like cleaning windows.
The key is to stay open, objective and impartial about ourselves. By keeping an eye on reality and facts, we can confidently reserve the right to accept or reject whatever criticisms might come our way.
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