At some point in our lives we have all been criticized. Sometimes the criticism is based in fact, while at other times it is not. The difficulty can often lie in telling the difference between the two. After all, unless you’re a public figure of some kind, much of the criticism most of us receive comes from people who actually know us, so at least a small piece inside of us believes that what they say must be true.
Part of the difficulty comes from believing our loved ones are saying something for our own good, and wouldn’t be willing to hurt us unless it were the truth. That isn’t always the case, though, is it? Not every family member has a positive impact on our lives. Not every friend is wishing us the best. We don’t always know that their motives aren’t pure, either.
To really understand criticism we do have to understand the source. You’ve probably heard someone say, “Well, look where it’s coming from,” but maybe you haven’t really thought about that as anything more than a cliché. In truth, it’s absolutely necessary to do this. We have to understand exactly what the person is criticizing, why they’re doing so, and what makes them feel that way.
If someone is criticizing you for being overweight, maybe they have emotional issues related to how they view their own body. Maybe they wouldn’t be comfortable at your body size. If they’re trying to tell you that your weight is unhealthy, do they really know whether or not you live a healthy lifestyle, and if that lifestyle is any less healthy than their own? After all, a very thin person may not exercise and is starving themselves for appearances. Maybe they’re in a constant state of unhealthy stress because they can’t break down and enjoy their life for fear of gaining a few pounds. Maybe they don’t realize you walk every single day, eat fresh fruits and vegetables with lots of whole grains, and you simply have more weight on you. People who talk about fat and health often don’t realize that there’s very little correlation between the two.
Perhaps someone is criticizing your lifestyle. They don’t understand why you live the way you do, and wouldn’t be happy with it themselves. Maybe you’re single, and have no desire to compromise the way you live just to be in a relationship. Maybe their own insecurities make it impossible for them to be happy as a single person.
You can see from the two examples that there can often be hidden agendas behind a critique. Quite often the agenda is even hidden from the person who is doing it. Why would a person be so desperate to be thin or married that they would pass off those personal desperations to someone else? Well, pretty obviously they are not happy with themselves at their core. They look to external things to find happiness, like a relationship or their appearance. Or maybe they find fault with others, and often particularly in very public ways, in order to bolster their self-esteem, as if to say to everyone around them, “You see? I’m much better than this other person.”
When a person criticizes other people, they aren’t always doing it for the right reasons, even if they think they are. Once we understand that we can decide whether or not to put any trust in what they’re saying.
Of course, there’s also the flipside of that issue, because sometimes people really do care about us, and are only looking out for us. How do we know? Well, if you can look at the criticism from every angle, and know with absolute certainty that they had nothing to gain from hurting us, and if we can see for ourselves that there might be some truth to it, then we can start to examine its merit.
The criteria for that comes in several ways. For instance, if the person speaks to you privately and there’s nothing false or malicious in their tone, that’s a good start. People who love you and truly worry for you, are not going to try to shame you in front of others. Also, if there are concrete instances that bear out the truth of what they’re saying, then the criticism is probably based in reality rather than just their perceptions. If you’re overweight and remember times when you hid in your closet to eat a cake, and they’re worried you might have an eating disorder, there’s a reason they’re worrying about you. If they see you living a healthy lifestyle, and all they care about is your health and happiness, your weight will not be an issue for them.
Our subconscious is a sneaky devil, however. We can often think we’ve handled a criticism in a healthy way, but the moment we have peace and quiet to think – like when we lie down to sleep for the night – those words come back to haunt us. They play over and over in our minds, and suddenly we’ve memorized them. Because of that they take on the air of truth, even when we’ve determined there was no substance to them in the light of day.
Or we suddenly get far angrier than we were earlier in the day. We feel cheated because we didn’t get a chance to say something back, and we assume that the time has passed because we weren’t witty enough to fire right back at them while we were stunned and hurt. It’s never too late to say something. The smartest thing you can do is wait until your anger cools. It’s no longer a comeback, but rather a way to hash things out with someone so that you don’t swallow your anger. If you don’t say something to them, you will feel resentful every time you see them. You can give yourself a few days, relax a bit, and then talk to them about their tendency to criticize you in front of other people, or about something that should really have no bearing on their lives so there’s no reason for them to get involved – in other words, something that’s none of their business.
Just don’t let the criticisms of others become hard and fast truths, because they’re not. Every critique comes from that person’s feelings, experiences and perspectives. We all come to the table with a bias of some sort. Not one of us is perfect, and we often take internal issues out on others without knowing we’re doing it. Stop for a minute and think of how you were feeling the last time you criticized someone where you felt a bit guilty for it afterward. If you can find your motivation for doing so, you’ll be a step closer to understanding why someone else has done it to you.
Writing since age twelve, Rain Stickland is the Canadian author of more than three hundred published articles on a wide variety of topics, as well as the fictional novel Tipping Point – the opener for a pre-through-post-apocalyptic trilogy. She is also the executive producer for The Kovacs Perspective, a popular internet podcast. Find her on Facebook & follow her on Twitter.