Judging Criticism

I have trouble dealing with criticism. 

My first response is to shrivel up, apologize, and recant whatever I had said or not said and done or not done.  Then, I beat myself up about it ever after.  The challenge (or insult) is accepted as ultimate truth.  I was wrong.

My second response, after I freeze with guilt, is to get defensive and attack the source of criticism instead of attacking myself.  

I am realizing that there is a third option.  I can judge the criticism and decide if it is valid or not.  Either way, it is an opportunity to strengthen my position by revising it or deciding that it was fine in the first place.  This is revolutionary!   But it places me in position of judge.

In university I spent several years in an emotionally abusive relationship.  Criticism was the main weapon of assault. 

On one occasion I was lambasted for 4 hours.  The issue wasn’t even that big.  We were running a youth program and I opted to debrief with the volunteers while my partner helped the kids get on their buses.  Apparently that was wrong.

I didn’t defend my actions or explain them.  I remembered the lessons on turning the other cheek and being silent as a lamb before the slaughter.  I thought Jesus wanted me to be silent and not defend myself. 

“Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent and answered nothing. (Mark 14:60-61)

Jesus Condemned, by Michael D. O’Brien

After 4 hours of listening to what a despicable person I was, I was drained.  I felt like a shapeless, worthless pile of sludge quivering on the floor. 

That is when the tirade turned from attack to compliments.  I had potential.  I should stick with my partner because he could see what an amazing person I could become if I did what he said.  I felt so hopeless that I clung to anything offering redemption.

Of course, I was familiar with that kind of rhetoric.  It is what keeps people in a relationship with many forms of Christianity. 

” You are a worthless sinner.  You have nothing good in you.  But, come to Christ because he alone can fill you.  Only by doing what he says can you have any worth or goodness.”

Sometimes the claims were outrageous, but I swallowed them anyways.  When he called me racist for wanting to volunteer in India, I was heartbroken.  Even though I was going as a helper to my First Nations friend and not as the Rescuing Westerner, I examined all my motives and decided it must be true.  After all, I was evil and the heart was deceitful above all else; it was me deceitful heart that was racist and hiding it from me.

Every once in a while, I would challenge that guy’s ideas.  I could only do it when others were around, because they could see through the ridiculous insults in a way I hadn’t the confidence to.  In public he couldn’t attack me back.  But, I knew I would pay for it later.

I carried this pattern into my marriage.   Every time my husband would challenge me on anything, I would immediately accept all the blame.  It took a long time for me to realize that he wasn’t trying to control me, but wanted me to think about what I had said and defend it or revise it.  Sometimes he just didn’t understand and wanted more clarification.   

I would also wait to challenge (or attack) any of his ideas until there were others around.  I didn’t realize that I was safe to respond to him alone.

But I still react to criticism as if the other person was the ultimate judge over me and I can only be wrong.  Then, anger flares up and I begin to defend myself.  

Slowly, I am learning to judge the criticism.

Am I a worthless sinner?  No.  I’m not perfect, but that is OK.  I don’t have to be perfect to be worth something.

Can others have insights into my motives?  Yes.  But I am still the best judge of my own self.

Baby steps.

5 thoughts on “Judging Criticism

  1. Ahab says:

    I think the way your ex-partner alternated between put-downs and compliments was meant to keep you off-guard. An abuser has more power if his victim doesn’t know what to expect.

    I’m glad you extricated yourself from that relationship. No one deserves that kind of emotional abuse.

    • prairienymph says:

      Ahab: Me too! I used to think the never-knowing-what-to-expect was exciting and part of a normal healthy relationship. It wasn’t until years after that I could name it as abuse. A friend of mine who married a man with many issues told me how much she wished there was more physical abuse because then she would have evidence something was wrong. She is finding solace in prayer and finding more ways to make herself into what he wants: the perfect ’50s wife.

      Cog. Dissenter: I knew something was wrong, so I kept breaking up with him. And that made him very insecure. The more insecure he got, the harder he tried to control me and I caved every time. When I started dating my husband I couldn’t believe the difference!
      Your daughter sounds very wise.

  2. I agree with Ahab’s observation. I would also say listen to your gut. I’m guessing your gut told you there was something “off” whether your former partner was criticizing or praising.

    Criticism can be constructive or destructive. We should not take it personally in either event. Well aimed constructive criticism is building and when we take it well it helps us to learn and grow. We all need that and good friends who truly care will give it to us.

    Destructive criticism manifests a problem, perhaps a character flaw, of the criticizer. They feel threatened by you in some way and thus feel the need to control you. As I used to tell my daughter when some of her passive aggressive friends tried to hurt her self esteem during high school: “You would never say something hurtful like that to her. I wonder what would make a person say something like that?”

    My daughter’s response after contemplating that question: “She must not feel good about herself. She must be hurting inside to make a comment like that …”

  3. ain't for city gals says:

    There is a big difference in criticism and being lambasted for four hours….after the first minute I politely excuse myself or say “Please, don’t talk to me that way”.

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