How to deal with criticism

Jun 21 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit at Beyond The Ridiculous / photographer Alex Tabrizi

This week, I received an email from a student who recently attended one of my courses. Attached to the email, was a document marked 'private and confidential', which outlined everything I'd got wrong and how, if they were running the workshop, they would have done it better. No, I won't be sharing the feedback (I can hear you from here, saying “Gizza look!”), but what I will share, is the reflection process which spontaneously emerged, to help me digest the criticism in order to learn and grow. I hope this will be useful for you too.

I guess they thought they were being helpful, offering me pearls of wisdom from their clearly considerable professional experience, but because their feedback lacked any of their personal feelings or needs, all I heard was a tirade of criticism.

I'm not against all criticism, carefully delivered criticism can be a catalyst for growth, but in order for it to be useful, criticism needs to have two main ingredients; the personal feelings and needs of the criticiser. For example: “When you did/said .... I felt.... because I needed....” Bringing in your own feelings and needs does three things: 1.) it brings your vulnerability into the encounter which makes you an equal and not superior to the listener. 2.) it allows the listener to feel empathy and understanding for you and where you're coming from, instead of filling in the gaps from their own imagination. 3.) it allows the listener to hear your feedback as one person's feedback, rather than a universal truth. All of these things take the heat out of the criticism and help people to hear your words.

Because there were no personal feelings and needs expressed, when I read the words of advice, I heard; “You are shit at your job and you should probably go and kill yourself right now. How dare you put yourself out there as a teacher when you clearly know absolutely nothing! You are a massive fraud.”

I felt hot, tense and triggered, furious with myself for ever thinking I could get away with doing what I do. I got into the shower (it was the morning, this isn't something I do every time I'm triggered...although it might not be a bad idea.) and as the water washed away the first flushes of shame, I felt a sudden shift of my venomous focus, from boiling in my own shame to blaming the person who'd sent the feedback; “The fucking idiot, they know nothing about my work, they didn't get it because they are clearly stupid...”

Getting out of the shower, still muttering under my breath about how I'm going to “teach that arsehole a lesson”, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. Crumpled forehead, tense jaw, murderous eyes, not a pretty sight. So I hauled myself up to my meditation cushion and sat with the raging feelings, noticing where they were in my body. My jaw was locked, my chest heavy, my shoulders hunched, my fists clenched. Giving my feelings my full attention, allowed them to swell and be heard, before quieting down of their own accord.

Coming back to the here and now, I remembered I had packing to do, I was due to leave for an adventure in half an hour, so I pressed pause on my process and bundled myself off to the train station.

Once settled on the train, I took out my note book and pen and went through the feedback, chunk by chunk. First writing out what the person had said, then tuning into my Inner Critic and writing down how they'd interpreted the words. Seeing my Inner Critic's words on the page revealed the ridiculously dramatic, black and white thinking of my critic. This created a little more space between the Critic's words and my sense of Self.

Next I dropped into my compassion to explore what might have been going on under the surface for the person who sent me the feedback - perhaps they wanted more recognition for their own skills and abilities? Perhaps they'd felt vulnerable during my workshop and they wanted to restore their power? Perhaps they just wanted to be seen and heard? Inclining my heart towards compassion, allowed me to soften my heart and remember they are a vulnerable human, just like me. This took a little more heat out of the encounter.

Lastly, still in my compassion, I felt into whether there were any gems I could take from the feedback, to improve my practice and grow. I found a couple of little nuggets which felt helpful to me. By the time I arrived at my destination, I felt grounded and ready to let go of being triggered and begin my adventure.

I'm proud of myself for stopping my well-practiced self-destructive critical drama in it's tracks. In the past, it would have been easy to get swallowed up by my Inner Critic's response and to have spent days or weeks hating and punishing myself and most probably sabotaging future projects. But instead, this alchemical reflection process spontaneously emerged, I grew a little bit and now I'm sharing it with you.

A few days later. I shared this experience with my supervisor who suggested I finish the process by ripping up and burning the feedback. I did so, laughing with glee, as I let go of an old me who would have clung onto that for years.*

Dealing With Criticism, Step by Step

1.) Hear the feedback all the way through (if it's verbal, it can help to voice record it, as it can be hard to take in anything when you're triggered.**)

2.) Thank the person for their feedback and don't say anything else. (Tell them you need a little time to process before you respond.)

3.) Take yourself to a safe place.

4.) Feel the ground beneath you, feel your breath flowing in and out of your belly, get grounded.

5.) Tune into your feelings, can you name them? Where do you feel them in your body? Let your feelings have their space – let go of the story and just breathe with the feelings, fully experience them.

6.) Come back to the ground beneath you, come back to your breath, sit quietly for a while and if it hasn't already happened, wait until the rush of feelings begins to die down. Anchor yourself in the here and now. Here you are, a vulnerable human being who's been triggered.

7.) Pick up a pen and some paper (if the feelings are still raging, wait a while before you do this bit.)

8.) Divide the feedback into sections and for each section, try this process:

a.) Write down the statement as you heard it, as accurately as you can.

b.) Drop into your Inner Critic's voice, write down how your Inner Critic heard the statement, don't hold back!

c.) Drop into your Inner Compassionate Being's voice. You could channel Mother Teresa / Jesus / Buddha / a Kindly Grandmother, or whoever fits the bill for you. Look at the person who delivered the feedback, through the eyes of the Compassionate Being. Explore on the page – what do you think might have been going on for them? Where do you think their feedback might have been coming from? What might have been going on in their lives? What needs aren't getting met?

d.) Now let's turn the Compassionate Being's attention to you. What parts of the feedback might actually be useful to you? What could you take into your personal reflections in order to learn and grow? Is it necessary to come back to the person who gave you the criticism? What might you say that could be valuable to both you and them? How might you say it (baring in mind that feedback which includes personal feelings and needs is often better digested)?

9.) When you've finished, perform a simple ritual that says; “This is finished.” You can rip up and burn the feedback like I did, scatter it on the breeze, do a little dance, have a little shake, whatever feels right for you.

10.) This has been a hefty process and it's important that you reward yourself somehow for work well done. What would feel like a healthy, nourishing treat for you? Something that says “You are a brave human being, worthy of love and respect,” Something simple and easy – a pat on the back, a celebratory dance, a delicious drink, whatever feels right for you.***

*Thanks Tone for reminding me about the ritual of letting go.

**Thanks Amy and Chris for reminding me about the deafness that occurs when we're triggered.

***Thanks Franki for reminding me about the importance of celebrating my achievements.

As a final word, I'd like to talk about the importance of connection when dealing with shame – as you can see, I shared my process with several people, all of whom helped me to take another step out of my age-old critical drama. Shame wants you alone and alienated from the human race, that's when it's at it's most powerful. To reach out for connection in your most messiest moments is a radical act of defiance. We are all human, we are all vulnerable and we all know shame, it's important that we help each other along the road. Please reach out to each other when you need support, you don't have to go it alone!

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