Act Three: Making Peace with Criticism

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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.


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.

Consider this:

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.



Act Two: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

ninja breath

Act Two


Do you trust yourself to differentiate between good criticism and bad criticism, what’s okay and what’s not?

Does All Criticism Seem Like An Attack?

Do you react to criticism as if your village is under attack? I sure used to. When I had some of my worst experiences around criticism, when I had meltdowns, panic, when I quit jobs…my reaction, my upset and anger, soared from 0 to 100 in a split second. The hilarious part is, as I walked out, I’d feel that I’d won the battle.

Additionally, I tended to smell criticism from 100 feet; I would think that just about anything that wasn’t a compliment was, in fact, a criticism. (Compliments, oh! Those would go through their own x-ray in my brain, in which I’d try to detect shades of earnestness and try to decide whether the person really, truly meant the compliment or was, rather, trying to prime me for some kind of later favor they’d ask.)

I had no ability — no tools — for dealing with criticism. No utterance was valid, all were attacks. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t being professional, I was under attack; load guns! shoot! No, wait – aim! See, I had grown up in a household in which criticism was rampant, criticism of others and of self. And the criticism was total — that is, there wasn’t a clear differentiation between the person and their actions. So when I was criticized (or, rather, my actions were), I didn’t know the difference. And the differentiation is essential!

Good Person/Bad Deed

People are all born good; however, their actions or deeds can be poorly executed, clumsy, and terrible. Children are good beings, but can make mistakes and do bad things. (If you are struggling with the concept of people being born good, start with yourself — do you believe that you are fundamentally good?) I have a friend who uses this language with her child, “I love you, honey, but your actions aren’t okay — that was a bad action.”  It’s helpful to use language to differentiate the person from their actions. We might say to someone, “You’re a great employee, but snapping at customers is unacceptable behavior.”

Perceived Criticism

Perceived criticism is the wide and mighty gray area in which we tend to make mountains of molehills, get into arguments, storm out of rooms, fling retorts, etc. Someone might be talking about how they did something, and you start to wonder if they’re suggesting that you, too, should have done things that way. (Are they trying to tell you something? No! They are talking about themselves – ask them more about themselves, and you’ll see.)

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Navigating perceived criticism can be tricky for the self-centered aspects of our personalities, our anima and animus, to listen to others talk about themselves without thinking about our own experience. Getting practice at listening to, learning from, and hearing others express themselves will help ease your self-centeredness as well as temper any tendency to assume there’s a hidden criticism or message for you in everything people say.

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Facing perceived criticism? Ask clarifying questions!

Valid Criticism

Valid Criticism is criticism that is clean and clear. It’s hard to come by, but not impossible. Valid criticism is specific to a particular instance, a particular behavior, and is very simply stated: “Your report had mistakes in it,” “That email was unprofessional,” “You’re talking mean,” “You were late,” “This paragraph is confusing,” “I asked you to start the laundry but you didn’t,” “You’re driving really close to the car in front of us.”

It falls within the family of Constructive Criticism, which is feedback that can be fairly formal in that it includes positive and negative statements — you did this part well, and this part you didn’t do well — and is well thought-out and often part of a planned meeting. If only all workplace criticism could be constructive! Alas, managers are rarely trained in the art of constructive criticism.

With that in mind, when giving feedback, think of the “sandwich” approach, by having the filling of the sandwich consist of careful criticism, surrounded by slices of bread that are positive, affirming statements. The whole is then more easily digested. “This is wonderful, these two things are problematic, and this other thing is wonderful, too.” I have been in situations in which I asked for a couple of positive statements in the midst of criticism, in effect making that sandwich myself — so that I could digest the criticism without starting to believe I was “all” bad as I had a tendency to do.

You might bring a cake you picked up to a party, and hear someone say, “I don’t like this cake,” and feel criticized. The truth is, while that person may want to spread toxicity around, they aren’t technically criticizing you.

Translating Lousy Feedback into Useful Material

To get the best out of a lousy manager who’s trying to give valid feedback, you can run their words through an inner translator:

Boss says:     “You’ve got a short fuse.”

You inner translation:     “I’m okay. There are times I overreact.”

That’s doing you both a favor. When you translate for yourself, you can stay composed, professional, and even create a more productive conversation. You could ask, “Sounds like you’re saying I’ve overreacted at times, can you give me an example?”

