In the last couple of blog posts, I have been trying to make the case that if we are to become wise we will learn to thank people whenever they criticize us, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice because criticism has the potential to make us wiser (see post titled Criticism and Wisdom). If this is so, why do so many of us feel insulted when we hear someone providing criticism to us? Today we will discuss three reasons for this and why it is important to come to understand them.
The Style that Criticism has been Provided to us in the Past
One reason is that when we think about the times criticism was provided to us, something that struck us as mean occurred at the same time.
Perhaps Ed recalls how, when he was young some bullies would shove and slug him while at the same time criticizing his glasses.
Perhaps Ed recalls how his mom, whenever she criticized him, yelled, called him names, threatened him, and smacked him on his rear end.
If such negative actions have been paired with criticism often enough, criticism does become associated with uncomfortable feelings. The feelings and the criticism blend together.
But even if these negative actions were not part of your personal experiences, you may still find yourself feeling insulted and experiencing defensiveness whenever you are criticized. There are two reasons for this—we have an inherent desire to be liked and to maintain freedom.
Being Liked and Criticism
It is no secret we desire to be liked. People don’t only desire to be liked, they desire that their clothes, their appearance and their actions are liked as well. When people provide negative criticism to us they are telling us there is something about us they don’t like.
Because the vast majority of people have the desire to be liked, it has led some to put forth the theory that in ancient days people who were not liked were banished from the tribe. Those who were banished were less likely to survive in the wild on their own and therefor were less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. In contrast, those who were concerned about being liked and therefore worked hard to find ways to become liked were less likely to be banished from the tribe and therefore were more likely to survive. Thus, the desire to be liked became more likely to occur in the human species.
Maintaining Your Freedom and Criticism
People desire to be free to make their own decisions. When people criticize us, it suggests that they desire that we make some change. Oftentimes a criticism is provided not simply as a suggestion, but the criticizer soon begins to put pressure on us to change even against our will.
As criticism is being provided to us, we often begin to think something like, “I’m not going to let this person push me into doing something I don’t want to do. I’ll do whatever I want and I don’t need anyone pushing me around.” This stance is part of what we call defensiveness. In the conflict resolution literature the feelings and actions that come along with the desire to resist a loss of freedom is often referred to as “reactance.”
Why Bother to Learn the Reasons Criticism is so Hard to Bear
Learning that criticism is a path toward wisdom prods us to seek ways to hear criticism without becoming defensive and to design our criticism of others in a manner that will lessen the likelihood that they will become defensive. The first step toward this goal is to understand the reasons why criticism is often very difficult for us.
One reason we become defensive upon hearing criticism is because the way we were provided criticism in the past struck us as mean. Understanding this can prompt us to start thinking about how we can negotiate ways to be provided criticism in a more comfortable manner. Moreover, it can help us to design our criticism of others in a manner that will be better received.
To become aware that when people are criticized their desire to be liked and to maintain their freedom may become threatened can also be very helpful. There are styles of providing criticism that lesson defensiveness. Moreover, as we receive criticism, there are styles of thinking and responding that will lead to enhancing our reputation and to protect our freedom. In next week’s blog post we will delve further into these issues.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.