Published on July 3rd, 2013 | by Sarika
The Futility of Criticism
“The strength of criticism lies only in the weakness of the thing criticized” said the American poet Henry Longfellow. Each one of us has been at both the giving and receiving end of criticism.
If I feel I absolutely must offer a critical opinion, it only makes even an iota of sense if and only if I (a) know a thing or two in the subject area and have distinguished myself by my own performances, and (b) the criticism is constructive, both in the manner in which it is delivered and through the presence of genuine, tangible points of benefit to the other person. Otherwise, don’t give criticism. You are simply not qualified, and no matter what the suggestion may be, it will be taken badly.
By that I mean that it can cause resentment that could last a long time. Personally, I think criticism is almost always futile because it usually ends up putting the other person on the defensive, making him/her strive to justify themselves. Criticism hurts a person’s pride and sense of importance and usually arouses resentment. Ninety nine times out of 100, people don’t criticize themselves for anything. Even hardened criminals feel justified in what they did.
How many times has the person we have criticized not returned the favor? I would say, zero! Criticism usually rebounds on the giver. If we condemn someone or find fault with someone, he or she will justify themselves and condemn us in return. It is important to remember that none of us is purely rational. Rather, we are emotional beings. The most important person to me in the entire universe is myself. So why then would I entertain any criticism for myself? And further, why criticize others when I am incapable of taking it myself?
I’m sure all of us know of someone that we would like to change, and equally, I’m sure we all mean well. That’s great – but then again, why not begin on myself? I’m the easiest person that I can affect and when you think about it, working on myself creates the least amount of drama. I only stand to gain from this. It’s a win-win!
This approach was clearly endorsed by Confucius when he said: “Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbour’s doorstep when your own is unclean.” From personal experience, I know that when I meditate and look deep within myself, I inevitably find that a weakness in others pricks me because I possess the same within myself. Once I identify this and eliminate it, it ceases to be a problem. My attitude changes from wanting to give criticism to wanting to understand why the other person is behaving in a certain way, and I am able to draw from my own experience and offer a helping hand. This diametrically opposite approach to dealing with people always yields diametrically opposite results.
So rather than heap condemnation and criticism on others, let’s start with ourselves and leverage our own experiences in helping others; in understanding them. It’s far more interesting than simply reacting to or complaining about something, and it kindles sympathy, tolerance and kindness.
As someone once said: “God himself Sir does not propose to judge a man until the end of his days”. So then why should you and I?
So that’s about giving criticism but what about when we are at the receiving end?
The Futility of Criticism – Part 2
Needless to say it is not easy to learn from criticism. But history has shown that the folks that were the most criticized were always accomplished at what they did – be it Lincoln, President Roosevelt or Mahatma Gandhi. So rather than take sorrow when we are criticized, I now try to step back as a detached observer and understand if the criticism is justified. If it is, then I say Thank You and make a mental note to work on it for myself but if it’s not, then I don’t worry.
Initially, this is easier said than done. The temptation is to go to all involved, and justify ourselves, and explain what you really mean and why so and so is wrong in saying something about you. But if I am right, I don’t need to justify my actions to anyone. Someone’s opinion of me will not change who I really am and while it might take some time, truth inevitably gets revealed- all we need is faith in our truth, in ourselves. And so, one of the best things to do when we know we are being criticized unjustly is to do something infinitely more important: not let it disturb me.
Sometimes, we inadvertently invite criticism when we harbour the ambition to please people. Many of us that are managers or leaders or even parents have a tendency to try to please specific person(s) in the team, but this can be unfair to others. Rather, do what the greatest leaders in history did – or better still, what God does: set the rules, and be impartial. It’s not about being the most popular one in the room, but about being the best leader. If someone is lagging behind in a particular area, help them move forward rather than bend rules to keep them happy. The strategy of juggling with different people is dangerous, temporary and will backfire. Why? Because it’s the quickest way to lose trust. And once that’s gone, there is very little else left.
The small man flies into a rage over the slightest criticism, but the wise man is eager to learn from those who have panned him. Better still, as discussed earlier in this article, instead of waiting for others to criticize us or our work, let’s be proactive and beat them to it. Let’s be our own best critic. Let’s identify and fix all our weaknesses before anyone else gets a chance to say a word. We certainly can’t be right all the time! Even Einstein confessed that his conclusions were wrong 99 per cent of the time.
We don’t need Einstein’s example to understand that we are not always right, and that there is a lot we can learn from criticism. Yet, if I am not paying attention when being criticized, I am liable to leap automatically to the defensive – even before I have the slightest idea what my critic is about to say. I used to be guilty of doing this a lot, and was disgusted with myself each time I did it. Rajayoga meditation helped me build my tolerance and confidence in myself, so I could admit a mistake with grace and maintain my composure when being unjustly criticized.
As Ben Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain- and most fools do”. But as Thomas Carlyle put it, “It takes a great man to show his greatness by the way he treats little men.”
So now, while nobody is looking, why not peep into the mirror and ask ourselves what company we belong to – that of fools, or greatness!