Making Criticism Your Friend

by Barry Kerr and Kristine GayKristyBarry heads free

Think of the last time someone criticized or complained about your behavior. How did it feel? Easy-peasy? Painful?

If you’re like most of us, criticism and complaints can be an uneasy experience, and sometimes even crushing. It can feel like you’re being judged, rejected and told you aren’t good enough. Dang! It’s not like you deliberately try to do things badly, right?

Here’s the thing about criticism and complaints: It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s not even about you! Really?

Our families, relationships and culture tend to demonstrate that the normal and accepted way to give “negative” feedback to someone is through blame, shame, emotional drama, accusations, assumptions, judgments and interpretations of motives. Being on the receiving end of such a message surely feels like it’s about you, right? When someone is so emotionally upset with you, the tendency is to either accept the blame or become defensive, but neither reaction is helpful or healthy. Here’s why.

Feedback from others is always about them. They are giving you information about how they experience you, but their experience is not you. It’s their experience, which includes their values, their sensibilities, their tastes, their fears and their emotional history. These are subjective and unique to everyone. Yes, your behavior may stimulate all of this in them, but it’s them, not you.

If they want you to know their experience of you, it’s their job to tell you. It’s your job to discern what in their feedback, if anything, is relevant and meaningful to your future choices.

Let’s say you’re on a date. You’re out for the evening, and an attractive person comes up to you and starts flirting. You flirt back a bit, without any intention of getting involved. You’re simply enjoying the attention, and you then decisively and subtly let this person know you’re not interested and they go away. Your date, who was standing nearby, launches into a tirade. “What was that?! I can’t believe you did that. You’re comin’ on to him and I’m right here? What kind of jerk are you?”

This is definitely a critical complaint about your behavior! But is it about you? No. It’s about your companion. Your date is giving you information about how he/she experienced your behavior and the feelings that were invoked. Embedded in it is implied information about his/her interpretation of your motives, intentions, values, trustworthiness, etc. And the intensity of the emotions is the result of these interpretations. The emotions are shouting, “Don’t do that again!” This demands an equivalent emotional response from you. Or does it?

You could let your partner’s emotional demand pull you into an emotional match, either succumbing to guilt and shame or lashing back with angry defensiveness. This makes it about you. If you choose to go that way, you will spin off into a negative emotional experience, miss the important information in front of you and once again prove that criticism is painful and undesirable.

Or you can resist an emotional reaction and compassionately acknowledge the emotional intensity as a measure of your partner’s inner disturbance, letting that inform how you value the feedback. This makes it about your partner.

From there, you are in a position to be consciously present to the information that is there for you. If it’s about your companion, you can be present to his/her pain, empathize without taking blame, and then be curious, asking questions that will help you understand how your partner experiences your behavior. This can lead to clearing up misunderstandings and assumptions, new appreciations for another person’s unique inner world and feelings, and new insights about how your choices relate to that.

With this information, and standing squarely in your own values, you might choose to amend your flirting behaviors to align with your relationship goals or you might decide this person has insecurity issues that have nothing to do with your flirting. Either way, the feedback did not make you wrong or bad. It just gave you more information.

A life coach can help you learn this, so you will begin to invite feedback proactively, without fear, knowing it will lead to better choices for you and for others.

Barry Kerr, a certified life and relationship coach, and Kristine Gay, a licensed psychotherapist, own Choose Conscious Living in Madison. Both have extensive training in soul-guided healing of mind, body, heart and spiritual systems. They offer healing, coaching, therapy, mindfulness and astrology services. For more information, visit or call 608-345-2470 for Barry and 608-345-3552 for Kristine.

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