Criticism and How To Handle It

The other day my daughter and I happened to linger on a dance-based reality show while browsing through channels. We especially enjoyed one contestant’s performance and were curious about what the judges had to say. Two of them had words of appreciation but the third one wasn’t impressed. My daughter was empathetic and wondered how sad the contestant would be. As if it wasn’t bad enough; that she had to smile and nod through it all made it even worse. She had a point but then the third judge being a professional choreographer herself was quite spot on with her remarks.

I have suffered enough on account of not having a thick skin and it took me quite a while to accept that world isn’t kind. One remark, one criticism and you are caught off balance. It has the potential to ruin an entire day or even worse dent someone’s psyche permanently. Most of us would agree that our parents’ generation was quite convinced by the dictum— ruined by praise and saved by criticism and that’s well entrenched in our nature. My mother would often quote Kabir,

Nindak Niyare Raakhiye, Aangan Kutee Chhavaay,
Bin Paanee, Saabun Bina, Nirmal Kare Subhaay.

(Keep your critics close to you. In fact, build them a hut in your courtyard because they are the ones who will cleanse your nature without soap and water)

They were not wrong. Criticism, when constructive and delivered in the right measure and tone at the right time, is one of the most effective tools for improvement. However, a critic often doesn’t adhere to these terms and conditions and that is why we need to learn how to handle them and their words.

How to ascertain if a critic is trying to help or harm you comes with practice and for that the most important is to develop the ability to hear and truly listen. Forget the tone for once and concentrate on the content; what (s)he is saying matters and not how.

Being defensive is a spinal reflex but it antagonises a good critic and emboldens a bad one; either of which isn’t helpful for us. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the criticism, we need to practice self-control. That gives our brain time to process and internalise what has been said.

The other most important thing in my opinion is how honest we are to ourselves. Criticism and our self-assessment are like coordinates. When we plot them on the graph of self-improvement we know if it falls in place for us. If it does, we need to thank the critic and work on it. If it doesn’t, we still thank the critic but relegate the remarks to the purgatory. Some comments belong to the trash can and that’s where they go.

Eleanor Roosevelt was much more succinct with her advice when she said— Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Critics are here to stay and they are not going to change their ways. If at all, the world we inherited is much harsher than what our parents lived in and if the social media trends are anything to go by, its just going to become much worse for the next generation. The only thing that can help us is our own moral compass. Might as well spend energy on fine tuning that compass than wasting our energy on responding to every remark that comes our way.

Dr. Shivani Salil

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