(A version of this piece originally appeared in Woman 2 Woman magazine. Click here to find out more or subscribe.)
The playground mantra repeats in my head: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.
But I know it’s a lie.
Oh, the untamable tongue! James writes, “no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Gather, and with it we curse me, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing (3:8-10). And then, and I imagine with a shake of his head and a sigh states, “My brothers [and sisters] this should not be”.
All of us have suffered because the sharp cutting hacks of criticism. And to be honest, all of us have dished out words that are cruel and unkind.
So if criticism is intrinsic to all levels of social interaction, then it has certainly become endemic in recent times due to the rise of social media. Politicians and entertainers (any public figure) alike are subject to waves of public backlash constantly and the comments and tweets and statuses condemning them are ongoing, from all over the globe, at any hour of the day. And while we’re entitled to an opinion, we are also obligated, as Christians, to live by the power of the Spirit of Christ. Free-flung condemnation is not a fruit of the Spirit by any stretch.
Criticism that originates closer to home hits closer to home. When criticism arises from a spouse, family member, friend or superior at work the sting is sharper and the wound profound. The usual advice about “considering the source” or “just forget about it-they’re just jealous” doesn’t apply when the wounds come from nearby.
I can recall a teacher’s critical statements that I allowed to hang over me for years, subsequently informing my beliefs about myself and effectively influencing the course of my life.
I once had a close friend detach from me and then, months later, confront me with a notebook filled with pages filled with lists she’d made of my flaws. Her accusations were given, she said, to help me out. But, the relationship had already been severed, so the words just hurt. Immensely.
And any of us that grew up with siblings, neighborhood friends or classmates knows the cruelty of barbed words tossed about carelessly. I could retell many situations where criticism pained, polarized or prevented me from living in grace and confidence. I bet you can, too. 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.
Today, I’ll identify what I believe should be considered negative criticism and how to identify it. In my next post, I will break down the following list and explain how to proactively turn negative criticism into positive growth.
Negative criticism, as opposed to constructive criticism, hits below the belt and leaves us gasping for breath and often reaching for justification or praise to counterbalance hurtful remark. Negative criticism immediately puts us into a position of defensiveness, backs us into a corner.
What exactly is negative criticism?
* 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.
Often, my reaction to negative criticism goes like this: I get a bit out of breath, I get angry and indignant (How dare she? Who does he think he is?), then I malign their motives (Is she so insecure that she has to stoop to that?) or write them off (Wow, must suck to be you!) and then I call someone I know loves me and would never agree with my critic, I hear the soothing words of praise and eventually, after a few days (or months, what can I say, it hurt!) the massive airbag of criticism deployed in my face finally deflates into proper perspective and I can move on.
Sort of. Because when I react, I never really deal appropriately with the criticism and it festers in my soul like a splinter gathering puss (ew!) rather than a seed that can cause good growth.
A response plan empowers us to transform the splinter of negative criticism into seeds to plant into our minds and hearts that can grow and produce good things.
First, remember to be gentle with yourself.
You may want to respond like Christ and absorb the angry words flung at you with loads of grace, turning the other cheek and bearing the pain nobly. But, when the clods of criticism hit you in the face, you may find yourself abandoning the response plan and resorting to our human “flight or fight” tendency.
Forgive yourself. Grace yourself. And then, step back from the situation. Give yourself time and restored oxygen (after the crying/hyperventilating/stress-session) in your system, and think it through.
Second, consider the source, but from God’s eye view.
We don’t need to devalue our critic or blow them off entirely. When we remember to be gentle with ourselves we can be gentle with them, too. Proverbs 15:1 tells us “a gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” “I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness”, God says in Exodus 34:6. And don’t we want to be like him?
I usually take pen to paper and in my journal or notebook extricate the negative from my mind, putting all my thoughts on paper so I can get it out of my head and gain God’s perspective. (But by all means, DON’T mail a scathing response to your critic!)
Third, turn to the truth of God’s word.
Even a flippant, careless remark made in a mean spirit can pick away at our armor, eroding our confidence and weakening our faith. But God never talks stink about us. He’s always honest and addresses our real, human nature and our sin. He doesn’t want us to become enamored with our good qualities, yet he does want us to understand that however we’re wired, however weird and the wonderful our traits, he wired us on purpose just that way. He will be faithful to work his purpose in us. God can use even harsh criticism to gently draw us to him and lovingly reveal our need for him.
If your critic has left you floundering in insecurity, spend time in his word, and look for your truest self.
Until then, remember what God says about us, “We are God’s workmanship, his poem, his masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which He prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10)…and so are our critics.
(All Scripture from New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.)