Episode 19: Introducing Toxic Criticism
In this series, adapted from my book Toxic Criticism, we examine the ways that criticism and self-criticism interfere with our ability to find our life purpose and live as strongly, passionately, and effectively as we would like to live. Today’s episode is called “Introducing Toxic Criticism.”
Hello, everybody. Today’s is the first episode in a series called Handling Toxic Criticism. In this series we look at the terrible toll that criticism takes, how it interferes with your ability to live your life purpose, and what you can do to reduce the effects of criticism in your life. Today’s episode is called “Introducing Toxic Criticism.” Let’s begin!
Criticism is a real crippler. I’m sure that you know that. But you may not be aware just how powerful a negative force criticism can be, how much damage it can do to your self-confidence, or how seriously it can deflect you from your path. Almost nothing does more psychological damage than criticism.
Criticism comes at us from the past, as bad memories and as our own introjected “inner critic.” It comes at us every day, at work and at home. It even colors our sense of the future. Some of it is minor and only ruffles our feathers a little bit. But a surprising amount of it is toxic, as bad for our system as any poison. Toxic criticism, that criticism that gets under our skin and lodges in our mind, can fester like an open wound. It is so devastating a problem that millions of people alter their life plans because of the criticism they suffered as a child, adolescent, or adult. If you want to understand what it takes to regain fortitude in life, you must pay attention to toxic criticism and its profound negative effects.
Usually we deal with toxic criticism ineffectively. I want to look at some of these ineffective methods in this show and then go on to describe better ways of dealing with criticism. Let’s look at those many ineffective ways first.
Our first line of psychological defense with respect to criticism is to try to “not hear” it and somehow ignore it. We try our best to not hear caustic comments, not notice a snicker or a roll of the eyes, not take in the negative comments penned at the end of our essay. Defending ourselves this way has its pluses, especially if the criticism is unfair, but by resorting to “blindness” we lose out on vital information and put ourselves in danger of repeating our mistakes. We also make ourselves tense and miserable as we try not to hear what people are saying to us. Worse yet, when some piece of criticism manages to get through our defenses it cuts much more deeply and really takes hold.
A second line of defense is to notice the criticism and then get angry with the person doing the criticizing. This method of dealing with criticism strains relationships, makes enemies out of friends and loved ones, and eats away at our insides. We start to live at a simmer or even in a perpetual rage. Millions of meek-seeming people are secretly revenging themselves on their critics, boiling them in oil and tearing them limb from limb. Anger is our most usual response to criticism, and because we don’t dare vent that anger—as it would harm us and others if we turned violent—we live with that anger roiling inside of us, toasting our stomach lining.
Another way we operate is to try to “stuff” the criticism, to take it inside and hide it away as if it were dirty laundry stuffed out of sight in a closet. It isn’t really out of sight, though—it’s as if the closet had no door and a searchlight were permanently trained on the dirty laundry. We obsess about the criticism, prepare responses that we don’t deliver, and get caught up “dealing” with the criticism by never letting it out of our sight. Just as a person with a toothache can’t think of anything else, a criticized person trapped in his own mind can think about nothing but the criticism he received. This inner pollution feels terrible and is bound to make us sick from one stress-related illness or another.
A fourth characteristic response to criticism is to take the criticism to heart, feel wounded and diminished, and stop acting in that arena so as not to get criticized again. If the criticism occurred in painting class, we stop painting. If we got criticized about our weight, we stop dating and even stop going out. If our intelligence was attacked, we lower our sights academically. Not only do we not exorcise the criticism, we let it dictate how we’ll live our life and what we’ll consider available to us as options and dreams. The criticism wins—and depression sets in.
Similarly, we may become our own worst critic. No longer is it John in painting class or Mary at work who is doing the criticizing—we do it ourselves. We shake our head at our own efforts, declare ourselves unequal to our dreams, and half-heartedly move through life. At this point we’ve acquired a self-critical style and a way of looking at the world rooted in pessimism, anger, and despair. It is easy to see how criticism that becomes toxic not only affects us moment-in and moment-out but also ruins our future and transforms the very way we think about ourselves.
Doubting that the future will be any different from the present, we make a secret pact with ourselves to at least avoid further criticism. We don’t date, even though we want love and affection. We don’t voice our beliefs or act on our beliefs, even though we have beliefs. We don’t stand up for ourselves, even though we know that self-advocacy is the path to success. Even if we have a decent understanding that we’re hiding, we nevertheless feel powerless to try, since our paramount concern is to not get criticized again. At this point toxic criticism has turned from wound to scar: our future is scarred.
Another way we deal with the possibility of future criticism is by sabotaging our efforts. We bravely accept a new position at work, one with more responsibility and more possibility of criticism, and instantly have a car accident. At first glance there might seem to be no connection between the two events. At an unconscious level, however, we may have been looking for a way to avoid the criticism that we know will come with our new job. Our panic and secret wish to undo our decision make us just impulsive enough that we try a driving maneuver that we would otherwise never attempt. Did we actually want the accident? No!—but maybe. When we fear future criticism, see it looming on the horizon, and don’t know how to avoid it, one of the tricks our mind plays is to precipitate an event-ending crisis.
Another characteristic way we deal with the specter of future criticism is by getting ourselves sick with worry. If we have a presentation at work that we must give and if we really don’t want to sabotage ourselves, we may spend the two weeks before the presentation sick to our stomach, trying to “get it together” but fearing and visualizing the worst. We worry about everything from what we’re going to wear to whether the equipment will work on the day we present. Because we are so concerned about the potential for criticism in the situation and because we have such a dread of that criticism, we spend those two weeks in agony.
Sometimes we choose a path where so little is at stake that no one bothers to criticize us. We hide out in a routine civil service job, an uneventful corner of an academic field, or a low-level job devoid of responsibility and scrutiny. Or we become the building inspector who gets to criticize rather than the contractor who must deal with the criticism, the professional critic rather than the artist, or the hypercritical teacher. It may seem odd at first glance to imagine that a person might pick his profession simply because it allows him to avoid criticism or permits him to dole out criticism, but people often select their profession for just such reasons.
Last but not least, people regularly deal with the specter of future criticism by “acting out” and “getting in the first blow.” They become oppositional, let their anger drive their actions, and grow a thick skin to deal with the negative reactions that their acting out provokes. They dress in jeans when they should appear in a suit, stride in with a dirty look, and dare anyone to criticize them for their inappropriate dress. They fail to prepare and then act as if their performance deserves a standing ovation. They become the “difficult” person everyone knows to avoid and not to trust. They inoculate themselves against criticism through narcissistic grandiosity that masks their fear and pain.
None of these methods serve you. As you were never schooled in effectively handling criticism, it’s no wonder that you may have little clue how to deal effectively with criticism. In upcoming episodes I’ll outline a complete, in-depth program for dealing with criticism in healthy ways. By the end of the series you will know exactly what to do to handle unfair criticism and fair criticism, criticism from strangers and criticism from intimates, direct and indirect criticism—in short, how to effectively handle all the criticism in your life.
That ends today’s show. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll tune in next week for another episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life. If you subscribe to your Purpose-Centered Life, you won’t miss a single episode!—to subscribe, please visit personallifemedia.com or look for Your Purpose-Centerd Life in iTunes. You might also want to visit my blog, where many guest correspondents write about issues of interest in the secular-humanist, skeptical, free-thinking, existential and atheist traditions. My blog is available at the personallifemedia.com website. If you’d like to drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services, including my annual Taos workshops. To visit, please head over to ericmaisel.com—that’s e-r-i-c-m-a-i-s-e-l.com. Thank you for listening!