Episode 25: The Behavioral Key

Listen Now
RSS: Subscribe
RSS: iTunes

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 Behavioral Key.” 


Hello, everybody. Today’s is the seventh 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 Behavioral Key.” Let’s begin!

In the case of the novelist we discussed in last week’s episode—let’s call her Sally—there are many real-world behaviors that she will want to engage in to help her recover from this blow and prevent these toxins from eating her alive. She will want to eat moderately and not binge, as putting weight back on will only compound her problems. She will want to stroll in the sun, as sunlight is a natural antidepressant. She will want to refrain from making any big changes in her life, as changes made during a crisis are often not the right ones. Most importantly, she will want to tackle her writing life in concrete, active ways.

She has several choices with respect to this novel. She can revise it. She can reread it to see if it really is as flawed as she now believes it to be. She can send it out to additional readers to gauge their opinion. She can carve it up into short stories and begin to circulate them. She can pay a free-lance editor to edit it. She can have a conversation with herself about her intentions with respect to this novel and see if she get clarity as to what went wrong (if, in fact, anything did).

If the novel can’t be salvaged, she has to move on. She can think through if there is another meaning-making avenue open to her that will serve her as well as writing has served her and, if there is, pursue meaning there. If she sees writing as the place where she wants to continue making meaning, then she will have to choose her next writing project (or let it choose her) and begin a new piece of writing. What she can’t do is let this existential crisis fester unresolved. She must take action in the real world if the toxicity of this moment is to be released and overcome.

Whether the criticism we receive is more fair or unfair, more life-altering or merely unpleasant, more rooted deep in the past or completely of the moment, there will always be real-world actions we need to take to deal with the criticism. This is true because we intend to bring to bear the best parts of our personality to deal with the criticism, and that requires that we do actual things—like eat our vegetables rather than binge on chocolate, increase our twelve-step meetings rather than cut ourselves, bravely leave the apartment rather than anxiously refuse to leave the apartment. A toxic episode, because it is bound to have repercussions on our system, must be dealt with actively—or else it is not really being dealt with at all.

Much of what we’ve discussed has to do with “in the mind” matters: formulating your meaning-making goals, honing your appraisal skills, consciously constructing a certain attitude, getting a grip on your cognitions, and so on. The sixth key, by contrast, has to do with your behaviors and your actions in the world, with the concrete ways you present yourself, the concrete things you say, and the concrete actions you take.

A first task is learning how to behave and respond in the moment. Someone criticizes you. Because you have been working on the cognitive key and the personality key, you are able to control your self-talk and your personality and respond exactly as you intend. What is your best response? In many cases, it will be to say nothing and to shrug the criticism off as irrelevant and unimportant. In some cases, however, you will want and need to actively respond. Then your best response is likely to be a brief, clear, affirmative response, affirmative in the sense that it affirms your right to exist and your right to be treated be fairly. At the same time, you will want your response to be modulated enough that you don’t burn your bridges.

If your mother calls you fat, your response might be to calmly reply, “Never call me fat again.” If your editor pans your current fiction manuscript, your response might be to calmly reply, “Let me think about what you said and get back to you tomorrow.” If your co-worker says, “Because you’ve missed so many days lately, I’ve gotten really jammed up,” your response might be to calmly reply, “I’m really sorry about that.” In each case you offer a brief, clear, measured response that is neither an assault nor a self-attack.

A tactic to employ with respect to this first task is to practice ABC responses. Imagine a criticism or two that is likely to come your way, maybe from a boss, co-worker, or one of your parents, and create and practice some affirmative, brief, clear responses that you might actually use. Get a clear picture of how you want to feel, what facial expression you intend to wear, what tone of voice you want to employ.  Try out several responses for each imagined situation, as your first attempts may fall short in terms of brevity, clarity, or power. For each situation, write out the response you like the best and practice it and memorize it.

A second task is learning to ventilate pent-up emotions. Even the most calm, phlegmatic individual still experiences the build-up of stress and needs a repertoire of stress management tools to deal with the rigors of modern life, even if those tools are as simple and straightforward as hot showers and walks by the beach. Similarly, even someone who has evolved a persona relatively impervious to criticism still experiences a cumulative build-up of toxins from the criticism he has received.

It is important to learn to ventilate these pent-up emotions in safe, modulated ways. You can ventilate your pent-up emotions by silently screaming (that is, by screaming but without uttering a sound, a technique actors use to reduce anticipatory anxiety while waiting in the wings), by pounding a pillow or tattooing a punching bag, through traditional talk therapy or via therapeutic massage, by having a good cry, or by using the tactic we’ll discuss in an upcoming episode, writing “dear critic” letters.

A third task is learning to identify the actions you need to take. Your boss tells you that unless you increase your productively you will not be offered a new contract. This is criticism that is hard to ignore, unless you are intending to leave your job. Because you have trained yourself to deal effectively with criticism, you do not overreact, beat yourself up, let the shadow side of your personality take over, or in any way sabotage yourself. Instead, you calmly appraise the situation. What is going on? Is your boss actually saying something about you or is he paving the way for handing your job over to his nephew? What is your best understanding of the situation?

Having done your best to understand the situation, which process may include bravely chatting with your boss and getting amplification and clarification, you then identify what actions you need to take in order to reach your desired outcome (which may be retaining your current job or finding a new job). You effectively deal with this criticism not by sticking your head in the mud or by swallowing the criticism but by identifying the actions you intend to take that will render the criticism moot—and by then taking action.      

A tactic to use with respect to this third task is to do the work directly in front of you. It is brave of us to identify the actions we need to take and even braver to actually take them. One technique for taking necessary action is to say, “I am ready to do the work directly in front of me.” Announcing our readiness in this way helps motivate us and gets us up and out of our chair. It also helps prevent us from making excuses. The strength and simplicity of announcing that we have work to do that is “directly in front of us” makes this an ideal technique to use when we want to consolidate personality change and get things done.  

Someone criticizes you. From our discussion, you have a sense of what you need to do to minimize the impact of that criticism. You need to be so firmly on your path in life that most criticism amounts to little more than the buzzing of gnats. You need to appraise a given situation at top speed and decide whether, and to what extent, you want to bother with this particular piece of criticism. You need to have a philosophical, phlegmatic attitude in place that serves as Teflon. You need to manage your thoughts and your self-talk, so as to make sure that you don’t turn molehills into mountains. You need to manage your personality in such a way that you retain control of your responses, heal from past injuries, and grow in meaningful ways. And you need to act effectively, both in the moment and after the fact.

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!