Handle criticism like a superhero

So much popular literature seems groundbreaking, but so little actually turns out to be useful in real life. Why is this?

Lately I've been repeatedly encountering this idea: To accomplish big things, we often only need to make small changes. The problem is, very few people make these changes because they are difficult.

The more I think about it, the more this startling claim appears to be true. But I think there's one key piece of the puzzle that everyone who repeats this idea seems to be missing: The main reason the changes are difficult is because few people can see the benefit of putting forth the effort.

Why is criticism often difficult to handle?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, quoted in my last article, points out that people with a lower "EQ" tend to be insecure and sensitive to criticism.According to some people, EQ and EI aren't interchangeable.  But other people use them interchangeably.  To be honest, I really don't care. This describes a lot of us. Let's discuss why a few simple changes can help us overcome this.

There are two key points that we need to understand:

  1. We all want to gain rewards, and we all want to feel safe.
  2. Our actions are based on our belief system, which in turn is based on our experiences and perceptions.

Let's put those two concepts together and try to figure out why we respond in certain ways. Imagine someone criticizes you. How will you respond?

First, you'll naturally feel fear.Or anger.  The act of judgment is a threat because it is either a reminder of the other person's power over us or an indication of an effort at establishing dominance.  The brain response is similar to when one animal challenges another.  No wonder the fight or flight response is engaged.  Lower status puts us at a disadvantage socially which I'll discuss in a future article. Why? Judgment implies a status and power differential. Picture a judge sitting on a bench. He has higher status ("your honor") and he has power. Your life could literally be in his hands. That's a scary thought. In most situations where we are being judged, the other person doesn't have the full weight of the law behind him like a judge in a courtroom. But being criticized is a reminder that the other person does have some power over us. If they didn't, they wouldn't feel free to criticize. So we instantly feel a fear/anger response which can easily put us in defensive mode.

Now consider the role of beliefs. My upbringing and experience will strongly influence my reaction to criticism. Maybe I grew up being constantly criticized and berated, and, like a rat in a shock cage, I just want to find a way out. Or maybe I want to fight back. These are low EI responses. However, if I've generally been successful in responding to criticism, I will feel much more confident and in control in these situations.

In my last article I provided evidence for EI being very learnable, and I'll add some experiences from my own life to back this up. Years ago when I was working for JoeSome names are changed. something went wrong that I wasn't aware of.  When Joe learned about it he reproached me but didn't give me a chance to fix the problem. At the time I had few emotional skills to help me cope with the situation. I felt frustrated, angry and helpless, and my unwise reaction negatively affected my relationship with Joe.  

More recently Conrad, another employer, blamed me for something I didn't do.  Someone pointed out a problem to him that he assumed was my fault, and he reproached me for what he assumed were poor decisions on my part.  Though this took me by surprise, I was better prepared to handle the situation than I was with Joe years ago.  I calmly explained the true situation and ignored Conrad's apparent lack of trust in the quality of my work.  I realized that his view of the situation was something outside of my control.  But I could control my response.  After my calm explanation Conrad was satisfied that the problem wasn't my fault and the experience left me feeling empowered.

Taking responsibility is empowering

I still feel some fear when I'm criticized. But it's getting easier for me to take responsibility for my actions.  This is because I now understand:

Responsibility = response + ability

Why do so many people have trouble taking responsibility for their mistakes? Because responsibility is often associated with fault or blame. When we are blamed for something, we can usually expect only negative consequences to follow, evoking fear. However, responsibility is different. It's empowering. When we take responsibility for something, we look for ways we can improve the situation, which means we have some control.  More control = less stress.  Of course, no one wants to be responsible for fixing an unexpected problem, but with the right view of the situation it's not catastrophic.  People with low EI will experience great stress in situations that can almost be shrugged off by someone with emotional training.Unexpected negative events can be a large source of stress, but they don't have to be. Last year my car blew a head gasket.  I knew it would be a lot of work to fix (I did the repair myself).  Years ago I would have had an emotional outburst thinking about all the time and money it was going to cost me.  But last year I thought about the problem and decided an outburst wouldn't help anything, so I shrugged it off.  I didn't particularly relish the thought of all the weekend fun I missed out on while working on it, but I'm actually proud of not having thrown a fit.  For me, that's a lot of progress.

Although the poor quality work I mentioned above wasn't my fault, I have made plenty of mistakes on the job. (I can, however, proudly say that few of them had to do with quality of the work.) When I do make a mistake, I expect, and often receive, a strong emotional response. But I try to always own up to the mistake. When necessary and appropriate, I try to make amends. One time I damaged a piece of Conrad's equipment, causing him great distress.An astute reader will notice that I didn't actually create the feeling of distress in another person. But whether or not he was aware that he could choose how to respond, his distress followed my action.  This distinction is only important in context of this article. So I went out and bought a replacement. In this particular case the item wasn't expensive, but my gesture more than made up for the distress he had experienced. At other times I've just taken responsibility and left it at that. After all, an employer has the responsibility to absorb the cost of many of the mistakes of his employees. But the empowering part is knowing that I have choices. And when I take responsibility for my actions I maintain my integrity and self-respect. My self-confidence stays in the black instead of going into the red (ConfiDebt).

