CRITICISM USED TO UPSET ME. And because
it was so upsetting, I was afraid of criticism, so it created
more anxiety in me than was necessary. I figured if I could change
my reaction to criticism so it didn't upset me so much, maybe
I wouldn't be so anxious about the possibility of getting criticized.
I found a way, learned it, practiced it,
and what do you know? It worked. Since it reduces anxiety, I
thought you'd be interested in knowing how I did it.
I was reading a book called Heart of the Mind, which has a strategy for
handling criticism. There's another version of the same strategy
in the book, Change Your Mind - And Keep the Change. The
strategy entails using dissociation. In neurolinguistic programming
(that's what those two books are about), dissociation
means being outside your body in your imagination. Being associated
means looking at the world from inside your body.
To illustrate the difference and make it
very clear what I'm talking about, right now imagine what it
would be like to get up and go to the bathroom. Stay where you
are, but imagine you are in the bathroom, walking back
to where you really are. Can you see yourself sitting here reading
this web page? Can you see what you look like? Can you see the
position of your body? That's being dissociated.
Now imagine you're still looking at yourself
reading this book and someone comes up and interrupts your reading
to criticize you. You're standing there watching the other person
criticize you, but you are outside the scene, watching
what the other person looks like and seeing what you look like
from outside your body, dissociated. Can you see that it wouldn't
bother you as much that way? Since you feel separated from the
situation, you feel somewhat distanced from your feelings. That's
the first key.
I just ran across an example of someone
spontaneously using this key to relieve suffering more significant
than criticism. Viktor Frankl said one day he was suffering very
badly in the concentration camp. They had to march out to a remote
area and it was very cold. They of course didn't have much clothing
on and they were desperately underfed. Frankl had thoughts going
through his mind about things that were important to him at that
time. If he got a little piece of sausage in his soup tonight
(as sometimes happened) should he trade it for a piece of bread?
Where could he get a piece of wire or string to replace the little
piece that he'd been using as a shoelace? And on and on.
Frankl felt disgusted with the fact that
he had to think about such petty things. He was a psychiatrist
before the Nazis took control. He was disgusted that these petty
thoughts consumed his mind in his daily struggle for survival.
So he forced himself to think about something else, and he spontaneously
dissociated. He pictured himself in front of an audience lecturing
about the "psychology of the concentration camp!"
"All that oppressed me," wrote
Frankl, "became objective, seen and described from the remote
viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising
above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and
I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and
my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific
study undertaken by myself."
Dissociation is very effective for distancing
yourself from emotional pain. The strategy from Heart of the Mind uses dissociation. I took
that strategy and modified it a bit. I memorized my modified
strategy, which I'll describe in a minute, and then I was ready
to practice. Klassy (my wife) helped me by telling me real criticisms
that were gradually more and more difficult to hear while I took
my time and went through the steps one by one. It took us about
an hour and a half. By the time I was done, even the very hard-to-hear
criticisms didn't bother me at all. I went through my strategy
many times during that hour and a half. Here is the strategy
1. Into the Fort
First I created a safe place in my imagination. A ladder appeared
in front of me. I climbed up into a solid steel fort surrounded
by armed guards. It felt totally safe. In the fort was a television
monitor and a printer. The scene on the screen was the place
I was in actuality. But I didn't see the scene from my own eyes.
It was from an upper corner of the room, like a surveillance
In other words, my boss
walks up to criticize me for showing up late for work. As soon
as I recognize a criticism is forthcoming, I imagine climbing
up the ladder into the fort and seeing my boss and I on the screen.
So just to be extra clear, on my screen I see both my boss myself
from a vantage point out and away from the two of us, as if there
was a camera across the room pointing back at us, and I'm viewing
the scene from that vantage point across the room.
In the fort, I couldn't hear what my boss was saying. I had to
read it. This is a further dissociation auditory dissociation.
So I use auditory and visual dissociation. The reason
I added this is because the two things that seemed to trigger
the most negative emotion in me was the look on the person's
face and the tone of their voice. Having to read the message
removed the tone of voice.
3. Anything Useful
So I'm looking at the monitor seeing my boss talking to me. I
read what he's saying. Having removed myself from the immediate
frontal onslaught, looking at myself from the side and reading
the message, I took away almost all of the feelings I normally
associated with that kind of communication. I had a neutral feeling
not a negative feeling, not a positive feeling. Just kind
of detached and observing. Then I evaluated the criticism
as information to determine whether this information was
useful to me or not. And this is the beauty of the strategy.
You can gain information. A lot of criticisms, even when
they are said meanly, contain information that could be useful
to you. Some people, in order to avoid the pain of criticism,
learn to simply reject all criticism. They aren't bothered by
criticism, but they reject any information it might have contained.
This method protects you
from having to feel the pain, but doesn't block you from gaining
It's a little awkward at first because
it's new and you're not used to doing it that way. But after
a few times, it starts to feel more natural. And the fact that
you don't have to feel the pain is wonderful! I remember toward
the end of our training, Klassy was throwing some harsh, genuine
criticisms at me and they didn't bother me at all. And the fact
that they didn't bother me made me so happy! I was free! It
felt like I'd been clapped into prison my whole life limited,
hemmed in by the fear that I might be criticized and have to
feel the hurt and upset. Suddenly the jailer was gone and the
door was unlocked. I was free!
WHY THIS WORKS
The important thing is to dissociate and
to see the criticism as information. The specific way you do
these two doesn't matter. The strategy I put together is one
of hundreds that would work just as well. Ask the question, What
do I want? Given my goals, is this information useful?
