Act Three: MAKING PEACE WITH CRITICISM
You now know about the ninja-level tool of breathing to slow down and try to be present in the face of criticism (that was Part II Knowing Good Criticism from Bad) as well as how to evaluate whether the criticism is real or an apparition from childhood (that was Part I How Well Do You Handle Criticism?).
It’s now time to look beyond criticism, to get big and powerful in spirit, and a bit abstract: imagine yourself in a place in which you’re not intimidated or affected by criticism — where you can be with it peacefully in a room, without fearing it. For example — imagine how you might notice a book sitting on a table in a hotel lobby and see that the book is labeled “criticism.” Just notice it, notice the criticism hanging in the air like a balloon with its string dangling before you. The balloon is there. You’re there. It’s not “attacking” you and it’s not after you. And the person who has blown up the balloon and tried to hand it to you — the person “criticizing” you — is there, too, but not at war with you. They’re standing there, too.
Once you can get to a place where those entities (you, the criticism, and the other person) are separate, but present, and you’re breathing in and out while solid with your worth, flaws, and self (all!), then you can take the next step.
That next step is truly a leap. Think about what will be there in the room between you and the other person once the criticism departs – the balloon goes out the window. Just you and that person in a room. You are there, vulnerable. The other person is there, having expressed something clumsily – also vulnerable. What remains? I will tell you: intimacy.
Intimacy and vulnerability are at the core of human existence. And just like distractions and addictions, criticism works as a barrier to intimacy — when we misunderstand its message.
Say that I’m sitting on the couch with a lover, who is trying to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation about art and literature. My first thought is, “I don’t give him that. I lack something.” And I react from that assumption, that vulnerability and fear. I might say to him, “I could say the same about you — where’s the discussion of philosophy, Kant, Nitetzsche, etc.?” And we’d be distanced from one another by our swords and shields. However, instead imagine that once he began to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation and I imagined it as the balloon hanging there — him, me, and his comment (the balloon) in a room — and I said, “What does that mean for you, intellectual conversation?” A conversation can then begin; I can listen rather be deaf with fear, and I can focus on understanding another person. The focus shifts to Love/Listening away from criticism and fear.
CRITICISM IS A DISTRACTION FROM INTIMACY
I have failed in that kind of situation — the lover, the couch, the opportunity for verbal intimacy — and yet learned big lessons through getting it painfully wrong. In the moment that we can disengage from criticism, we can apply the lesson of breathing and disengaging from the specter of criticism. We learn step one, then step two, and then we can learn to lean into Intimacy. It takes time, and the time is well worth taking.
In a moment in which you might recoil from your partner in defensiveness, rather, you take a step closer to your partner in vulnerability, in curiosity, and love.
Can you think of an instance in which you got derailed by reacting to criticism and might have missed an opportunity for deeper understanding, vulnerability, and intimacy? Could you have shared your innermost self then, but threw up your shield instead? Could you have shown compassion for someone attempting to express himself who got it clumsily wrong? Could benefit of the doubt have played a greater role?
-be kind to yourself.