Let's pause here for a minute and let that sink in. Here's what I've learned: I can take criticism. I can process it rationally. My self-esteem is preserved, which is important not only for the sake of my own happiness, but as we'll soon see, for the improvement of my interactions with others.

Response-ability is remembering to be in charge and make careful, thought-out choices.Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D

Tap into your inner Superman

According to some theories of emotional intelligence, EI is an inborn trait and can't be learned.The definition of "trait" is problematic since it implies a stable personality characteristic which may or may not be genetic in origin.  If we limit the definition of "trait" to "habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion," then I have no trouble agreeing to the idea of "trait EI." Source: Wikipedia I suppose the truth or falsity of this idea has to do with the definition of emotions themselves. I'll be exploring this concept further, but my experience tells me the "trait" model isn't that accurate. When I was younger I feared conflict. My default mode of handling conflict was fight or flight. I wanted to be assertive but didn't know how. While I still face situations where I wish I had acted more assertively, these are increasingly in the minority.I don't think there's a human on the planet that doesn't have this feeling from time to time. I have been learning to act more emotionally intelligent.Some theories posit that emotions are physical sensations that are directly stimulated by the environment and that we have no control over them.  In this view, feelings are the result of cognitive and conative (behavioral) influences of the brain.  In line with these theories I suppose what I have been learning would be called "coping strategies." I say potayto, you say potahto.

It's important for me to mention here that this isn't a one size fits all model. If you are shy or you've experienced a traumatic past, having endured constant criticism and withering negativity for example, please don't get discouraged. Some will have to work much harder than others, and many of us can't improve without help from others. Please, never think that asking for help or going to therapy are signs of weakness. They are signs of strength. The key point is that we can all make progress.

It's worth meditating on examples of people such as Christopher Reeve. While many have enjoyed watching him act, his later life is truly inspiring. Though in his fight against paralysis he never reached his goal of being able to stand on his own, his progress still amazed all the doctors who were helping him. It's important to understand how he made the progress he did. For one thing, he was unusually dedicated.  The other important ingredient was consistent effort. According to The Guardian, "Reeve and his doctors agree it is largely the result of intensive physical therapy, not some miraculous power of will." Said Reeve,

Not letting negativity get the upper hand is really, really critical. Not only to your mental outlook, but literally to your physical health, because if negativity's allowed to fester, it causes health problems.... We have to learn to live a new life that would not have seemed possible. But that's not something you need to be Superman to accomplish.

You, too, can be a Superman.It's true, Christopher Reeve's main issue was his paralysis, not his emotional intelligence.  You really are a very astute reader. But his attitude toward improvement and his battle with negativity are both very relevant to this topic.

I think learning how to handle criticism is probably one of the key elements, if not the key element, to emotional intelligence. Reducing or removing the fear helps to elevate our thinking from the fight or flight response to intelligent, controlled interactions with others.

To sum up what we've discussed so far, improving our ability to handle criticism requires understanding these facts:

  1. It's natural to fear criticism.
  2. We can learn more effective, empowering ways to deal with criticism.
  3. Spending time learning these is well worth it.

In order to gain further insight, let's add another important fact to the ones above:

We are all human with strengths and weaknesses

This is worth repeating. Every person has strengths and weaknesses, whether you can see them or not.

Let's talk about ourselves first. Which is better, to recognize our weaknesses and try to improve, or to ignore them, wish them away, and resent any reference to them? Also, comparing ourselves to others either makes us feel inferior and discouraged, or superior, which short circuits our desire to improve. If Christopher Reeve had continually kept comparing himself to all his non-disabled acquaintances, would he have had the motivation to keep going?

If you're like me, you have to constantly remind yourself that people who have succeeded where you want to go aren't somehow better people, and that they don't possess unattainable talents. And I also have to remind myself that I'm not better than people who haven't attained what I have. We're just different people.

This is an especially important fact to keep in mind when interacting with others.

Psychologist Nick Wignall writes:

While being critical might temporarily make you feel good about yourself, it usually makes you feel worse about yourself in the long-term. On the other hand, emotionally intelligent and self-aware people understand that criticizing others is just a primitive defense mechanism. Instead, invest energy in improving yourself and the world around you.

When we think of individuals, it helps to separate their past, present, and future.

  • People make mistakes. That's in the past.
  • People can improve. But that's in the future.
  • People are who they are right now. They have blind spots. They have struggles. Most people are doing the best they know how to do. 

Wignall encourages us to "Hang on to your hopes but let go of your expectations."