I realize now that my response to criticism
before was about the criticism. Rather than paying attention
to the actual content the information in the statement
I was noticing and responding to what it all meant and
how it was said and what emotions were being transmitted and
whether or not I felt rejected and whether or not they felt disappointed
in me. I would simply get demoralized and distressed by criticism.
All of this is a lousy response to a criticism.
It may be a "valid" way of listening to criticism,
but it isn't at all helpful for either me or the other person.
It feels bad to me and the other person has the frustrating experience
of not really feeling that their message got across. It's as
if the person was trying to tell me to get out of the middle
of the street because there is a car coming and my response was
to stand there feeling dejected because it seems he doesn't like
me because his tone of voice seemed disapproving. Imagine how
frustrating it would be to him because he's trying to tell me
something and I'm ignoring what he's saying and only paying attention
to how he's saying it.
This strategy stops the frustration for
anyone trying to criticize me, and it stopped the dejected feeling
I used to get when I was on the receiving end of the criticism.
The question is: Is this useful information
to me given my goals? Usually when someone is criticizing
you, they are reminding you of something important to you.
And if it isn't important to you, there is no need to have a
negative feeling. This is easy to say, but you have to know how
to do it. You need a strategy. You can't just tell yourself,
Don't feel that way. Not very many people know how to
change their feelings at will.
My response could be: Thanks
for reminding me! I often find myself feeling thankful
for criticism. I have the feeling of appreciation for being
told. Here's an analogy: Let's say I've decided to stop fidgeting
and I tell my friend I really want to stop, and please help me.
Then the next day she notices I'm fidgeting and says, You're
fidgeting. The most sane response to that would be, Thank
you! But you can't really respond that way to unexpected
criticism unless you are dissociated and paying attention to
the content of the criticism and how it relates to your goals.
A FEW MORE TIPS ON USING THIS METHOD
This is a method to use when you know you
are going to be receiving criticism, or after someone has criticized
you and it's bothering you (become dissociated in your memory
of it). This is a way to protect yourself from the pain and make
it easier for you to gain something from the criticism
if there's anything to gain. Sometimes there isn't. You have
to really look at the criticism and decide whether you want to
take it to heart or not. Listen to these:
When Fred Astaire did his first screen
test in 1933, the MGM testing director wrote this: "Can't
act! Slightly bald! Can dance a little!" Fred Astaire, who
is probably the most famous dancer of all time, had that memo
hanging over his fireplace.
When the now-famous French scuptor, Francois
Auguste Rene Rodin, was younger, his father said, "I have
an idiot for a son."
A newpaper editor once fired Walt Disney
because he lacked ideas.
Enrico Caruso is now a famous opera singer,
but in his earlier days, his teacher said he couldn't sing; he
had no voice at all. And his parents wanted him to become an
When Richard Bach was trying to get his
manuscript published, he was turned down by eighteen publishers.
When it was finally published, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
sold seven million copies in the U.S. in the first five years.
Let's talk for a minute about dissociation.
To dissociate means to look at the situation from a different
position. That means looking at it from another point of view,
another physical location other than wherever you think you are.
I think of myself as being in the center of my head, for example.
So for me to take another position would be to imagine I am somewhere
other than in the middle of my head. That could mean one of my
hands, the wall next to me, on the moon, inside the person who
is criticizing me, etc. Anywhere except where I normally locate
Just imagine it. You don't have to "project"
yourself out of your body or anything wild or mystical. Just
imagine you are the wall listening to two people talking.
Or imagine what it must be like for the person doing the criticizing.
Imagine you are over there in that person's body, looking out
that person's eyes at you. Try to imagine how the criticizer
feels and what their motivations are for saying it. Just imagine
it. You don't have to be right.
Experiment with different points of view
and see what works best for you what allows you to take
the criticism with the least pain and the most profit. You can
think of yourself as outside your body. You can think of yourself
as the whole universe (although perhaps that would be too abstract).
You can think of yourself as the spirit of yourself from the
future yourself at age 95 standing next to yourself
now, listening to your younger self getting criticized. The options
are endless. Experiment. Find points of view that serve you and
use them when criticism comes your way and it makes you feel
Believe it or not, you don't have to feel
bad when you get criticized. I mean, you may not be good at it
right off, and it may take some practice, and you may feel bad
in the first few seconds, but you know that period of "mulling
it over?" That's really the painful part where you
think about what they said and you get upset about it all over
again. And then later in the day, you think about it again, and
get upset again. This is painful. And it is unnecessary. Use
this method to change your perspective. If you forgot to do it
during the criticism, you can still use it for later when you
are mulling it over, and it'll give you a different way
to mull it over, a way that doesn't make you upset, a way that
allows you to look at the criticism and actually see what's useful
there, to find something you could use to enhance your own goals.
Not many people know about this idea, and
it's too bad. You can make the world a better place by shouting
it from the rooftops. People are so sensitive to criticism because
it's so painful. And it's so painful because we take it in the
face. We take it like a bazooka blast to the chest. But that's
just one way to take it. There are others, and just about any
of them work better than the one we usually use.
It seems like nobody teaches us how to
think. Nobody teaches us that there are different ways to think
during a criticism, and that some ways make the criticism painful
or make it hurt your feelings or cause hard feelings between
people who love each other, and yet there are other ways that
allow people to take criticism without pain. If more people could
do this, the world would be a better place.
When receiving criticism,
dissociate and look for useful information.