How to Deal with Harsh Criticism: Authority

This is the first of a 3-part series on surviving and recovering from hurtful criticism.

If I asked you, “What’s the worst thing someone has ever said to you?” you’d probably be able to remember the words, the relationship, and the context right away:

An unhappy marriage

A humiliating workplace

An oppressive classroom

My clients say, “the worst things ever said” still haunt them to this day.

Can we fix that?

Two Stories: Words Cause Scars

One woman remembered that as a teenager, she came out of the house all dressed up for the school’s final dance party.

She had bought the dress with her own money.

She had spent hours doing her hair and makeup.

Her father took one sneering look at her and mocked, “Are you working the streets again tonight?”

She burst into tears and had to go re-do her mascara and eye shadow before her date arrived. She never forgot that moment.

*

A man in his 30s recalled his first wife making jokes about his race, which was different from hers.

She used a slur for him, which I won’t repeat here, that offended him deeply.

She defended herself saying it was “just a joke” and she was “using it affectionately.”

Not to him.

Not after a whole childhood of being called those terms, the terms that had prevented him as an adult from getting a job, a house, and a visa.

A Strong Self Image

With a strong self image and a clear vision, we have a much better chance of making our dreams come true.

We can find meaningful work, we can parent and befriend and love the ways we want to, and we can earn money and grow it.

A weak self image and a cloudy vision lead to all kinds of problems: addiction, depression, stagnation.

What’s the biggest cause of a weak self image?

Harsh criticism.

Verbal Attacks Cause Scars, But Isn’t Some Criticism Motivating?

I hear this from clients, too. "Don't I need some criticism?"

Let's differentiate.

Criticism differs from constructive feedback.

For our discussion today, constructive feedback is ok, and criticism is not.

Criticism is a nasty statement aimed at you, personally.

In debate, this is the logical fallacy of an ad hominem attack. That's Latin for "at the person." In debate, it’s not allowed!

Example, “You are an idiot for even asking that question.”

Constructive feedback, in contrast, is a suggestion about how a product or project could be improved.

Example: “This logo is great, but I’d like the shade of purple to be a bit darker, is that possible?”

How to Tell the Difference? Emotions

You know when you’ve been harshly criticized. It hurts. You often feel like crying.

It stings.

It burns.

It latches on and sucks your energy, sometimes for years.

Hurtful criticism is worse than any vampire bat, worse than any jellyfish.

It keeps us down, just when we need to pick ourselves up.

Criticism is a time bomb that keeps on blowing up. How can we defuse the bomb, for good?

The Criticism Bomb’s operative mechanisms

One of the foundational texts of modern self-help literature is Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.

His main premise is that a healthy self image leads to a healthy life.

Harsh criticism, he says, consists of three parts:

  1. Authority
  2. Intensity
  3. Repetition

If we can disable any of these three, and hopefully all three, we can set ourselves free.

Today, I’ll be addressing the first part, Authority. In future articles, I’ll take on Intensity and Repetition. There’s so much to unpack here.

Authority

Let’s look at the first mechanism of the Criticism Bomb, Authority.

Criticism hurts terribly.

It hurts even more when you're criticized by someone who is “above” you.

This could be a boss, a parent, a neighbor you admire.

Someone who has a higher status than you.

When you “have to” respect this person, it means that inside, you’ve made a commitment to listen to everything they say.

Usually, we also agree to agree with what they're saying!

But what if their criticism denies our very right to exist?

What if it undermines our livelihood? Our dignity?

What if it crushes our spirit?

Does this authority figure still have the right to say whatever they want to say?

No.

Harsh, undue criticism from a person in authority over us cancels out their authority.

We need to rebel against their hurtful lies, in order to protect our inner core.

However, rebellion against a boss or a parent can feel far too dangerous - we could lose our job or our home, or our place at university.

Thus, we could rebel internally.

This is how to defuse the Criticism Bomb of Authority.

Three Steps: Defuse That Bomb

First, we refuse.

We refuse to agree with the authority’s false statements.

Second, we diffuse their authority. Diffuse is like dilute, to spread thin.

Is there only one person who rules your world? If there is, let it be you, not someone outside yourself.

Are they really an authority over you? Question their status and power structures. They are not royalty. De-throne them, immediately. No person has soul power over another.

Third, we enthuse.

We get joyful.

We find things to think about that make us happy and unique.

We speak kindly to ourselves and others.

Rebuilding with Authority

After you rightfully question the authority’s oppressive criticism, it’s time to re-build your self-image, using the very same element of Authority.

This time, however, the authority is shifting from the outside to the inside.

You are the authority on you.

You know yourself better than anybody else.

When you say to yourself, “I am kind. I am smart. I solve problems. I am creative. I am optimistic. I am ethical,” believe yourself.

If you can’t believe yourself yet (probably due to excessive criticism), ask someone loving and caring to say these things to you. Believe them.

A few strategies:

  • Keep a journal of success, not of failures. Write down what you’ve accomplished today.
  • Look for proof in everything around you that you are who you say you are and more.
  • Take photos of yourself every day, just for yourself, to track your moods, your highs and lows, your health. Love yourself.

Re-claim your divinity.

Remember yourself as an innocent baby.

Most of all, use your own authority wisely toward others.

Offer only constructive feedback, never personal attacks on others, whether you’re speaking directly to them, about them, or in your own mind.

You can re-claim your own authority.

You can re-build your self image, day by day.

Two Stories, Part II

The woman going to the school dance grew up to be a self-conscious person who rarely "showed off." She hid her body in loose, baggy clothes, and said she always felt, in her own words, "unkempt and bedraggled."

Coaching her, I helped her practice a lot of mirror work, affirmations, gathering proof of her beauty, and exercises to enhance self-confidence and emotional safety.

The last photo she sent me, she was going to a professional event wearing a ball gown! She looked fabulous!

*

The man decided to separate from his first wife.

They are currently co-parenting, and he is teaching their children his home language to help them instill pride in his and their shared culture.

With some guidance from me, and also by going to therapy with a psychologist, he is getting stronger and stronger.

He is stepping into his own authority. It's beautiful to witness.

I wish the same for you!

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