Episode 22: The Attitudinal 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 Attitudinal Key.”

Transcript

Hello, everybody. Today’s is the fourth 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 Attitudinal Key.” Let’s begin!

If you believe that your attitude is not in your control, in whose control do you take it to be? Do you believe that you must be pessimistic because you have reasons for being pessimistic? Do you take it that you must be depressed because so many things are going miserably? Do you believe that you must keep a wary, critical eye on every aspect of your environment and your life because you were harmed as a child and felt unsafe and unloved? You might respond, “Well, I just don’t have any reason to feel sunny, phlegmatic, and philosophical about life because life is s*#t,” to which I must respond, “That’s a mistake.”

It turns out that a pessimistic, self-critical, world-wary, half-depressed, anxious, sorrowful, passive, defeated attitude does not feel good and does not serve you, even if you can produce a ton of reasons why that is the logical attitude to adopt. Even if you can produce a mountain of evidence why you should be gloomy, wary, and out of sorts, it doesn’t follow that actually being gloomy, wary and out of sorts is the way for you to be. You will have to decide two things: whether your attitude is in your control and what you want your attitude to be.

The attitude that will go the longest way to inoculating you against toxic criticism starts with you believing in yourself, in your choices and your path, and in your ability to right your ship if it is off course. You believe in yourself and laughingly shrug off the opinions of others, not because you suppose that others never have anything to say but because you deeply understand to what extent everyone has an agenda and how often people are completely wrong in their opinions. If people knew what they were talking about, how could there be two hundred thousand different religions (the actual number that cultural anthropologists have identified)? Are you going to listen to anyone about the nature of the universe with everyone yammering that they know—and each making a different claim? Shouldn’t you smile and shrug instead?

Smiling, shrugging, and keeping your own counsel will make a huge percentage of what previously felt like criticism evaporate. Smiling and shrugging when your mother says something about the lack of fish oil in your diet (which next week she will be recommending against, as her hairdresser happened upon an article contradicting last week’s previous ‘latest findings’) is the prefect approach and turns her opinions, which have always felt critical of you, into absurd, idle rants. When a co-worker wants to “tell you something for your own good” and you smile, shrug, and reply “I’d love to hear what you have to say and maybe we can chat about it next Thursday,” you retain control and your good humor. The keys: smiling, shrugging philosophically, and keeping your own counsel.

Adopting this attitude doesn’t require that you genuinely believe in yourself, only that you intend to operate as if you genuinely believed in yourself. If you actually do believe in yourself, that is wonderful!—and rare. Your current levels of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-trust, if they happen to be low, can’t be allowed to prevent you from adopting an attitude that will serve you well.  The more you train yourself not to allow the world to dictate to you, to bring you down, and to control your moods and opinions, the more you train yourself to find that reserve in you that is optimistic, life-loving, and hopeful. The more you decide to adopt an everyday attitude of wry amused pleasure, the better off you will be.

Your attitude helps determine not only how you react to criticism but also how much you concern yourself with the criticism you receive. If you move through life anxious and vigilant, attuned to the opinions of others, and lacking necessary confidence, every little critical remark will register, strike you as toxic, and cause you emotional pain. If, on the other hand, you move through life with a philosophical perspective, a phlegmatic attitude, and the grace and strength of a peaceful warrior, few critical remarks will possess the power to harm you. In conjunction with this attitudinal key, you have five tasks to master.      
The first task is growing philosophical. If you opt to view the human animal with wry amusement, acknowledge the foibles of human nature, accept the universe as mysterious and ineffable, and cast a skeptical eye on the motives and methods of your fellow mortals, you will have adopted a philosophical attitude that allows you to put the essential unimportance of criticism in its place. By being philosophical about life and human nature, you instantly defang most criticism.   

A tactic to help with this first task is to read the philosophers. If you decide that it makes sense to adjust your attitude in a more philosophical direction, you may also conclude that it makes sense to tap into the wisdom of the philosophers and read, for example, writings of the great stoics Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, each of whom had a lot to say about dignity and restraint. While it can be daunting to venture into a vast, foreign territory like ancient philosophy, you may find the venture—and the adventure—worthwhile. 

