January 13th, 2011

Embracing criticism, loving myself

I’ve been exploring an idea for the past few years that I’d like to share here.

The idea is that I never react to others’ criticisms, only to my own (self-criticism). When someone says something that resonates with my self-critic, that self-critic is activated (resonance). It’s due to that resonance that I classify another’s words as criticism, rather than praise, playful banter, or some sort of emotionally neutral information. Thus when one of my internal critics wakes up in resonance with another’s words, that critic reminds me about the corresponding still-unloved part of myself.

My personal goals include wholeness and unconditional self-love. In other words, I want to own and cherish all aspects of myself. So a current practice of mine is to embrace the criticism as much as I’m able, instead of trying to neutralize it through self-protective reactions or empathy for the other person. This inner practice is very difficult for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life insulating myself from others’ criticisms, and am finding it a tough habit to break. I’m making slow & steady progress. It took me a while to notice that some of Marshall’s techniques for neutralizing judgment & criticism were feeding a personal pattern that I want to move past. (For instance, never hear what a jackal-speaking person thinks of me.)

How does this practice (expanding self-love through embracing criticism) relate to NVC? I don’t see it in Marshall’s teachings. To relate to NVC, I’m now thinking of the practice as “fifth pair of ears”, besides the inner & outer jackal and giraffe ears. The new pair is an inner pair, and there’s a corresponding outer pair as well.

As with criticism & insults, similarly with praise. When I’m uncomfortable with someone’s praise, I can usually find a way to release my resistance and own the praise.

For instance, when someone says to me “You’re inconsiderate” or in NVC-ese “That doesn’t meet my need for consideration” (yuck), at first I have an ouch and then defensive & offensive thoughts. I could turn my mind toward the idea of “unmet needs” and look for empathy for myself and/or the other person. My new practice (in addition to the jackal & giraffe ones) is to ask myself how I can honestly own the assessment of me as inconsiderate. Eventually, when my emotional turmoil recedes, it’s so easy to see that the “criticism” of me is right on. After all, when I focus my attention on one thing, I often lose sight of other things. And so of course I’m inconsiderate. The praise “considerate” is also accurate, as I’m almost always considering something. (Since it’s a big universe—and there are lots of others real or imagined—I’m much more inconsiderate than I am considerate.)

My experiments with embracing criticism are connected with another long-term project of mine, which is to unconditionally embrace Reality. In other words, developing my ability to love What Is, dropping any resistance. (I distinguish wanting reality to be as it is from wanting reality to stay as it is. The former is about the present.) Since the world is full of people whose words awaken my inner critics, it’s important for me to find ways of benefiting from those people and appreciating their gifts to me. As with self-love, I’m lousy at reality-love. And maybe these two projects are really the same project. Work(s) in progress.


7 Responses to “Embracing criticism, loving myself”

  1. Niklas Says:

    Hey Conal,

    long time no read. How have you been?

    I’m wondering, how what you’re saying is different from “When someone criticizes you, look for the actual behavior of yours, that the other is referring to and acknowledge, how it affects the other person, without rationalizing or empathizing it away. Then look, what you can or want to learn from that. And please always do that with me, when I criticize you.” ;-)

    Can you tell me?

  2. conal Says:

    Hi Niklas.

    I’ve been having a great time. Most of my creative energy is going into non-NVC explorations, some of which is described at my other blog.

    “When someone criticizes you, look for the actual behavior of yours, that the other is referring to and acknowledge, how it affects the other person, without rationalizing or empathizing it away. Then look, what you can or want to learn from that. …”

    In this description, I hear a strategy for neutralizing criticism, replacing it with objectivity/clarity and learning. Very useful stuff. I’m talking about a contrasting strategy with a quite different goal: instead of neutralizing, amplify! Lean into the criticism, owning it fully—more fully even than the critic intended.

    While strategies for neutralizing criticism steer away from the gaps in my self-love, embracing and amplifying them raises another opportunity to fill those gaps.

    As an analogy, suppose there are several potholes on the street where you live. After living there a while, you’re probably pretty good at steering around those holes. And good at getting out of the holes when you don’t manage to avoid them. These avoidance skills are helpful, since they let you get on with business, including getting past your street to other places, like where you work and where your friends live.

    One of these days, however, you might want to fill the holes in your street.

    Every time such a hole comes to my attention, I have an opportunity to invest in wholeness.

    Lest anyone misunderstand the parallel I’m drawing, the holes are not our defects, which is a surface-level interpretation of criticism. That is, the holes are not blemishes in the perfection that would make us worthy of love. Rather, the holes are the gaps in our unconditional self-love.

  3. Niklas Says:

    Hey Conal,

    thanks for your reply. I’m glad you’re doing good. Unfortunately I’m too illiterate regarding programming to appreciate the explorations on your other blog. But I trust that it’s fun for those who get your meaning.

    Alright, I get that you really want to point to something else than avoiding criticism (and I was teasing you a bit there). But I’d still like to check, whether I get what you’re saying.

    Let’s take your example. When someone says “You’re inconsiderate!” and it hurts you, your theory is that it hurts you, because somewhere within your personality structure there’s a rule saying “You’re only worthy of love, when you’re considerate. – If you’re inconsiderate, you’re not worthy of love.” This is the pothole in your parallel. You can avoid having to acknowledge that somebody else deems you inconsiderate, that your behavior can be accurately summarized as inconsiderate or that you think of yourself as such. But avoiding the premise of the rule doesn’t change the rule.

    Filling the pothole, then, means to fully acknowledge the fact that you’re inconsiderate, while AT THE SAME TIME confirm that you’re worthy of love?


  4. conal Says:

    Hi Niklas,

    I think you’re in the neighborhood of what I’m trying to say.

    I do not, however, want to suggest that I am—or anyone else is—worthy of love.

    Worthiness is not a notion I could defend or even define other than in terms of some standard, so I’d rather do without it. And, of course, the same for unworthiness. In “worthy”, I still hear conditionality, and without conditionality, I don’t know what “worthy” could mean. Or from another angle, I might say that I’m both worthy and unworthy, since I satisfy some people’s conditions and don’t satisfy other people’s conditions.

  5. Niklas Says:

    Well put ;-)

  6. Lea Says:

    “I distinguish wanting reality to be as it is from wanting reality to stay as it is.” Thank you. I will quote you on that. It comes up so often as a misconception of what it means to embrace what is.

  7. Thomas Meli Says:

    Hi Conal,

    Thank you for writing this post, it inspired me to clarify some ideas I had around it: I have responded to this post here: http://interdependentsoul.com/2012/01/08/on-self-criticism/

    Hope you enjoy!
    -Tom Meli

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