Episode 20: The Existential Key

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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 “The Existential Key.”


Hello, everybody. Today’s is the second 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 “The Existential Key.” Let’s begin!

The first key to handling criticism is the existential key. Until you decide that your path in life matters, that it is ultimately your responsibility to live by your cherished principles, and that you and only you can create a life worth living, you will have insufficient motivation to put criticism in its place. You will allow yourself to be bruised and battered by criticism simply because you don’t have more important matters to consider.     

If your goal is to paint and you decide that nothing will deflect you from that path because you know that painting is the place where you can make meaning, then when a friend or a loved one remarks that modern painting is silly or that painting is an elitist activity you have no trouble dealing with that criticism.  It goes in one ear and out the other because you have trumped all criticisms of that sort by your conviction that what you are doing makes sense to you and must be upheld with your whole being.

It turns out that to effectively deal with criticism, you need a solid sense of what matters in your life. Insofar as the meanings in your life are built on sand, you are vulnerable to wounding by what people say and do. If you half-doubt that painting is really all that meaningful or if you suspect that your painting isn’t up to snuff and probably never will be, then you leave yourself wide open to pain. Every time a person visits your studio and takes no interest in your work, every time someone waxes ironic about modern art, every time your mate lets slips that you are something of a leech for failing to bring in any income, you will feel hard-pressed not to let that criticism get under your skin. By virtue of doubting your path, you let the criticism in.

Can you not doubt something that you do in fact doubt? Wouldn’t that amount to a charade or to denial? How can you act as if you know that painting is the right place to make meaning if you don’t know that for a fact? How you answer this pivotal question will determine in large measure how well you handle the criticism in your life. If your answer is, “Since I’m not sure, I’ll proceed uncertainly and allow myself to be buffeted by every chance remark,” then you have turned yourself into flypaper for criticism. If your answer is, “Since I’m not sure, I’ll proceed with fierce conviction and monitor my own thoughts on the matter,” then you will have made the best out of an existential dilemma and safeguarded yourself against idle criticism.

Whether you are certain about your path in life or uncertain about it, your best bet is to demand of yourself that you will remain the single most important arbiter of your existential reality and, as a corollary principle, that what others say must be taken with a grain of salt. This is not to say that you can’t learn from other people, that other people might not sometimes point out important things that you’ve missed, or that you are invariably right and that the world is invariably muddled. What it means is that you will not abdicate your responsibility to make the meaning in your life. If and when you fully embrace that responsibility, you will change your relationship to the world and make yourself less vulnerable to toxic criticism.

You prepare yourself to deal effectively with criticism by championing your own meaning-making efforts as a principled person pursuing certain life goals. Focused as you are on your meaning-making efforts, you suddenly find it easy to ignore most criticism as irrelevant. You are too busy making meaning to notice or bother with the world’s barbs and arrows. In conjunction with this key, you have five tasks to tackle. 

The first task is learning what it means to decide to matter. Do you matter to yourself? Are you firmly committed to living a principled, powerful, accomplished life? Until you can answer yes to these questions and until you live a life that reflects your affirmative choice to matter, your very existential unsettledness makes you an easy target for criticism. When people criticize you, you will be inclined to agree with them because you yourself feel critical of your lack of direction, motivation, and discipline. This transformational task of living as if you matter is central to your growth.

Here is a tactic to use to master this task: Affirm that you matter. Say, “What I do matters.” Say, “My life matters to me.” Say, “I amount to something.” Say, “I have a voice.” Literally say these powerful, affirmative things and others like them. Say them out loud. Say them to the people in your life. Say to your mother, who routinely criticizes you, “Mother, I matter.” Practice mattering.

The second task is learning how to feel that you are journeying on a personal path. How are you conceptualizing your journey through life? Most people have no path in mind and operate reactively and reflexively, making it through the day at work, disliking their job but seeing no alternatives, feeling more tossed and turned by life than confidently at the helm. If you currently have no path in mind, how can you know which criticism to address and which to ignore? If someone criticizes you at work and you don’t even know whether or not your job is important to you, how will you know how seriously to take the criticism? In order to put criticism in its place, you need to know what you are intending to do with your life. 