Also – did you catch my phrasing of ‘lousy manager’? So, rather than that, I could say, “Manager with poor feedback skills.” See?

Note:  body language and tone of voice are major factors in how we perceive and experience criticism. Pay attention to that. If you’re confused about the body language or tone, or notice a discrepancy – say so. Ask about it. “You’re saying it was fine that I was late, but you brought it up – and you look frustrated,” what’s the story? Be open – that changes everything. You might also add, “I was late, I’m sorry for that.” (No need to over-apologize, but do take responsibility.)

Co-Dependency and Perceived Criticism

Growing up in households steeped in co-dependent dynamics, we tend to be confused about the cause-and-effect between what someone else feels and our actions. We were trained to think that we “cause” other people’s feelings in a way that we don’t. “If you don’t go to your brother’s game, he’ll feel bad,” was one I heard aplenty growing up — someone telling me how someone else would feel about my fictional actions.

If your mother cries that you don’t “know” her or “love” her because you got the chocolate cake rather than the vanilla with raspberry filling that is her favorite, you’re being baited. (She had an unexpressed expectation.) If she didn’t tell you to order chocolate, is it fair to expect you to intuit that was the one to get? (No.) Could you have asked? (Sure.) Did you try to get it right? (Yep.) Can a cake flavor be equated with love? (Am I really asking that question?)

With practice, you’ll be able to differentiate between what feels like criticism and what is someone stating their opinion or throwing toxic snowballs your way.

If you’re facing valid criticism, tune in.

Destructive Criticism

Destructive, or negative, criticism is toxic and unproductive.

Destructive criticism has some hallmarks:  it doesn’t contain a suggestion, solution, and doesn’t improve a situation. Destructive criticism can be abusive; if it’s criticism that sums up a whole person, such as, “You’re no smarter than me,” “You’re dumb,” “You’re lazy,” “You’re a bully,” or “You never shut up,” it’s abusive. It’s abusive if it’s used to manipulate a person — like knocking a person down a notch in order to strengthen your own position. Destructive criticism can involve the terms “always,” “never,” talking about a number of instances as a “pattern,” or passive or rhetorical statements like, “How is it that you’re the messiest person I’ve ever known when your parents are such neat-freaks?”

If you’re facing destructive criticism, you can get space, you can walk away.

If you are in a relationship in which you, yourself, are using destructive language, be willing to see that.

Ask yourself why you feel the need to resort to threatening language. Is there a power struggle? Are you holding onto unexpressed anger? What’s going on? Talk to a counselor and work on learning new language. And, similarly, if your partner is using destructive language, be courageous enough to talk to a counselor, therapist, or browse some books on anger, abuse — and self-esteem.

Take responsibility.

“You Should. . .” 

The phrase, “You should” is tricky because it involves that trigger terminology of being told what to do as well as containing, possibly, a veiled criticism.  An emotionally intelligent-sensitive person won’t say “you should” if they want to share their idea — instead, they’ll say, “If you wanted to do it another way, you could…” in those instances. If you’re irritated that another person says “you should,” the best way to do that is to model it, to adapt it to your own language.

There are times in which the person who says ‘you should’ is not intending to be critical. They may very well accept the validity of the way you did something, yet because they seeing things from their perspective, they may want to share that with you. If you’re feeling criticized in those instances, you can say:  “Interesting. Why do you suggest that for me?”

Interesting! Why do you suggest that for me?

Note the “…for me.” That part of the question can be effective in achieving a number of things:  it says you heard them, it validates their suggestion, and it re-points the idea back to your situation, to you. Say you’re talking about a hiking trip you’re planning, and you’re talking about the logistics — and that’s when the other person says, “You shouldn’t go then, you should go in the summer.” And then you say, “Interesting, why do you suggest that for me?” That gives them a chance to say, “Well, you might like fall weather, but you might get rain so I wouldn’t go any other time but summer.” Then it becomes more of a conversation, and less of a lecture. You can say, “I don’t do heat. I don’t love rain, you’ve got a point there. But I’ll take rain over hot days.”

If you value yourself and love your flawed, imperfect, and wonderful self, as well as value others, you won’t feel the need to be like them or please them.

If you’re hearing, “You should,” ask questions, and listen. Get more information. Breathe. 

Mistakes Count as Practice

This taking-criticism-well business takes time, it takes the development of your instincts. It also takes mistakes, and apology, too. We don’t always get it right, whether we’re giving criticism or the receiver of it.


