Criticism is difficult for most. Because of the ways our minds work, we’re prone to distort our images of ourselves and those of others. If someone tells us they’re angry with us, we think we’re awful. If we fail an exam and are told we should have done better, we think we’re stupid. If we make a mistake on a projected earnings report for a client, we consider ourselves to be incompetent. In each instant, we make a global assessment of who we are, rather than focusing on where we failed.
For most of my life, I was prone to over-generalized and black and white thinking (viewing people and things as good or bad, valuable or worthless, etc…); so, naturally, I felt like shit about myself throughout the majority of the time (since high standards are rarely achieved). Each criticism stung with such profundity that I wanted to hide away and avoid every avenue that potentially led to it, to, essentially, avoid my life. When we’re children, we don’t possess the ability to critically examine the information the world gives us; we simply accept it. Children reared in an overly critical environment, and even those bullied in school, learn to see themselves in the ways they’re seen by those whom they admire; the explicit and implicit messages combine to form their distorted self-conceptions.
Those beliefs are reinforced by constant repetition; so, when the child becomes an adult, her self-image feels as though it’s set in stone and undeniably true; her spirit is broken, and others’ attempts to lure her out of her deep despair are met with resistance, explained away as pity. Every criticism is perceived through the lens of her core beliefs, which are validated by experience. Unfortunately, our brains have a way of selectively remembering all of the evidence that proves what we believe, while conveniently forgetting contradicting points. Placed on the bedrock of who we believe we are, feedback is akin to being stabbed, constituting further validation of what we spend most of our lives trying desperately to ignore.
The fixed-mindset tells us that our character is un-malleable, and that who we are we’ll always be. Those who are psychologically beaten down tend to view their traits as fixed aspects of themselves. No one ever tells them about their innate potential or even what growth entails. Their worlds are black and white, with winners and losers, the lucky and the desolate. Since they didn’t win the genetic lottery, despair becomes inevitable. Thus, they look out at an unfair world, resenting everyone around them.
At the other end, the growth-mindset encompasses the belief that while we start out as one thing, we can blossom into another. According to this way of seeing oneself, inherent ability is important, but it isn’t the whole story of who one is. One views oneself in terms of her potential. Instead of ascribing labels to herself, she considers areas of improvement, learning from her mistakes and how she could perform better in the future. In her mind, rather than being a failure, she conceives of her attempt as unsuccessful. For her, the struggle provides her with self-worth because she believes in her resilience.
Cultivating the latter mindset is a struggle in itself, especially for those who’ve suffered chronic trauma, since they’re convinced of their inferiority. Healing is often daunting, full of many pitfalls. But, I think that the battle to own oneself is always worth it. In order to have stable and healthy relationships, we have to be able to incorporate feedback and adapt to our friends’ or partner’s needs. Constantly being on defense will protect us from the shame and embarrassment we’d otherwise feel, but it’ll also push away the people who want to love us.
There’s a solid line here, too, between constructive feedback and nitpicking. While considering criticism is good, we have to be careful not to become overly receptive, blindly accepting every criticism we receive. Trauma prevents us from developing an ability to reason (our junk beliefs would never survive with it). So, through therapy, or even philosophical counseling, we can learn the skills we need to grow and make sure we aren’t at one extreme or the other, relentlessly on defense or allowing others to mold us because of how terrible we must be.
Letting go of our junk beliefs can be scary due to how safe our world-views make us feel. For, what if we accept our potential and inner-goodness to discover that we’re wrong? What if the thread we’re hanging on by is quickly ripped away?The journey to see oneself with fresh eyes requires great courage, which in itself can be sustaining. For, if you’re this courageous, how can you ever truly be a failure?