Episode 21: The Appraisal 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 Appraisal Key.”


Hello, everybody. Today’s is the third 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 Appraisal Key.” Let’s begin!

In order to make sense of your life and take charge of your life, you need to get in the habit of quickly appraising situations rather than defensively reacting to situations. The kind of instant appraisal required is of the following sort. You want to decide in the blink of an eye if a comment is existentially worth bothering with: that is, if it falls into a category that you deem meaningful. If it does, you next want to decide if the comment is objectively true or objectively false. Next, you want to decide, irrespective of whether it is true or false, whether it rises to a level of importance such that it is worth considering. In this way you train yourself to dismiss comments, whether true or false, that are not existentially important or that are existentially important but just not that important.

Take the following scenario. You work from home. Your husband works at an office. Because you work from home, your business tends to sprawl throughout the house, creating a bit of a mess (maybe more than a bit!). This doesn’t bother you; you straighten up on the weekend and all is well. But every weekday evening when your husband comes home he exclaims “What a mess!” and then goes about his routine, checking the mail, changing his clothes, and so on.

Obviously that “What a mess!” is not a friendly greeting on the order of “I’m home, dear!” It is a criticism. But even though it is a criticism, it is only worth addressing if it is worth addressing. That is what you want to appraise. Your appraisal might take the following form and last not even a second: “My business is going beautifully and, yes, it does create a bit of a mess, but if I stop to straighten every day I would get infinitely less work done, so I have no intention of doing that. It would be nice if Jeff were less of a jerk and would stop making that ‘What a mess!’ comment every day but I am not interested in fighting with Jeff, educating Jeff, or changing Jeff, so I choose to let him off the hook and me off the hook and act as if he sneezed rather than spoke.”

This analysis takes a lot of words to say but virtually no time in the mind. You decide that this is a matter of existential importance, connecting both to your work life and your relationship life, and that therefore you must consider it at least a little bit. You do consider it a little bit and you decide that while it is ‘objectively fair’ criticism in one sense, that a mess does exist, it is unfair in several other senses, that this is your work space as well as your living space, that the mess does get tidied every weekend, and so on. Most importantly, you decide that it simply doesn’t rise to the level of worth considering. This complete appraisal, which takes microseconds or seconds at most, allows you to label Jeff’s daily comment as nothing more than a grunt or a belch.

Of course, you may decide that Jeff’s comment needs addressing. In that case, you would make use of the strategies we’ll discuss as we proceed. When you appraise, you hold yourself ready for two possible outcomes, that the situation is of no concern to you and that dismissal and detachment are the keys, or that the situation is of some moment and should be addressed. Insofar as you have made real sense of the first key and refuse to be deflected from your meaning-making path by idle comments, and real sense of the third key and adopt an attitude so sunny, phlegmatic, and philosophical that the world’s darts do not find in you a dart board, the more likely you will be to appraise most critical comments and situations as simply not being worth your attention.

Whether the criticism you receive is expected, like a work evaluation you are dreading, or completely unexpected, say from a stranger on the street, in addition to your existential and attitudinal armor you want to be able to instantly make certain decisions. You can only make these instant decisions if you have trained yourself to appraise such situations rather than react to them reflexively and defensively. You do not want your doctor to react in horror at the sight of your wound, you want him to know how to stop the bleeding. Similarly, you do not want to react emotionally when criticism hits, you want to understand what is going on and consciously decide how you intend to respond. In conjunction with this appraisal key, you have four tasks to master.

The first task is learning to make quick sense of a toxic moment. Speed is of the essence in handling toxic criticism. You can always handle the criticism later, after the incident and in perfect solitude, but by opting to handle it later rather than on the spot you unnecessarily carry around toxins and you lose the opportunity to dismiss criticism out of hand. 

A tactic to master with respect to this first task is to learn to quickly ask and answer the following five questions:

1. Have I actually been criticized?

You’ve just registered some comment as criticism.  But is it really criticism? Is coming in third out of five hundred entries in a painting competition criticism or validation? You may be disappointed, irritated, even angry, but have you been criticized? Could it be that you are turning the moment into a toxic criticism moment when there is no good reason to do so? If the moment can be better reframed as something other than criticism, do that!

2. What is the content of the criticism?

If your mother just criticized your haircut, is she criticizing your haircut, the fact that you are still single, the fact that you are gay, or the fact that her hair hasn’t looked good in thirty years? What is really going on? Attacking you because you are single and attacking you because she hates her hair are two very different things and should provoke very different responses in you. 

