Do we need to be criticized?

“Choose to align yourself with people who are like-minded in their search for simplified inspiration. Give those who find fault or who are confrontational a silent blessing and remove yourself from their energy as quickly as possible. Your life is simplified enormously when you don’t have to defend yourself to anyone, and when you receive support rather than criticism.” ~Dr. Wayne Dyer

I saved this quote when I came across it a few weeks back because it sparked the kind of ambivalent reaction in me that is indicative of some hidden, buried belief that is conflict with my conscious belief system. So I’ve sat this with quote and the resultant ambivalence, pondering it lightly every time I came across it again in my quote file.

I have written before about the power of encouragement in my life. Encouragement and support tend to bring forth my best work and my best self because it helps me to be the most open to other people and to what I have to offer because I feel safe. In that state, I thrive, I blossom, I am willing to risk, I am most able to make changes in my life to become the person I want to be. On the other hand, criticism tend to make me shut down. I close up like a turtle disappearing into her shell. I feel defensive and reactive, and my primary goal rapidly shifts from being the best person I can be to self-protection.

Therefore, on reading this, my initial reaction was a positive one. I felt a sense of ease, a sigh of relief at the idea that I could choose to surround myself with people who support me. Imagine life without the need to defend myself! Bliss!

On the other hand, there was also a reaction of tightening in me. It can’t possibly be healthy for me to surround myself only with support. We all need people who will put us in our place and show us all the things that are wrong with us. Right?

Um, let me see if I have this straight. I somehow believe that it would be unhealthy for me to be in a sustained environment where I felt supported and encouraged to be and do my best? I think there is something healthy about feeling shut down and defensive so I am less likely to be willing to make improvements? Where would I have gotten a belief like that?

Once I pondered that one a bit, the root of it was actually fairly easy to find. It comes (for me) from the Christian church’s idea of original sin—the foundational supposition what we are all born as depraved sinners and that any goodness we demonstrate is only by the grace of God. Despite the fact that our country is becoming less religious all the time, I believe this concept still underlies many of our cultural assumptions about people and how they operate, even if we are entirely unaware of it. It makes a great deal of sense if we view ourselves and other people as intrinsically “bad” that we would spend so much time and effort trying to criticize ourselves and one another into some semblance of goodness. In that view, withholding criticism would indeed be something to avoid because our “selves” are not to be trusted.

But what if that view is wrong? What if we were to move to a view like creation spirituality’s concept of original blessing? Original blessing starts with the premise that we are good because we are created in the image of God and that it is our dualistic view of the world that causes a fragmentation of that goodness, leading to sin. (See Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing for a modern discussion of this premise, although it is hardly a new idea. In fact, eastern Christianity has retained more of this concept than the West did.) What if we were able to view ourselves and our world as fundamentally good, even if imperfect? This makes the “need” for criticism less urgent.

Or what if we truly accept more of view of the co-active coaching model that believes “that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole—completely capable of finding their own answers to whatever challenges they face?” If we really and truly believe that, then offering criticism and trying to fix those around us really doesn’t make any sense anymore. We’re again faced with the idea that each person has a Self that they can trust to lead them in the right direction if they pay attention. With a model like that, offering support and encouragement for each person to find their own answers becomes the best way forward.

If I accept these latter models of humanity, now I find the ambivalence melting away. If this case, the conclusion I would draw agrees with what has been true for me in my personal experience: criticism is generally unhelpful, genuine support and encouragement always are helpful. So maybe it’s time for me to let go of my old model of original sin (for myself and for others) and release the belief that criticism is so important to keep us in check.

Now, before I get a bunch of hate mail, let me clarify what I am NOT saying.

  1. I am not saying that we are all perfect as we are (me included!). I think we will all always be imperfect; it’s part of the human condition. But I think we are more likely to come closer to being the people we are meant to be when we are surrounded by support and encouragement than by criticism. I’m saying that harping on someone’s imperfections keeps them from opening to all they are truly meant to be.
  2. I am also not saying that we can never draw boundaries with other people when their behavior is harming us in some way. Stating and enforcing our boundaries (when rightly done) is always about us, though—not about the other person. It is a statement of what behavior I will or will not accept in my life. The other person is free to change their behavior, or not, once they understand the consequences.
  3. Lastly, I am also not saying that we should never give constructive feedback to another person. If someone asks for our opinion, it is entirely appropriate for us to give it honestly, but it should also be given with love, compassion, gentleness, and humility. We can only share what we observe from the outside; we can never really know another person’s truth.

Having said all that, I do think it is always tempting to try to “fix” other people by using criticism cleverly disguised as boundaries or constructive feedback when it’s really more about control or trying to make the other person over into our own image of who they should be. I know I have been guilty of that more times than I care to count. It’s something to watch for in the way I treat others and in the way they treat me.

I’ve been working hard over the last couple of months to be less critical of myself, and I have come a long way. But that’s only part of the journey. I also need to make sure that I am working just as hard at being less critical of others, of treating them with the same acceptance of who they are (imperfections and all) as I am trying to learn to treat myself. And I need to learn to expect the same support and encouragement (and lack of criticism) from those around me that I am expecting of myself. And I need to own that this is a prescription for health, not narcissism, because I am already quite clear about by many imperfections.

I can imagine a world where I am surrounded by support and encouragement. I can see myself come to life and bloom in such an environment. I owe it to myself and to those my gifts may someday serve to create that kind of environment in my life so I can become the person I am meant to be.

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a very fragile place, and it takes a good deal of vulnerability to share this personal journey of transformation so openly. Therefore, I need this to be a safe place for exploration and sharing for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight—or the expression of that experience or insight—are NOT welcome here and will be deleted.

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