A second task is growing phlegmatic. Growing philosophical involves orienting your mind in a certain direction, toward “not sweating the small stuff” and putting life’s small challenges in wise perspective. Growing phlegmatic—growing calm, unemotional, and undemonstrative—involves orienting your personality in a similar direction. You present a stoic demeanor to the world, you train yourself not to be perturbed by other people’s nonsense, and you decide beforehand that you are going to let very little ruffle your feathers. You ratchet down the intensity of interactions, rather than angling for drama, listen more than you speak, and present an impassive face to the hysterics of modern life.

Ancient wisdom had it that a phlegmatic personality signaled an individual keen on self-protection—and that is exactly right. You are adopting this personality style because it serves you as you pursue your meaning-making goals, not because it is the sunniest or warmest personality available to you. Be warm and sunny whenever you like!—but have a phlegmatic overcoat available when the criticism starts flying.

A tactic to help with this second task is to practice calmness. A phlegmatic person prides himself on his calmness, a calmness that may come naturally or may be a studied habit. Whether calmness comes naturally to you or needs to be learned, it is an essential ingredient of the attitude change I’m suggesting. You learn to become calmer by practicing deep breathing techniques, mind-quieting meditation techniques, relaxation techniques, and other techniques that for millennia have proven to quell anxiety and produce calm.

A third task is learning selective inattention. Paying too much attention to every speck of dust and every critical remark are hallmarks of an anxious, vigilant person who is vulnerable to toxic criticism. Although you don’t want to wander through life with your eyes closed, you do want to cultivate the habit of not noticing what you don’t need to notice. You can select what you choose to notice and what you choose to ignore, from how much world news you let into your life to how much attention you pay to the antics of your co-workers. The better you focus on your meaning-making goals and filter out irrelevant data, including irrelevant insults and criticisms, the more you will feel truly on your own path.

A tactic to use with respect to this third task is to practice not noticing. What do you notice when you get home from work? The dishes piled high in the sink (followed by a stab of self-criticism)? The bills piled high on the floor in front of the mail slot (followed by a stab of anxiety)? Practice not noticing these and the other bothersome things that routinely grab your attention the instant you step through the door. Instead, fix your attention where you would like to fix it: on your son; on the novel you sometimes write in the evening; on the music you intend to listen to while you bathe. Take charge of where you focus your attention.

A fourth task is minding your own counsel. When you see yourself as your own best friend and advocate and as the sole arbiter of what matters, you reduce the power of others to affect you with their opinions and criticisms. You adopt the attitude that nothing anyone says is true or accurate until you have had a chance to weigh it against what you know to be true and accurate. If, for instance, someone says that an action of yours is immoral, you do not bat an eyelash and you do not accept even for an instant that he or she is right, no matter what arguments are adduced to prove you are bad. Instead, you listen and decide what you believe. If you let others call the shots about what constitutes right and wrong, you have turned yourself into a range target.

A tactic to use with respect to this fourth task is to internally say, “What do I think?” in response to every criticism When you are criticized, your first task is to appraise the situation, as I discussed previously. What you are actually doing when you stop to appraise is deciding what you think about the situation. Rather than instantly believing the criticism and feeling hurt, you hold off feeling anything until you ask and answer the question, “What do I think?” Just knowing that you are going to ask yourself this question provides a buffer between the criticism and a reflexive response. The next time you find yourself criticized, instead of reacting at all, step back and ask yourself, “What do I think?”

A fifth task is growing graceful. The strong, calm, imperturbable, philosophical attitude that I suggest you cultivate amounts to a graceful way of being in the world, a way characterized by quiet self-assurance, wry, self-deprecating humor, and fierce convictions. People will recognize what this graceful way implies about your inner strength and will criticize you less often, as they will intuitively understand that you are not someone with whom they should trifle. 

A tactic to use to master this fifth task is visualizing a graceful you. Visualization is the practice of using your imagination as a self-help tool. You might visualize a calm scene so as to reduce your performance anxiety, visualize your healthy cells fighting your cancer cells so as to heal yourself from cancer, or, as in this case, visualize yourself gracefully handling criticism. By visualizing yourself gracefully handling criticism you rehearse your new attitude and your new behaviors and get a picture in your mind of how you want to be.

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!