If you were to skip this entire post and still get the most hidden, useful, and shiny gem, it would be to breathe.


Seriously, that’s a ninja-level tool.

Even if you can’t translate what you’re hearing, ask question, etc., that’s OK. You can breathe. Anyone can do that. Here’s how:  take in a long, slow, slow, slow breath into your nose (mouth shut) and then, once you’re full to bursting — let it out through your mouth with pursed lips, slowly, and exhale completely.

I officially dare you to do it right now.


Last Week:  How Well Do You Handle Criticism? (Act One)

How Well Do You Handle Criticism? (In Three Acts)

Hello TomorrowDo you want to squirt lemon juice in the eyes of anyone who DARES to criticize you? To pound their desk with your fist and shout, Who do you think you are?! You don’t KNOW me, what I’ve seen, or where I come from! Do suggestions, tips, and advice feel like hostile criticisms to you? Are you hyper-aware — do you scan the crowd, worrying, suspecting, or knowing that you’re being evaluated, rated, and sized-up by any stranger who glances your way?

What do authority figure issues have to do with a person’s difficulty with handling criticism, and what does difficulty with criticism have to do with self-esteem? 

 This post is dedicated to a reader who recently emailed me about authority figure issues (after reading my post, Don’t Tell Me about Authority Figure Issues!). The question was, how do we stop over-reacting to criticism? How do we stop being shut-down by perceived criticism? How can we navigate criticism like emotionally resilient versions of ourselves — how do we keep our minds, and hearts, open? 

Act One


Clearly, your childhood is over. Your age indicates that. Your living situation probably indicates that.  We’re on our own now. We pay our own bills. And lots of them. Yet do we truly understand the implications of being out of childhood in every cell of your body and brain? Does your emotional self know that, really know that? Did you take some time before starting your first adult job to replace all your old habits and assumptions with brand new adult ones? (No. No one does.) Or are you just like the rest of us, acting out the role you perfected from childhood?

Most of us are reacting to others, during emotional moments especially, as if they were another person, a father or mother, from childhood. When your girlfriend or boyfriend has to end a phone call quickly and you feel the pinch of abandonment, is that a new feeling, or a very old one, from childhood? When you tell your partner you’re feeling ignored, which indeed you may, is it 45% present-day emotion and 55% unresolved childhood hurt that you’re presenting to your partner, dropping in their lap, and expecting your partner to soothe? Do you want others to soothe not just today’s hurt but all of yesterday’s hurts, too? For a long time I operated that way. When my feelings were hurt, they were hurt ten times the size. I had no idea, none whatsoever, that present-day hurts were activating old, deep ones. It was completely unconscious.

What does carrying forward childhood wounds have to do with not handling criticism well? A lot. Maybe everything. If we are still mad, traumatized, and providing safe harbor to unresolved pain from the original authority figures in our life, how can we expect ourselves to hear what our present-day authority figures have to say? Our original authority figures were inconsistent, perfectionistic, and distracted by their addictions — which is to say, we’re not naturally trusting of authority figures. How can we hear suggestions, advice, and criticism and get anything productive from others if we’re still looking for targets to release our somewhat-related anger at? If we relate to authority figures in our present life as if they are the authority figures of our early life, we’re acting out of sync with reality — we’re acting out a role that doesn’t correspond to what’s in front of us, we’re not really here, present, in this reality. All of that is to say that each of us must recognize how we’re living in reaction to early wounds in our present lives, and take responsibility for healing that, so that we can participate in today.

Within this realm, I define “authority figures” as anyone who my inner child could perceive as an “authority.” So, that includes my bosses, clearly. But “authority figure” could also be a boyfriend, if my inner child is at the forefront and I’m feeling small. It could include someone behind a counter – a car rental clerk, police officer, or parking attendant. Basically, an “authority figure” can be anyone our inner child may perceive as having more control than we do in a given situation. Add criticism to the mix — and you have a recipe for emotional detonation.

Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking (which I wrote about in this post, On Authority Figure Issues) kills our chances of being open to the benefits of hearing criticism — as does perfectionism. If we equate one mistake with total failure, we’re not going to be open to hearing about mistakes. Through a long and roundabout and continuous process of coming to value myself and believe in my thoughts, wishes, dreams, wants, etc. as right (for me) — and making mistakes — I discovered that when I include my flaws and inconsistencies as part of my global concept of who I am, I’m open to criticism. When I began to react to mistakes as mistakes — just mistakes a cool but flawed person can make — and not supernatural “signs” that I’m a deeply flawed person destined to fail miserably and die lonely in a cold cave (oh, the mind’s powers!), I could then make room for criticism. Criticism wasn’t going to send me off the cliff; I wasn’t fragile with denial about my perfection anymore.

Again – it was a long and winding journey. I didn’t have a roadmap, and this is the best one I can sketch out for future travelers.

Just know this: you are the one responsible for affirming yourself, cultivating your sense of worth, and knowing that you are both flawed and perfect – perfectly flawed -  as is everyone else. Don’t wait for all of the many apologies that you feel you’re due to start living in today.


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Collaboration as Healing – Writing The Kind Self-Healing Book

by Marla Pedersen of

by Marla Pedersen of

Since jumping into writing The Kind Self-Healing Book two years ago, I’ve noticed that things moved forward at certain points with significant energy and power when I reached out to others for their help. While I had to write the book on my own, while that was the only way to write this book, I don’t feel like I did it alone.

I asked for help when I asked to use a friend’s office space for a weekend to write somewhere new. When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you tend not to ask for favors. You think, it’s a hassle to get the keys from him for his office. You think, what if I can’t turn off the office alarm? You think, what if it doesn’t help — what if I can’t focus there? You think… you think… you think… about all the reasons why it might not work and that creates such a feeling of befuddlement that you throw up your hands and sigh, forget it.

I asked for help, collaborated, when I asked Marla of to draw some illustrations for me. I didn’t know how those first four drawings would evolve into a project — Marla went on to create dozens of illustrations for The Kind Self-Healing Book! It became a collaboration. She read pages of the book, then drew accompanying illustrations. Her art will bring the book to life in a new way that I couldn’t have imagined. It was an incredible experience.

I asked for help when I reached out to a new friend — a new friend = an even bigger risk! — to ask for a recommendation for where to scan original art into digital Illustrator files. Her response? “I can do it!” She had a scanner at her photography studio. She did me a big favor, and saved the budget for the book, too (the money of 134 kind souls).  But the best thing was that I got to know her better and share some laughs through the process of dropping off pictures and picking them up. That is truly marvelous. (I never, ever, would have experienced that at Kinkos!)

by Marla Pedersen of

by Marla Pedersen of

I asked for help when I set up the Indiegogo campaign to fund the book. Here’s what’s so remarkable: 134 kind individuals are collaborating to make the book come to life!

I asked for help, collaborated, when I reached out to four friends to read the book in its final draft and give me feedback. They went above and beyond. They validated that the book was real and good, and they caught errors, suggested fixes, and helped me see what was working. They are collaborators, too.

I asked for help, collaborated, when I reached out to friends to participate in a “scones & typos” session, which you can read about on the book’s FB page, two Sundays ago.

I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have, come out of my shell to collaborate a few years ago. I didn’t collaborate in the ways above by “necessity.” Collaboration was an attractive choice. Year ago, I would have stopped short before reaching out to combine energies. More recently, I have come to believe that coming out of my shell to ask, “Hey would you mind…?” has become a big part of the healing process just as much as it’s a result of the healing process.

- be kind to yourself

by Marla Pedersen of

by Marla Pedersen of

by Marla Pedersen of

by Marla Pedersen of

A Story of Surviving Chaos – Dawn Clancy on Growing up Chaotic

When you know what it’s like to grow up within chaos, you are someone who knows what it’s like to be in that that unique, highly-attuned, nerve-wracking environment. Blogger and chaos-survival activist Dawn Clancy, who writes the Growing Up Chaotic site and blog and Blog Talk Radio Show, describes such origins so very well. Her piece, No Matter Where I Go, Mom Is There is essential, required reading for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to grow up after a childhood of chaos and what’s required to overcome, integrate, and bloom despite it.
Dawn’s essay, which she wrote about her mother and the chaos she outlived is simply outstanding. Her descriptions are so tender and well-carved. She has a gift for being able to articulate the sensations any of you who have survived chaos likely have also felt.
An excerpt:
“While she rambled, I picked apart every word and inspected every syllable that fell from her mouth. I was drunk hunting, listening for the slightest indication of intoxication, my finger resting on the “end call” button on my phone.”
-be kind to yourself