Try this when you feel disturbed about an interaction with someone else (or with yourself)

We have to make judgments. We have to decide if someone is telling the truth. We need to decide if a relationship is beneficial or toxic. But we usually don't have to make snap judgments. It's best to try to do the following:

  1. Ask yourself, am I stressed? Am I bothered by what someone said or did?
  2. Stop and breathe. Give yourself time to think.
  3. Ask yourself, how do I feel right now? Try to describe the emotions in as much detail as possible. (This is red hat thinking)
  4. Challenge the illusion that what you’re feeling is the only right emotion under the circumstances.
  5. Ask yourself, do I have all the facts? What is the story I'm telling myself right now? (This is white hat thinking)
  6. How much do I really know about what is going on in the other person's mind? What might be causing them stress right now?
  7. Remind yourself that you have a right to make judgments, but you don't have to make them right now.
  8. Ask yourself how important it is to take action right now.  What problems might it cause?  What is the cost of not taking action?

There have been many times when I have felt the need to say something in the moment but regretted saying it later.  On the other hand, there have been times when I wish I had spoken up.  But I didn't speak up because I didn't know the words to say at the time.  It often became obvious what I should have said only months or even years afterward.  But that's ok, because I now have wisdom I can apply to future situations.  (See Joe and Conrad above for an example.)

The more I think about it, the more I believe it's best not to say anything unless I've taken the time to decide what to say and how to say it when I'm not in the grip of strong emotions.

In addition to avoiding judging others, we also have a strong need to withhold self-judgment. The same tips apply when we have negative emotions relating to the self. Of course, instead of trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes, instead picture yourself as a close friend. Now imagine how you would respond if they were feeling about themselves the way you are currently feeling about yourself.

"Hot" tips for defusing potentially charged situations

Sometimes when I'm researching I come across an idea that feels as if I've struck gold. While there are many varied concepts of "emotional intelligence" and ways to master it, I was particularly fascinated by the "Master My Stories" concept of Joseph Grenny, social scientist and author. Grenny and his co-authors posit their own basic claims about emotions:

  • You, and not the actions of others, create your emotions.
  • Once you've created your emotions, you can act on them or be acted on by them. You will either master them or fall hostage to them.
  • When you see or hear something, you create a story about it in your mind. That story determines how you feel.
  • Your feelings drive your actions.

Three types of stories we often tell ourselves are Victim Stories, Villain Stories, and Helpless Stories.

A "victim story" exaggerates my own innocence. It intentionally ignores the role I may have played in the problem and avoids addressing whatever I have done (or neglected to do) that might have contributed to the problem, instead emphasizing my virtues and absolving me of responsibility.

A "villian story" overemphasizes the other person’s guilt. It automatically assumes the worst possible motives while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions a person may have. This is also known as fundamental attribution error, a tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are - bad motives, for example, rather than looking at forces acting on them at the time.

When we tell ourselves a "helpless story", we make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament.

According to Grenny et al., these are the types of stories we tell ourselves when we’re feeling disappointed, threatened, or at risk.

Grenny encourages us to be alert when we experience a strong emotion directed toward another person and ask ourselves what story we are telling ourselves. Then, we must challenge this assumption by asking questions, such as, "Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?"

This is not to assume that the person really is behaving reasonably and rationally, but it has the effect of humanizing the other person. In turn, it empowers me to take control of my emotions and act appropriately. Asking the question, "What’s the right thing to do now to move toward what I really want?" allows me to transform myself from helpless into able.

In the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Grenny et al. provide the following very useful tip:

Spot the story by watching for “hot” words. Here’s another tip. To avoid confusing story with fact, watch for “hot” terms. For example, when assessing the facts, you might say, “She scowled at me” or “He made a sarcastic comment.” Words such as “scowl” and “sarcastic” are hot terms. They express judgments and attributions that, in turn, create strong emotions. They are story, not fact. Notice how much different it is when you say: “Her eyes pinched shut and her lips tightened,” as opposed to “She scowled at me.”

I'm looking forward to trying these tips out in my journey of personal improvement.

This is not the last essay I'll be writing on the subject of "emotional intelligence." But I want to end here on a very old source of wisdom on this topic. As I've researched this subject it became apparent to me that there are familiar elements I've seen before.

The golden standard

Consider again the fundamental tips from my last article on the subject:

  • Pay attention to your own feelings.
  • Try to remain objective and accepting of them.
  • Think about how your actions affect others.

I think there's no better way to express the latter one than using the words of the golden rule:

Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them. (Matthew 7:12, World English Bible)
Treat others as you want them to treat you. (Contemporary English Version)

Interestingly, just a few verses earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

"Don't judge, so that you won't be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1,2)

This goes right along with our discussion above. Jesus repeatedly used this "measure for measure" metaphor with regard not only to judging others (and ourselves), but also paying attention, giving, and forgiving.Mark 4:24; Luke 6:37,38

What do you think? If we make a habit, not of judging others, but of paying attention, to giving, and forgiving, can we expect to be treated that way in return? An intelligent course of action indeed!

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