You Can’t Manage Your Critics

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life. ―Winston S. Churchill

I find it quite astounding how far people will go to tear down other human beings. It seems that no matter the accomplishment, intent, or even the reality, there will be one or more individuals perfectly willing to find the fault, failing, or downside. In many ways, criticism can result in something good: finding weaknesses in an argument, offering a different perspective, pushing someone to be better, or revealing truly reprehensible behavior on the part of other people. These results might be defined as constructive.

The sad truth is that much of it is not constructive. More often than not, criticism is more about the one offering it than its intended target. Anyone is fair game. Politicians, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, philanthropists, relatives; anyone. Somehow, someway, we still feel that tearing someone else down will make us more. Of course, we don’t admit that. No one wants to admit that their feelings of inadequacy or jealousy prompt them to attack someone else. Few will acknowledge that their efforts to criticize another person or organization are really about trying to further their own cause or improve their position. Competitive or not, it really doesn’t matter. We’re seemingly hard-wired to enjoy, or at least be entertained by, watching someone fall and the critics know it.

Knowing this, why do we put so much effort into the argument? There are times when criticism must be addressed. Often, it is simply damage control. Mylan’s efforts to manage the firestorm around the pricing of their EpiPen product is exactly that: damage control.  Of course the criticism of the company, and the industry, won’t stop because of their follow-up actions. There are too many competing interests. In this case, they hope to manage the narrative knowing they have no hope in managing the critics.

For most of us, arguing with critics is our way of affirming our “rightness.” Surely that person doesn’t understand my point or they wouldn’t be disagreeing, right? Perhaps in a one-on-one conversation, you might convert someone. Perhaps. The reality is that your point likely has nothing to do with their criticism. Not if they feel somehow empowered or better about themselves by attacking you or your point. Not if they feel that they might somehow improve their position if yours lessens. In most cases, trying to manage your critic is an exercise in futility.

A recent online CNN article has a headline that reads: Troubled individual:’ Mother Teresa no saint to her critics. The article goes on to provide perspectives from two individuals. The first person describes poor conditions in the care facilities managed by the Missionaries of Charity. The other argues that the canonization of Mother Teresa is bogus because one of her “miracles” was not really a miracle because there is no such thing. In 69 years of service and humility, Mother Teresa touched millions of lives and still the criticism goes on. It seems that whatever you may do, it will never be enough to please everyone.

It is easy to see the nature of criticism as it relates to the famous. To be famous is to be a magnet for criticism. What about the rest of us? We also endure it at ever turn. People honk their criticism in traffic. People attack what you write. People tear you down behind your back. People criticize: your faith, your clothes, your hair, your make-up, your selfishness, your generosity, your work, your effort, your thinking, your intentions. The truth of the matter is that anytime you put yourself out there in any way (even if you don’t intend to), you are inviting a critic into your life. It is inescapable.

As much as we know and understand the nature of the critic, it still hurts. Famous writers and entertainers talk about their battles with critics and haters and the ensuing doubt. Chefs, artists, singers – everyone who has put themselves out there has battled with their critics. Executives, doctors, moms, and saints – no one is immune. Those successful in living with it also all pretty much give the same counsel: ignore it. You can argue with it but it won’t change anything. You can’t change it. Your work won’t appeal to everyone. You can’t manage your critics.

However, you can manage yourself. You can surround yourself with believers. You can focus on your own best intentions and those things that are within your control. You can improve your work and evolve your perspective. You can trust yourself and those you love. After all, why do they love you? You can put yourself in situations to succeed and you can chose how you react to your failures. Ultimately, critics are about what you can’t control. You win by focusing on what you can control.

You win by focusing on what you can control.

So, the next time you read that article or tweet attacking your favorite saint, your favorite singer, your next door neighbor, or maybe even your art, take a breath and pause. Consider the perspective of the criticizer and focus on why you feel differently. Perhaps by engaging a bit more empathy we might move the critical needle of negativity towards the positive. Maybe focusing on the worth of a person’s work or the impact of someone’s efforts will remind us that we are worthy and that our work is also making a difference. Remember that you can’t manage your critics but you can choose self-compassion and to continue to do your best work.

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