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The purpose of Criticism

Many people think that criticism is a bad thing and label it as being an unpleasant character trait, unsupportive, and hurtful, something negative that we try to avoid at all costs. Let’s have a deeper exploration into understanding criticism and see that it is neither good nor bad, but instead, a purposeful event in life that we are wise to face and learn from.

Every human being has a set of priorities or values that we live by, things that are most important to least important in our life. Whenever we perceive that someone is challenging us and potentially interfering with the fulfilment of what we value most, we tend to go into our autonomic sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response. We tend to withdraw because it represents a challenge, like a predator attacking us, which results in an instinct to avoid.

Conversely, when we perceive that someone supports us and will potentially help us get what we want, our autonomic parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the rest and digest response, where we tend to feel an impulse to move towards them.

In other words, we have autonomic responses of seek and avoid to things that we perceive will challenge or support our values. This includes praise or criticism, being nice or mean, kind or cruel, positive or negative etc.

According to the principles of human behaviour synthesised within the Demartini Method, there are two key situations that result in our perception that someone is criticising us:

  • When we do something the other person perceives to be challenging to their unique set of most important values;

  • When we inflate or puff ourselves up above them and self-righteously projecting our importance, or our values on to them, minimising theirs.

Think about that for a minute. Go to a moment when you perceive you were being criticised. Was either of these situations overlaying the event? Were you exaggerating yourself to them, puffed up on your own importance? Were you challenging their highest values?

Anytime somebody challenges what we value, we tend to want to kick back, defend ourselves, and criticise them. Accordingly, anytime you perceive yourself being criticised in your life, it really means somehow what you're doing, in the other individual’s perception, is challenging their values. This can be demonstrated by you expecting them to do something outside their values and more in line what what's important or you (exaggeration of self), or it may be in the form of wanting them to do something that goes against what they value and want to do. Either way, it's clashing with their values.

The other thing that makes people criticise us is when we are puffing ourselves up above them. Imagine at the Academy Awards, if somebody winning an award goes on stage and says, “About time I got that - I've deserved it for years and finally you’ve given it to me” aggrandising themselves and then walking off arrogantly. People will criticise them and cut them down. But if they went on stage and humbled themselves and thanked all the people that helped them get where they are, minimised themselves, people would give them a standing ovation, praise them, and build them up.

Praise and criticism cannot be separated. They are a split in consciousness caused by judgement and are quantum entangled. We cannot have one without a comparison to the other. They are both homeostatic mechanisms to get people into authenticity, fair exchange, and equilibrium. The actor above was brought back to equilibrium by either praise or criticism, depending on their perception of themselves.

So anytime we do something that challenges somebody's values, make assumptions, or we are arrogant, if we talk down to them and expect them to live in our highest values, they are likely to respond with criticism. They feel they are not being respected for who they are or that we are trying to get them to be somebody they’re not. This normal response of criticism is feedback to us and is trying to guide us to learn how to communicate more effectively and respectfully what we value in terms of what they value.

Whenever we feel criticised, it is helpful to ask these two questions.

1. What are we doing that’s challenging their values that they would want to criticise us for? Am I puffing myself up?

We may be tempted to perceive that they are always criticising us. The reality is whenever we are challenging their values; they’re likely to criticise us because we are not respecting and communicating in their values. Often clients will say “my mother always criticised me she never supported me”. I then ask, ‘So what are you doing? Are you challenging her values in a way that would make her want to do that?” A particular client thought his mother was always criticising him, but the reality was it was whenever he was challenging her values, or whenever he was self aggrandising. She was critical as he was not respecting or communicating in her values - it was not all the time.

Along these lines, anytime we think we are superior, puffed up or arrogant in any way beyond what others think we deserve, they are likely to try to bring us down. Them bringing us down into authenticity and levelling the playing field is a way of attempting to get the communication to be more respectful. In essence, criticism is an essential component of communication in society and relationships to get people into equilibrium.

Furthermore, whenever we are puffed up, we are displaying a persona or a façade and not the authentic version of ourselves. If we interpret criticism wisely as bringing us back down and guiding us back to authenticity, we will likely thank the individuals for their comments instead of resenting them.

