Listening to Criticism

There’s no way around this one. You cannot avoid being criticized. Embedded in the fiber of human relationship is the impulse to criticize each other. It is as if there is this egocentric epicenter within each one where we imagine that others should conform to our sense of how they ought to be. Most of our own criticisms of others and theirs of us fly under the radar. Unspoken and unnoticed, by present nonetheless. It is only in our closest relationships, especially with a committed partner that the criticisms are uttered aloud.

It is these verbalized judgments that wreak such havoc on the connections we form. It’s probably fair to say that there’s a direct relationship between our closeness to one another and the likelihood that we will be openly critical of each other. In this blog post, I want to focus on the receiving end of criticism. It goes without saying that the critical partner is primarily responsible for examining what is behind her criticism. But the judgments will slip out, and then what? How do we receive criticism? What do we do with it?

I would like to suggest that their are two fundamental approaches to hearing criticism. We either react, or we respond. Reactions emerge from our impulse to protect and defend our integrity. We are serving the god of self-protection. Responding emanates from our desire to re-establish connection. We are serving the god of intimacy. Let’s take a look at several types of reactions to criticism and then finish with how responding can express itself.

Reaction #1 – Fighting Back
Because our brain tells us that we are under threat when we are criticized, we often tend to engage by criticizing back. We are prone to fight back when our partner’s criticism mirrors our own self judgment. It simply feels far too unsafe to own that there may be any merit to the criticism. the thought process is something like this: “I can’t be inferior here, it’s too dangerous. I must make us equals by pointing out my partners flaws.” This however is a zero sum game. Each partner is in attack & defend mode. Connection cannot happen

Reaction# 2 – Rationalize and Justify
Here, we make the choice to defend ourselves from attack by explaining away our partner’s criticism. We may pick a small part of what our partner said and debunk it, ignoring the thrust of his criticism. We may point out all the other ways we have acted contrary to the criticism. We may attempt to disqualify the attack by arguing it’s merits. All of these serve only to make our partner want to come at us even stronger. But this approach will never serve the god of intimacy.

Reaction #3 – Withdrawal
Withdrawal is often the reaction of choice when we don’t feel safe enough to fight back or rationalize. We withdraw from criticism by clamming up, placating, physically leaving, changing the subject, and closing our hearts. Withdrawal becomes withholding when our motivation shifts from self-protection to a desire to punish. Our partner criticizes and we withhold engagement as a form of retaliation. Withdrawal often leads to an escalation of criticism, as the critical partner grows increasingly frustrated and often fearful of the withholders pulling away. Both the criticizer and the withholder up their game in a futile attempt to protect against injury.

This brings us to responding as the alternative to reacting to criticism. The essence of responding involves not our ability to listen to our partner, but to listen to ourselves instead. We cannot easily find empathy for our partner until we know how we are reacting to their criticism. When we hear a criticism, we will have a strong internal reaction. We want to attack, justify or withdraw. If we do not pay attention to these impulses, we will act them out. Our bodies provide the cues to our reactions. To respond to judgments we first notice what our bodies are telling us. Do we feel aggressive, fearful, contracted, vulnerable? Only then can we respond to the criticism with authenticity and vulnerability. This falls in the category of “simple but not easy.” Responding simply involves saying how we are reacting, and what we are protecting. Not complicated, but emotionally challenging. Here’s a few examples:

“When I hear your criticism, I feel like I want to retaliate. Underneath that I feel scared that you seem angry with me.”
“When you point out my mistake, I feel like I want to run away. Underneath that I feel hurt that you seem so judgmental of me.”
“When you tell me I always do the same thing I’m aware of how I want to argue and point out all the ways I don’t act in that way. Underneath, I can feel some shame because I do act that way sometimes.”
“I’s hard for me to hear your criticism when you express it that way. I want to defend myself and make you wrong. Underneath, I’m afraid you really don’t like me.”

When we learn to respond to criticism, we are motivated by a desire to learn, grow and connect to our partner. We open the door to a very different kind of dialogue when we choose to share our internal reactions rather than enacting them. it can be a game changer wen we pause long enough to listen to ourselves as we receive criticism from someone we love. Give it a try.

In June this year we will be offering a special training for those who work with couples (or who wish to work with couples). IN our hometown of Asheville we’ll be offering a weeklong training in our model of Embodied Relationship Work. Please check out our website professional page for details and to register:

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