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Embracing the Wounded Critic

Recently I experienced some criticism which I initially felt was unjust.   My gut reaction was to firstly feel incredibly hurt and then (within seconds) my hackles began to bristle and I became internally defensive. 


When we hurt, we lash out- which is fundamentally a primitive reaction – (fight, flight or freeze is the sympathetic nervous system's reaction to a perceived danger)- when we are feeling attacked.  But really, is there a threat to our physical wellbeing? Probably not.  Is there a threat to our psychological wellbeing? Perhaps. Is there a threat to our ego?  Absolutely.  Finally, is it possible that the criticism was justified?  Maybe…..


How can we take criticism, whether just or unjust, respond to it, and transform it into a personal lesson.


1.     Take Some “Cool Off” Time


Instead of striking out from a place of pure emotion, and what I call pride-pain, take some time and think about the criticism.  Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and examine all the possibilities of where that person may have been wounded by your actions and your comments.  It is possible that they could have been hurt by your words or actions? That hurt may come from a very deep place of experiential woundedness.  We all come from a state of our own historical wounds, and if we are not aware of all of the wounds of others and frankly our own wounds (which, let’s face it, is impossible to completely understand), we can re-activate those old injuries.


In other words, take a deep breath and do some deep thinking.


2.     Praise the Wounded


When you are ready to respond to the criticism, start with thanking the wounded.  Thanking the wounded must come from a place of sincerity, not sarcasm.  It is from criticism that we have an opportunity for real growth.  Even if you feel that the criticism was not justified, from the perspective of the wounded individual, it was justified, valid, and real.  So even a sentence like “thank you for your feedback” goes a long way.   And if you need some time to understand the criticism, invite the wounded to help you understand how they were injured, and the roots of their woundedness (if they are willing or ready).  Be ears – all ears – and work at understanding that perspective.  And if you need to further understand that pain, ask for clarification.  Again, thank this wounded teacher for inviting you into their world, and helping you to understand. And above all, do not defend or justify your own actions.  Be open, inviting, and listen.


3.     Pay Attention to the Criticism


Thirdly, pay attention to the criticism.  What are the lessons that you can learn from the criticism?  Do you need to approach your friends, colleagues, clients, patients, in a new way? Perhaps you might need to do some research in the area of sensitivity (e.g., cultural sensitivity, gender sensitivity, spiritual sensitivity, etc.).    You may even want to debrief with a trusted friend, therapist, spiritual advisor, or colleague – not necessarily someone who is going to defend or justify your actions, but someone who is going to be a gentle listening ear and at times a devil’s advocate.  This person will be able to hold a mirror up to your actions/words and make you accountable.  (Note:  Your spouse may not be the best person for this job, as they will usually ally themselves with your words/actions and instead justify your words/actions).  I have a trusted colleague that I can count on, in the most loving way, to assist me in taking responsibility for my shortcomings.  She is my stalwart critic, and one of my greatest teachers.


4.     Don’t Take it Personally


Whatever this wounded person has illuminated to you – whether that person is hurt by your actions or your words - it is so important not to take it personally.  Your actions/words are not a definition of your whole being.   We all make mistakes    The person who has been wounded, may lash out in the harshest way – as we all can do.  It is imperative to understand that their place of reactivity, is a place of pain.  You are a good person, a compassionate person, who is capable of hurting with or without intention.  In other words, you are, like all human beings – imperfect.  Be compassionate with yourself and understand that receiving and understanding criticism does not mean you are a “malicious person”.  You may have just “f***ed up.


5.     Apologize


When you have done your research, had time to think, and perhaps debriefed with someone you trust, take responsibility for your words or actions and apologize.  This is not an “empty” apology to sweep matters under the rug with the intention of just moving on.   It is an apology that is fortified with sincerity.   You might say: “I apologize for…….  I now understand that I hurt you.  I am working on …..and will do my best to …….”.  Invite that person to make you accountable in the future, if they are willing (although it is not their job to do this).  And never add a “but” to this apology – “but” is always a justification of the pain you have caused and will be perceived as defensiveness. 





What happens when we don’t get a chance to speak to the wounded? 


For example, they may cut themselves off from you because their wounds are too big, or they may be an invisible entity (e.g., an anonymous person on the internet).     In these situations, there is little recourse to allow for any form of resolution in that relationship.  Because you are not in a position to meet with that person, or debrief with that person, the next best option is to discuss your own shortcomings and/or pain with a trusted advisor.  Furthermore, it may merit doing some further research, and maybe even journaling about your own pain and confusion.  You may not be able to understand or attend to the injuries of the wounded critic, but you do have a responsibility to yourself in practicing self-kindness and healing your own wounds.  Enlighten yourself.  Forgive yourself and above all be compassionate.

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