On criticism

We are hyper-sensitive to criticism, to being told that we did something wrong, or worse: that we believed something wrong. As soon as criticism hits us we go on the defensive. Maybe we get angry, or maybe we become condescending and dismissive, or maybe we become hurt and close to tears, but in any case it’s a defensive reaction. It stops the criticism from going any further and it makes the person who doled the criticism out feel bad, which discourages them from doing it again.

None of this is on purpose, it’s a dance we do without even noticing it.

The underlying reason for the dance is our fear that any criticism, any disagreement, any conflict, could result in being socially rejected, in being judged a bad person, disgraceful, unworthy, undesirable, unlovable. We fear a weakening of the bonds of family and friendship in our lives. Our fear is so great that we either change our beliefs to match those of others, or we avoid the areas where we suspect disagreement may lie. We treat these areas like an embarrassing hole in the floor; we dance around it and never acknowledge that it’s there. Maybe we even make ourselves genuinely not see the hole. We still dance around it, but maybe we convince ourselves that we always danced that way. We dance around and around, and as we dance we build up a fuzzy, guessed-at, unacknowledged group consensus that none of us will step outside of.

Social rejection, a breakdown in social bonds; these things are legitimately terrifying. We aren’t wrong to fear them. But we have so little sense of proportion, of flexibility or nuance, in this. We react to “That thing you just did made me uncomfortable, could you not do that thing again?” pretty much the same way we react to “You’re stupid and ugly and I wish you would just die”. And it’s mostly a knee-jerk reaction, not a deliberate, conscious one.

It’s like we’re all so terrorized by the memory of that one time on the schoolyard when we unthinkingly said the wrong thing, the thing that led the other kids to gang up against us and bully us, that we spend the rest of our lives doing an elaborate dance to avoid saying the wrong thing again.

None of this is on purpose, it’s a dance we do without even noticing it. Why would we notice? There’s nothing to be gained from noticing, in fact, the dance is one of those ‘wrong things’ that we desperately try to avoid talking about – and the easiest way to not say something is not to think it either.

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