NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

How to respond to criticism

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

I find myself hearing criticism in simple questions even when I know it’s irrational. Why do I react this way and how can I reign in this response?

What other people think about us matters a lot. Humans are basically herd animals. We all have our blind spots and the only way we can truly learn about what we can’t see is to hear and understand how others see us.

Because we rely on other people to fully understand ourselves and our ideas about ourselves, our “self-image” may, or may not, be accurate. It’s sort of like skinny mirrors in dressing rooms, when we rely on a mirror, it’s a problem if the mirror is flawed.

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The most important mirror is our past experiences with family. That’s where most of the ideas about ourselves form and, for most, the mirror is relatively accurate.

But distorted mirrors make for chronically unfair, unreasonable criticism (let’s call it what it is: verbal abuse). It leaves children unable to get a clear sense of themselves and can leave them sensitive in lots of different ways.

Being social animals, disapproval matters, and how it matters is that it hurts. Avoiding pain is one of the most powerful behavioural motivators there is, and it works: we remember the criticism.

Verbal abuse takes many forms, whether it be put downs, unrealistic expectations, excessive punishment, mocking, teasing, an absence of kindness and gentleness, or out– and-out name calling: it all hurts. And when it’s chronic, it shapes and changes us.

The natural responses, when we feel pain, is to attack or hide. If we don’t like what we see, we smash the mirror or we turn away. And like any trauma, the impact of verbal abuse is to create an understandable, but unhelpful, sensitivity. We’re hypersensitive to anything we see as an attack.

For some, it’s possible to use our rational mind to challenge the hurt and anger when it shows up, to calm the sensitivity, to recognise the fault lies with the mirror, and to not react from a place of hurt.

But for others, it can be harder, especially if the distortion and wounds go back far enough, or are deep enough.

Then we need to find ways to do for ourselves what was missing in the first place: to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness. To allow for our imperfections, and indeed cherish them. To learn to love and care for what we might think is “wrong” with us, unconditionally and without judgment.

And make sure you surround yourself with trustworthy, distortion free mirrors.

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