Tompkins Sq. Pk. courtesy George Eastman House
Ouch! That hurt! Criticism can sting, but our reaction can cause deeper wounds and cause us to become heartsick.
It can prompt us to withdraw and fall into confusion. “Isn’t there a grain of truth in every critical statement?” we ask, and give way to the power of negative criticism. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can respond to criticism in such a way that harmful words are transformed into empowering statements that will grow our confidence, faith and make us more humble, empathetic people.
In my previous post, we identified what negative criticism is and how to identify it. In this issue, we will break down the list and learn how to turn the negative criticism into positive growth.
Negative criticism immediately puts us into a position of defensiveness, backs us into a corner. What exactly is negative criticism? The following is how I’ve come to identify negative criticism (as opposed to constructive negative feedback):
* Can come from a stranger or an intimate friend (or even yourself).
* Is rarely purely motivated by good intention.
* Comes out of a negative spirit, not a heartfelt endeavor to unify or uplift another.
* Is never entirely true.
* Is intended to hurt, defy, shut-up or otherwise crush the spirit or sap the strength of another.
* Is not “Christ-like” nor does it build up the members of his church.
* Is not fair or kind.
Negative criticism can come from a stranger or an intimate friend.
No one is immune to making unkind, harsh or rash statements. James 3: 8 says, “no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Proverbs 27:6, says that even the faithful words of a friend can wound. This means that when critical statements come from someone close, the cut is felt more profoundly, often in direct correlation to the intimacy level. If my husband said with certain feeling that I was a lazy, cry baby and always had to have my own way, this would hurt much, much more than if someone commented similar sentiments online in my twitter feed. It’s up to me to weigh the value of a statement like this. I can be mature enough to weigh the value and search for the truth cloaked in the harsh statement.
A caveat here: if you question whether or not your close relationships are safe, providing a healthy bastion of security, and you find you cannot trust the words of those closest to you, then you will find yourself drowning in confusion and insecurity. We all deserve to be valued in our close relationships. If you are not, or criticism is flagrant and constant, talk to a counselor or pastor to find clarity. Criticism can be abuse and verbal abuse is no less of a sin than battering. And remember the playground chant? Words do harm us. (For further reading on developing healthy, safe relationships, Safe People and Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend are excellent resources).
Negative criticism never comes from a motivation of good intention.
Constructive criticism is well-motivated, although it too can sting. Negative criticism can motivate you to greater good, but it’s all about your response.
Rather than simmer in a bitter stew finding all the reasons why your critic might have it out for you, take pen and paper and write down what you suspect your critic might have been thinking or feeling. Don’t write a scathing letter or a public response, but just list the possible motives, understanding you are assuming the mental and emotional process of another. The reason for considering the critic’s motives and words is to prove that you don’t really know why they said what they did, but you can allow the criticism to motivate you positively.
Once I was presented with a long list of behavior, character and parenting flaws from an acquaintance. I was deeply hurt and then indignant, full of what I believed to be righteous anger.
Then, a small voice of reason pushed though the flood of my thoughts and asked: are you willing to look beyond the motive and the words to find what God has to say about these things? I spent several weeks placing each item on the list before God in prayer, subjected them to scripture and rather than looking for a kernel of truth in the criticism, I held them up to the light of the truth of scripture. This grew me in myriad ways and built up my trust in the truth of God’s word, instead of the critic’s. Plus, I received the added bonus of being able to forgive. Win win!
Negative criticism never comes from a heartfelt endeavor to unify or uplift another.
Philippians 2 encourages us to be unified in the same attitude and spirit of our Lord and as Jesus did, look to the needs of others, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. When criticism is wielded as a divisive or destructive weapon, your response can in turn bring unity, uplift others or show grace. That is an incredible benefit of emulating Jesus’ attitude as described in Philippians 2, the redemption of all suffering!
If someone tells me this, “You’re a control freak and you need to back off,” I can learn how to give that statement the value it deserves (based on the proximity of the relationship) and keep it reasonably proportionate to reality. I can then hold it up to the light of Scripture: what does God’s word say about trusting Him, about yielding control to the Holy Spirit, about fear and confidence? What does God want to teach me positively out of this negative remark? Then I can ask God for ways to turn the degrading and divisive statement into a tool to produce unity or build up another.
You can memorize scripture regarding the unification of the church, like Ephesians 4:4-6 “For there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” You can turn being the recipient of negative criticism into an opportunity to lift up another who has been defeated through criticism. Your motives do not have to match the motives of your critic. You can learn the difference and like Jesus, speak truth with the motive of building up others–even hard, hard truth can be borne on the spirit of love.
Negative criticism is never entirely true…
but it isn’t a complete lie.
In reference to the control-freak statement above, if I’m honest, stressed, out of sync in my walk with God, insecure, pregnant (not using this as an excuse, but the hormones! Yikes!), battling illness or a difficult phase in my child’s life, etc., I may have some unattractive control issues. Just because someone flung the remark at me in anger or careless or from a bad place in their own heart does not mean I have to disregard or discard it entirely. Again, if I go through the paces of my response plan above, I will be able to objectively see the truth God has for me in the critical remarks made by others.
Negative criticism is intended to hurt, defy,
shut-up or otherwise crush the spirit or sap the strength of another.
Truly unnecessary, unfitting speech is up to no good. Again in James 3:9-10 tells us “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and that “with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
That God would entrust us with such a weapon! Oh, I have misused its power.
In true humility we can, and should regularly, confess our inability to tame our tongues and ask for the wisdom that comes from heaven (James 3:17) to help us be pure, peace-loving, submissive, merciful, fruitful, unbiased and sincere members of our communities. We can be peacemakers who sow seeds of peace (v18).
Negative criticism is not Jesus’ way nor does it edify the members of his church.
It is most destructive when careless and hurtful remarks are flung about amongst church family. We should be angered by the negative criticism that squelches the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of our family. Yet, it comes around more often than the communion cup.
A pastor’s wife once leaned toward me and uttered these words, “You have to watch out for Breanna. She seems like she means well, but I don’t trust her motives. Be on your guard around her. Don’t be taken in by her charm.” Breanna was the youth pastor’s wife and the senior pastor’s wife was warning me about being friends with her!
1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before”. There are proper channels for working out disagreements but slander or criticism is never edifying. Be quiet. Don’t speak against another out of turn or until you’ve checked your own motives. We do have the right to our words, to our opinions, but we have enough biblical instruction to guide us. And, the Holy Spirit will teach you when you are willing to ask and learn from him the wisdom that you need to turn criticism into edification (see James 3:13-18, and James 1:5). God is generous when we ask for help.
Negative criticism is not fair or kind.
It’s always unfair. Often the critic needs to gain an advantage, pump an ego, overpower another and uses harsh words to achieve his goal. Negative criticism is a tool wielded by those who don’t know how to fight fair. There will be conflicts, differing opinions, issues coming to a head that need to be addressed, but the negative critic is hasty, lazy, immature or misinformed and doesn’t realize that fighting fair is the better option. We have the obligation as a children of God to reflect his character and act kindly. Galations 5:22-23 reminds us, “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”
We have the transformative power given to us by God and his word to respond in a healthy, positive and empathetic way when we receive negative criticism. When we practice a plan like this, and yield our emotions and thinking to God, then we can become fair-fighters and praising, edifying peacemakers in a world (home, workplace, church) that desperately needs our influence.