How I Learned: Everyone's a Critic, So Don't Take It Personally


Some people take criticism better than others. I take it better than I used to.

Like several different aspects of my life, my ability to hear constructive (and sometimes even rude or ill-advised) criticism got much better once I learned not to embrace my flaws. That's what kept me down. "Embrace your flaws" is a misguided philosophy that I've heard many respectable people espouse and thus many more follow. It's a blind road that makes things worse for everybody.

But it was that way of thinking that kept me from accepting criticism with grace for many years, which, in turn made my ride rougher at times than it needed to be. My receptivity to criticism usually ran the gamut from polite indifference to thinly veiled contempt; I felt my flaws and assets were very tightly and rightly inter-twined, and I wanted to live a life where what you saw was what you got, take it or leave it. Since I felt my good far outweighed my bad, I could/should embrace, be proud of my flaws.

Just didn't care
So it wasn't so much about the criticism itself as much as I just didn't care. My flaws weren't that egregious, and they were as much a part of me as anything. Embrace it!

But once you embrace your flaws, you make them an implicit part of who you are; you can't help but grow fond of them. And once they are a part of you, any criticism of them is much easier to take personally. And once you take criticism personally, you're a goner (even if it's meant to be taken personally).

This is where how you respond to criticism can become deadly. I know at my worst moments, I would take criticism personally, yet it would be justified criticism of something I'd said or done. But I was so engrained in embracing my flaws as some sort of misbegotten guide towards self-actualization that I could easily rationalize my refusal to listen to reason or to change.

This is, of course, a definition of hubris. And too often it comes during moments of extended good fortune. The higher you fly the more tempting it becomes to schlump off criticism because you are aloft upon the fumes of your own success. I have gone through phases of success in college and my early professional career that I have handled with varying levels of class, but being able to wince about something I said or did 20 years ago keeps me from doing it again in the here and now.

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Blind spots
There are always still blind spots. I still have a rare temperamental speed bump when I meet someone who possesses that inimitable blend of ignorance and arrogance yet feels compelled to share their opinions about everyone else's flaws, but it's uncommon. Usually people are more gracious than that.

Even if I haven't fully mastered accepting criticism gracefully on all fronts, my improved attitude has similarly improved my empathy when offering criticism to others. Knowing my own flaws and hot buttons, I have more empathy for theirs, whatever they may be. I make sure to keep it away from anything that could be perceived as a personal slight.

I try to remember, as someone once told me, a lot of it may have to do with how the person was given and received criticism as a child. Did they have a very critical parent? Did they run with a very critical crowd of kids, constantly putting each other down (I can remember some cruel things I said and were said to me in school, and from what my 6th grade son tells me, it hasn't changed much).

All of our weaknesses have a root cause; finding it can help you fix it. But you have to want to fix it. And it's hard to want to fix it when a lot of people are telling you to embrace your flaws.

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