A tactic to use to master this second task is to map your path. First, name the primary way you intend to make meaning: for instance, “I intend to be a writer.” Then articulate the details of that meaning-making path: “I intend to write novels, have them published, have a career as a novelist, and grow masterful as a writer.” Next, articulate your plan: “I will work at anything for the next three years as I write my first two novels, as I expect the first one to stink and the second one to be much better.” With this sort of mental map in mind, when your boss at your day job criticizes you for your lack of motivation, you can make a strategic reply while internally acknowledging the truth—and unimportance—of his criticism.

The third task is learning to “put criticism in its place” in the context of your existential decision. Once you have a sense of your meaning-making path, you can begin to decide what sorts of criticisms are going to count and what sorts of criticisms you are going to ignore out of hand. If you decide that your meaning-making path is writing, you can then shrug off criticism of your singing voice and your snoring as minor and only worth considering insofar as you don’t want to bring down your choir or keep up your lover. That is, you process criticism of this irrelevant sort to see what it means and what it implies, but you do so without any emotional charge attached because it does not connect to your meaning-making path.

To master this third task, ask yourself, “Does this criticism connect to my path?” Memorize the question, “Does this criticism connect to my path?” and learn to quickly remove the emotional sting from criticism that has no bearing on your authentic journey. When someone says “You look tired today” or “You look like you’ve slept in your clothes,” you instantly ask yourself, “Does this criticism connect to my path?” If you judge that it doesn’t (for instance because you look tired and like you’ve slept in your clothes exactly because you were up all night writing), you can dismiss it instantly with a smile and a “Yes, exactly.”

The fourth task is learning how to deal with meaning drains and meaning crises. A given piece of criticism may relate to your path and deal you both an emotional and an existential blow. For instance, you might receive a rejection letter from an editor that reads in part, “This is so bad that I can’t believe you had the gall to send it to me.” Because this criticism relates directly to your meaning-making path, it hurts tremendously (while also providing potentially important information). You will need to vent the emotional hurt; but you will also need to deal with the meaning crisis that this rejection provokes.

To master this fourth task, visualize meaning returning. When you take an existential body blow and meaning drains out of your life, you want to immediately picture meaning returning and instantly say to yourself “I know that I can make meaning again.” A writer who receives a devastating critique needs to opt for hope rather than despair, picture his life buoyed up by meaning like some great ocean liner rising in dry dock as water rushes in, and exclaim, “I know that my writing will feel meaningful again—and soon!” 

The fifth task is earning to relish criticism as a natural consequence of goal-setting and risk-taking. You commit to make meaning in your life and with your life. As a consequence, you set goals and accept risks. You take on the role of warrior and announce that you will stake your life for your principles and your meaning-making ideals. Armored by your convictions, you ignore as harmless and irrelevant most criticism flung your way and even relish that criticism, as proof that you are fully in the fray. Because you are existentially solid, criticisms that others would find mortally wounding you experience as pin pricks. 
To master this fifth task, you announce that you relish and invite criticism. Actually say, “I relish criticism!” Elaborate on that idea by exclaiming, “Criticize me all you like! I have bigger fish to fry!” Get in the habit of smiling at your critics. When someone criticizes you, laugh, shake your head, and stand a little taller. Feel like an action hero who must shoo away battalions of flies as you save the world. Feel like a heroic meaning-maker and relish criticism, as proof that you are stirring up the pot.
By affirming that you matter, mapping your meaning-making path, putting criticism in existential context, visualizing meaning returning after body blows, and relishing the criticism you receive as proof that you are really living, you will transform yourself into someone who is essentially unafraid of criticism. When someone criticizes you for having a messy apartment or feels obliged to inform you that you are sporting a few new wrinkles, you laugh those criticisms away as having absolutely no existential relevance. When a criticism does have some existential relevance, you stand resolute, a meaning-making warrior, and deal with the wound by dressing it with hope.

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 [email protected]. 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!