Criticism, therefore, has a very important component in society. This can be a challenging concept for individuals who perceive that others are supposed to be always nice, never mean; always kind, never cruel; and always positive, never negative; however, this perception is a fantasy and a moral hypocrisy. No one will ever find a one-sided individual.

It’s wise to see criticism as feedback instead of something hurtful. Criticism hurts because we are addicted to praise. The more we are addicted to praise, the more painful somebody’s criticism will feel.

The second question then to ask ourselves whenever we get criticism is,

2. Where am I addicted to its opposite, praise?

If we are criticised and can say thank you because we understand that it’s helping us become authentic, it is unlikely to be painful. However, if we perceive the criticism to be painful and something we want to avoid, it is likely because we are addicted to praise.

Life has both sides, but the more addicted we are to one side, to praise, the more vulnerable and dependent we will likely be on the world around us to provide this, and the more criticism is likely to hurt. In this state we are not conscious of the downsides to praise and the upside to criticism and have, as a result, set up a polarity in our mind where we are run by the lower minded seek and avoid. The more we understand that criticism is trying to help us become authentic, the less it will have a perception of pain and the less we will seek to avoid it. Additionally, the addiction to the one side of praise will attract in the other side of criticism to break our addiction and bring us back to balanced authenticity. The more we seek praise, the more we attract criticism.

Perceiving criticism as something painful and something to avoid is feedback we are addicted to praise. The addiction to praise can make us lose our identity and subordinate ourselves to people we look up to, and to people who support us all the time. The subordination to these people who we admire or who support our values keeps us dependent on them and we often try to sacrifice what's important to us to try to fit into their values to continue to receive their praise and support. We lose ourselves into the emptiness of comparison, personas, and self-depreciation. Not a fulfilling or meaningful way to live.

There must be both support and challenge in our life for us to maximally grow. If we had nothing but support, we would stay juvenilely dependent. If we had nothing but challenge, we would become precociously independent.

When the two are put together in perfect balance, we have growth. Maximum growth and development occur at the border of support and challenge, praise and criticism.

We all want to make a difference in our lives, to leave a legacy of sorts. But how are we going to make a difference fitting in - doing whatever it takes to get praised instead of allowing ourselves to be challenged and criticised? If we are not also being equally criticised, we may not be directly pursuing what is most meaningful, authentic, and purposeful in life. Many people adopt a herd instinct because they are afraid of criticism and rejection. This can trap them trying to put on a façade to fit into the group instead of being authentic and standing out.

Receiving both praise and criticism is essential for maintaining our authenticity. As such, both praise and reprimand are essential in the journey towards our authentic selves.

When we are living in our highest values, living most meaningfully, and living in a way that we are most fulfilled, we will tend to be the most objective, neutral, resilient, and adaptable to praise and reprimand and we are unlikely to become captivated with praise or highly rejected by criticism. Instead, we will tend to allow both to occur because we appreciate the value of both in our life. We are neither addicted to and seek praise nor subdicted from or avoid criticism. We just allow them both to occur because we know we need them both for growth and authenticity.

To be unwisely seeking one side of the praise/criticism duality and trying to avoid the other side will result in being stuck in our amygdala like an animal living in a in a survival mode. As the Buddha says, ‘the desire for that which is unattainable and the desire to avoid that which is unavoidable is the source of human suffering’. Trying to seek a one-sided existence is just this. Embrace resiliently and adaptively the two sides of life that are trying to keep us authentic and focussed, so we can master the skill of communicating effectively what we love in terms of what other people love and be able to be our authentic selves. You want to be loved for who you are, to be who you are. Praise and criticism is helping you be who you are.

We are never just a victim of something going on out there. We are simply an individual that's attracting these events in our life to help us. Everything that goes on in our life is attempting to get us out of our personas, masks and façades that we wear and get us back into our authentic centre. If we see all of these events on the way for a more authentic and meaningful life and not in the way, we will be grateful for our lives and all the people we share it with.

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