3. Is it fair or unfair criticism?

A neighbor comes into your apartment and exclaims, “Oh, how messy!” Because you are existentially and attitudinally armored, you dismiss her comment as her bile erupting and nothing with which you need concern yourself. But apart from the comment being rude and inappropriate, is it actually a true or false statement? No doubt your apartment is messier than apartments in advertisements. Is that the standard? No doubt it is messier than the apartment of a person with no life to lead who cleans all day long. Is that the standard? Is it so messy that rats have arrived? Probably your true appraisal will be, “It is sort of average messy and who cares!” That is, you will decide that the criticism is not only unwarranted but objectively unfair. Apply human-sized standards and quickly decide whether the criticism shot your way is fair or unfair. 

4. Irrespective of whether it is fair or unfair, do I care?

You may agree that your apartment is messier than the average apartment, agree even that this reflects a problem that needs addressing, and still conclude that although it is a fair criticism and even a somewhat telling criticism, it is still so minor a matter that you simply do not care to give it a moment’s thought. One of the most crucial appraisal tasks is deciding whether or not you want to care and, by caring, dignify this piece of criticism with your time and attention. Sometimes you will; but many, many times you won’t.

5. How do I want to respond?

Your final decision is whether to dismiss the criticism with a smile and a wave, make some other sort of response in the moment, or think the matter through and respond later. When you get practiced at responding effectively in the moment, the percentage of times that you respond on the spot will naturally increase. But as a rule you will probably find it wise to consider your response before delivering it—as many times you will decide against responding at all.

A second task is learning to accurately understand what troubles you the most about a piece of criticism. One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with toxic criticism is that, because of anxiety and defensiveness, we tend to do a very poor job of identifying what is actually bothering us about a piece of criticism. When our mother criticizes us, are we upset about the criticism, about the fact that her criticism reminds us that she doesn’t love us very much, or about the fact that we are so much like her that we want to scream? It takes courage, self-awareness, and fortitude to look a critical comment in the eye and accurately judge why it hurts so much. 

A tactic to use with respect to this second task is to ask yourself, “What is actually bothering me?” As a vital part of the appraisal process you want to ask yourself the brave question, “What is actually bothering me?” about the criticism you receive. When your father criticizes you, your first thought might be “I hate him!” and you might naturally suppose that what is bothering you is his cruelty. But it may be the case that what is bothering you is that he is telling you a hard truth that you do not want to hear. You can see why asking this vital appraisal question requires so much courage:  by asking it, you are demanding of yourself that you own your part of the criticism, a part that may be substantial.

A third task is learning to separate the criticism from the critic. Because a given piece of criticism may hurt but may also be fair and in our best interests, and because, even if it is unfair and cruel, it may still be delivered by someone with whom we need to maintain a decent relationship, it is wise that we separate the criticism from the critic and not react defensively and angrily in the moment. The way to do this is to remain neutral and judicious, even when we are hurt and steaming.

A tactic to use to address this third task is to internally say, “I am not going to burn a bridge here!” Make the conscious decision that you are not going to respond in an inflammatory manner to criticism. Get in the habit of murmuring “I am not going to burn a bridge here” the instant you receive a critical blow. Occasionally this will mean that you miss an opportunity to appropriately vent, but over the long haul you will do yourself a world of good by responding calmly and carefully to the criticism that comes your way.    

A fourth task is retaining your strength as you appraise. You have just been hurt by a piece of toxic criticism. One natural reaction is to react angrily and defensively, as just discussed, and another reaction is to want to curl up in a ball and die. Because this latter is such a natural reaction, and because it produces weakness throughout our system, we want to consciously demand of ourselves that we remain strong in the moment. If we remain strong in the moment we can more accurately appraise the situation and act more forcefully should the moment demand action.

A tactic to use with respect to this fourth task is to build a warrior practice. Martial artists practice. Fencers practice. Soldiers practice. They practice certain skills but more importantly they practice dealing with their fears and mastering their emotions. What sort of warrior practice makes sense for you? It might be tai chi, which is a peaceful adaptation of a warrior practice, it might be a sitting meditation practice, where the regimen of sitting strengthens your will as it cleanses your mind, or it might be some practice that you devise for yourself. Whether or not you actually practice, your goal is to remember to bring your warrior energy into the moment, not for the sake of fighting but for the sake of manifesting your natural strength.

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!