Let’s be really honest here. No matter how much we pretend to welcome criticism, claim that it has made us what we are today, that it has made us a better, stronger, person, the truth is that none of us like it, let alone voluntarily seek it out. That does not mean, however, that criticism has not played a major role in helping us achieve goals that we might not otherwise have reached or learned to control impulses which might otherwise have made us roommates with Paul Bernardo or Karla Homolka.
Our reaction to criticism has its origin in two things – our early childhood upbringing, and of course, our own personality. Early childhood experiences play a significant role in creating our personality although some portion of it resides within us independent of external forces.
Now this is not going to be a panegyric to the modern parenting behaviour that suggests that a child should never experience criticism or be exposed to failure. About the only thing that seems to have resulted from this approach is the creation of a generation of narcissists who wildly over-estimate their abilities and lack the necessary skills of perseverance in the face of disappointment, and of resilience in the face of failure.
One key to achieving mastery or at least improvement in what we do, of course, is paying attention to critical feedback. Sometimes critical feedback is external in that no one has to tell you that you were not successful. You had a goal to climb to the top of the mountain and you turned back. You practiced hard so that you could play a piece for the annual recital without error yet you made a couple of mistakes when on the stage. In many respects, this is the easiest type of feedback to take since it is impersonal. The mountain doesn’t hate you. The piano did not try to deliberately sabotage your playing by making the keys wider.
The critical feedback that is the more difficult to use and benefit from is that which appears to be linked or directed at us personally. We were not successful because there was something wrong or inadequate about US!
This aversion to criticism and correction is developed in childhood if we are constantly exposed to constant criticism, if we are told that we are never good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, -anything enough, at a time when we are most vulnerable to others’ opinion of ourselves and our capabilities. We believe everything that big people – parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers, and even bigger brothers or sisters, tell us about ourselves.
I KNEW I was no good at art, because in grade 4, my art never got posted on the bulletin board. Joan Schwinghammer’s art ALWAYS went up because she could draw things that actually looked like what they were supposed to be. And, because art was taught by our grade 4 teacher and not someone who knew anything about art, none of us received any instruction about how to improve. I also knew I was lazy because my parents (who desperately wanted to raise a productive, law abiding child) kept saying things like, “Pat, don’t be so lazy, make your bed. Pat don’t be so lazy, do the dishes. Don’t be so lazy, get your homework done.”
So, what happened to kids who experienced similar situations in art, music, phys. ed, or who were at the bottom of the achievement scale in the academic subjects? First, they developed an unshakable belief in their own incompetence in that area. They believed they WEREN’T any good, and more importantly, that they would NEVER be any good. So, they didn’t DO any of the things that people who are naturally talented in those areas generally do – practice, take more classes, copy role models, join clubs that are focused on that type of activity.
Second, they protect their ego in the present, by telling everyone IN ADVANCE, that they can’t sing, dance, draw, or do math, thus (hopefully) avoiding any chance of having to perform.
Third, they strenuously resist any attempt here and now to improve or learn the skill. I had a client one time who told me that she had always wanted to sing. “Why don’t you join a choir?” I asked. “Because I can’t sing” she replied.
“Neither can the majority of pop groups you hear on the radio” I responded perhaps with a touch less empathy than what I should have had.
And fourth, they may react by becoming defensive “You didn’t tell me you wanted it spell checked”; blaming others, “Allison didn’t tell me you wanted it last month”; engaging in denial “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do it”; or claiming a disability “I’ve never been able to do X”.
So is there a way to reduce defensiveness in the face of deserved critical feedback? There are some things you can do – stay tuned for part 2.