Learning how to accept criticism graciously is a form of art, but for me it is a work of art in progress. This is because I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and part of that syndrome is being unable to tolerate critical comments, no matter how well-meaning.
So what happens when I get criticized? No matter how mindful my brain wants to be, my body has an anaphylactic reaction. I feel as though someone has thrown acid in my face. I feel my body disintegrating and my internal organs shutting down and psychological and physical death is imminent. Does that sound familiar to you?
This isn’t planned, this isn’t about me being a Drama Queen or a Princess with a slipped tiara; it’s about staying alive. I go into survival mode where I have to sit in a chair, breathe deeply, count my fingers and toes and make sure that I am all here. I have to detoxify my body before I can even start to work out cognitively what was said, why it was said and what the ramifications of the criticism were.
My body has this urgent need for rapid motion, for crying, for storming, screaming, wailing and breaking precious things. I am non-functioning for as long as it takes. There is a regression towards childhood memories where it feels annihilating. I feel as though I am being murdered.
You may think I am seriously out of control when you read this, but all this is raging inside me as I sit cross legged on my yoga mat. I plot impotent revenge in my head but it goes nowhere as thoughts are not actions and my thoughts do not telepathically start fires, blow up buildings or hurt people. The only person in any remote physical danger from myself – is me.
So how do I move on from here? Good question. Over the years I have disciplined myself to wait until the physical reaction has passed. This is not easy and it works some of the time. It took 16 years and I have managed to practice this for the most part over the past two years. Asking myself meaningful questions helped. But trust – trust in the people who criticized me was crucial.
Usually it is a boss or supervisor, sometimes a friend or even a comment on my blog (now that can send me up into the stratosphere like an unmanned rocket). Most of the time, it is a criticism that, on its own merit, is deserved. Usually it is something that the person has thought about and agonized over for a long time and it takes a brave, concerned, loving-kindness person with a vested interest in my recovery and progress to do it.
But no matter how well-meaning, any criticism makes me want to self-destruct because I feel evil, bad and morally un-salvagable.
So I tune my thoughts into what the other person was feeling, thinking and their possible motive for saying what they did. And most of all, the part that I really dislike, is looking at my preceding behaviour and trying not to justify what I did. More importantly, where did my reaction really come from? Is it my childhood voice speaking in the present and addressing unresolved issues from the past?
We learn behaviour implicitly and under stress react accordingly, automatically, without thinking. Perhaps we are not reacting to our current supervisor, but a teacher from the past who tried to hurt and humiliate us in front of the class, or a parent who did not know how to relate to a sensitive child. Who are we reacting to when we feel the back draft of criticism scorching our sensitive skin?
My current crop of critics are my supervisor and my therapist (now turned work coach) – arguably the two most important people in my psychological life. I like them both and they are wise, wonderful women, so their criticism comes from a present-day perspective.
Since changing roles, my therapist has been harder on me, less soft and nurturing and more, well, critical. What’s more, she tends to take the perspective of my supervisor and advises me to trust her because she has my best interests at heart and wants to see me grow, emotionally, psychologically and within the organization I work for.
So I have two women in my life who want to see me stretch my wings and soar through the air, not come crash landing in a heap at the bottom of the cliff. Both these women criticize me. Both these women say things I do not want to hear, but under the guidance of these women I have grown, matured and have some semblance of what emotional intelligence looks like from an insider’s point of view.
For me criticism is now a gift of love.
Pictures: http://theadventurouswriter.com/blog/what-to-do-when-nothing-is-good-enough-for-your-mother/ and http://www.fabjob.com/Mar05_web.html
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Last reviewed: 26 May 2012