Learning to Take Criticism with Grace

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

Learning to Take Criticism with Grace

By Jehn Kubiak

They say words will never hurt you, but I’d argue that sticks and stones actually hurt worse than words. As someone whose love language is words of affirmation––and is a Highly Sensitive Person/empath––emotional pain actually hurts worse than physical pain. One of my teammates hit me in the head with a color guard rifle during practice one day, I’ve dropped a baking stone on my toe, and I’ve had some pretty gnarly gashes. Even so, one thing someone says can leave me feeling dejected and down for days, weeks, or even months.

In a previous Marked Ministry article, I discussed a workplace bullying incident I faced. During that event, someone said something that severely hurt my feelings to the point where I still deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Formerly, I nearly ended my own life because the flashbacks were too hard to bear. Thankfully, I now found recovery.

However, not all criticism is bad. If you think about it, Jesus severely criticized the Pharisees with his seven woes. This is one example:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

– Matthew 23:13

Recently, I’ve learned that people who truly care about you actually have to say hard things at times; otherwise, they’re being dishonest. Although many people may have tremendous self-awareness, people still have blindspots. Think about how your side mirrors work on a car. While you think you can see everything, those little bubble discs really help you really see the surrounding dangers. The same goes for people; they help us see our flaws and weaknesses we may not even know about.

Charles Schwab said it best:

‘“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”

Let’s take a look at the broader implication of his words. Praise is great, and while we need encouragement to keep running in the race of life, we also need criticism. Why? Because too much praise inflates one’s ego. Freud was onto something in his theory about the three parts of personality. I’m only looking at the Id here––the pleasure-seeking part of the brain that’s responsible for avoiding discomfort, according to Betterhelp.

Secondly, I often think back to Paul’s battle between the flesh and spirit when I wonder why people have difficulties taking criticism.

“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

– Galatians 5:16-18

Now, the passage doesn’t outrightly include pride here, but the inability to tolerate criticism mainly comes from pride. While it’s okay to desire affirmation and acceptance, completely disregarding any negative feedback will not help us in any way. I’ve personally had some very difficult conversations with friends and other trusted individuals where they’ve criticized me quite thoroughly.

At the time, I wasn’t super happy––actually, I was pretty angry. How dare they? Aren’t they supposed to support me? These people told me that I overwork and was destroying myself, physically and emotionally, due to my workaholism. On top of that, someone else said I was really trying to hard to please people that I didn’t even need to please in the first place.

It was later that I realized they actually were supporting me––I was the ignorant one who didn’t realize how much my pride resulted in severe burnout and a lack of self-care. As a result, I didn’t take their advice seriously until last month. While I made some changes here-and-there, my workaholic self still had trouble calming down.

Yes, criticism is hard to tolerate and hurts. But the truth hurts sometimes, as cliche as that sounds. Stubborn people will not yield until something hits them hard, and that usually comes in the form of criticism, which leads to change.

So, what happens if a person can’t really withstand the scars from criticism’s scorching flames? Don’t lose hope––there is a fire escape. Step back and relax for a bit after hearing anything critical. Often times, we become defensive and angry when someone says anything that isn’t super positive. However, after some careful reflection and calm time, we realize the other person––or people––were actually correct. As a result, their insight grew us tremendously.

Handling criticism is a rough, yet necessary, part of adulthood. We can’t live life in a bubble of safety. Rather, we must step out of the safety net. We must face shame, failure, and incompetency head-on.