Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dealing with Criticism

I have experienced a lot of criticism in my life. You probably have too.

Most of that criticism has come in my professional life, in my daily work and my work as a writer. And when I was a bishop I likewise received much criticism, from surprising sources. I've come to realize it is just part of living in a sick and fallen world.  I think I receive far less criticism at home than some do, and I must say that my family is respectful of each other, for the most part. But I know that next to tension over money, one of the greatest contributors to family break ups is negativity and criticism.

I want to share with you how I look at criticism.

First, here is a scripture that has been a favorite for many years (D&C 11:12):
And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit.
When we were criticized as children, as all of us were, we tended to "trust" the source of the criticism. It was our nature as children to believe those around us, especially family and authority figures like teachers or friends. We accepted their criticism as legitimate and it hurt us a great deal.

As I have grown older, I've learned to question the authority or legitimacy of those who criticize me.

It's not that I don't need correction, or that I don't need help seeing my weaknesses or where I can do better. I certainly do. Our weaknesses are often our best kept secrets—from ourselves. I strive to accept correction and to overcome my defensive reflexes.

But I do reject criticism from untrustworthy sources. If the criticism comes from a source that doesn't lead to do good or to walk humbly or to judge righteously, then I consider that it arises from an impure motivation, and if the motivation is impure, then, to me, it is not legitimate. 

When I was a bishop, I received criticism regularly from ward members. At first it was hard. Bishops sacrifice so much and give so much of their time and then to hear, at the point of exhaustion, criticism from ward members, either directly or indirectly, well, that is a very hard thing and takes some getting used to. (I think some would be shocked at how much gets back to a bishop. People feel a need to inform their bishops of what they see and hear, and inform they do.)

But bishops have keys of revelation and I was surprised at how quickly the Spirit would whisper to me the real reason why someone was being critical, and it often had less to do with me than with their relationship with Heavenly Father. That Spirit would also encourage me to forgive immediately and to move forward with positive purpose, no matter what anyone said or did. 

Also, as a writer, you have to take it in the teeth every day. That is just the nature of the business. If you have had success as a published writer, you find you become a target. It is the nature of people. But I have also found that the books I have written that have received the most criticism have also been my bestselling books, the ones that have brought the most royalties in over the years. What is up with that?

As Hemingway said, "There is nothing that has been written that couldn't have been written better." That's for sure. I have lots to learn about writing, and I regret my errors and mistakes that remain in print, but I don't beat myself up over it. I laugh, forgive, express thanks, if only in my heart, and move on. 

I think one of the things that holds writers back is the fear of criticism. I think there would be more good books, even great books, in the world, if budding writers did not fear or regard criticism so much.

In conclusion, here are my recommendations for dealing with criticism:
  • Consider the spirit of the source. Does the source seek to lead to do good, to do justly, and to walk humbly, or does it seek to tear down, discourage or even destroy. If the latter is true, leave it on the trail, and keep climbing the mountain.
  • Correct with love and patience, but don't use criticism yourself. It is usually a defensive strategy used to deflect personal responsibility.
  • Criticism borne of negativity or anger is rarely accurate or motivated by love. It is not of God. "That which doth not edify is not of God and is darkness." (D&C 50:23.) Only correction that comes from love and genuine concern is worthy of your consideration. Defensiveness indicates that you believe that darkness and negativity are legitimate. They are not. Don't give them credence. 
  • Learn to laugh at your mistakes and weaknesses. Our mistakes are rather valuable learning experiences and our weaknesses are not to be protected but rather exposed. The sooner they are exposed to ourselves, the sooner we can overcome them.
  • Don't mistake correction for criticism. Recognize correction and receive it well. Don't run from it but embrace it as you would a close friend. We all need correction and chastening and the repentance that flows from it. Without it, we're sunk.
  • Where you receive the most criticism and opposition is often a signal as to what direction you should go. Satan, your keenest adversary, knows you well and wants to block you from realizing your greatest potential. I find that the greatest criticism usually comes in the place where you can also do the most good. Face it. Use it as a compass point.
  • Be grateful for anyone who helps you see your road to improvement. The devil is permitted to walk to and fro in the earth because, though he is the father of lies, he has a purpose. Whenever we respond positively to the negative, we defeat him and also the worst part of ourselves. Without that opposition, as ugly and unwelcome as it can sometimes be, we would all be misguided weaklings. If God did not see the value of the devil's opposition in our lives, he and his dark angels would not be permitted to be here. (I am not grateful for the devil, but I am grateful for God's plan which permits us to grow.)
  • See the humor in the situation, laugh and move on. Don't let criticism stop you or even slow you down. If you examine the lives of great men and women, this is often the strategy they take. They don't waste time defending mistakes; they apologize and keep moving forward.
The truth is, you are wonderful. You are amazing. You are more powerful than you imagine. You can overcome any obstacle, even if that obstacle is you. The truth is, depending on how you look at criticism, it can be rather helpful.

Let criticism be, and let it be a blessing.

5 comments:

Sarah said...

This is wonderful! Thank you! I've had a hard time lately with feeling criticized (even when people aren't blatant about it) about the way I choose to raise my family and uphold my own personal values. This is a very helpful reminder to me. :)

Anonymous said...

If there is truly a need for criticism, and those times do exist, what is the best way to express that, and how do you respond when the criticism gets turned back toward you and becomes a personal attack?

Anonymous said...

"Defensiveness indicates that you believe that darkness and negativity are legitimate. They are not. Don't give them credence."

That's a really cool thought. Thanks for this.

Jack

Mike Fitzgerald said...

In response to "What is the best way to express" criticism, I believe criticism arises when we don't communicate well. Problems escalate, then frustration, then anger or worse. Years ago, a manager at my first said to me, "You can't say too many obvious things." I have never forgotten that. Consequently, I try to play more offense than defense. I try to talk about everything relevant with my wife and children and close friends. Then the things that have to be corrected by me or others never reaches a boiling point. They are dealt with long before they develop into a crisis.

As far as dealing with "personal attacks," I don't accept personal attacks even though they appear to be just that. Just because such feelings arise in others does not mean I caused them or merit their vehemence. I have weaknesses and make mistakes. I don't linger over them. I forgive myself and others and move on quickly. If you are confronted by a personal attack, it means that the other party is holding on to something they don't need to hold onto. Criticism is evidence the person giving the criticism (1) lacks understanding, (2) lacks self-acceptance and (3) lacks forgiveness. When I am personally attacked now, I try my best to endure it with patience and try to remain reasonable. If it is hostile, I leave the room out of self-respect, but that is a rare need. The main thing is to not react. To be confident in yourself, patient and to return kindness for folly. “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” This, in part, is what I believe the Savior meant when he declared "I have overcome the world." I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Bishop!Inspiring words. This really makes me rethink about criticism when it comes to my children and husband! Thanks so much for these words of wisdom!!