Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Embracing criticism

Recently I was told "I'm just stuck and am so fearful of criticism that dragged this out much longer than it needed." This is, I think, one of the paradigmatic problems for dissertation writers, or writers of any sort, for that matter. As long as we remain stuck, we're safe from having our work criticized. Of course, we may open ourselves to the criticism that we're not productive, but that's another story.

Criticism can be a challenge to hear, and a challenge to accept. We put our hearts into our efforts and then to have those efforts criticized can be very painful. I know that I have struggled to accept criticism--often it makes me defensive or angry or both and more. It doesn't feel good.

But it can be useful to think, for a moment, about the motives of those who offer criticism.
Yes, of course, there are those whose motives are negative, who wish to drag you down, who gain pleasure and a sense of power from insulting another.
There are also those who really want to help you. An obvious, extreme example would be telling a friend that he/she is an alcoholic. It's certainly critical to tell a person that they have become pathological in some way. But what is the motivation behind it? A family member, it might be imagined, might tell another that they have a problem because the problem impacts their life in a regular and devastating way. But a friend who has the distance of living in another home with another family? What is the motivation? Quite simply, there are times when we all could profit from criticism, and the person who delivers that criticism, unwelcome though the experience might be, is ultimately looking out for our own good and is trying to help.

In the world of academia if someone gives you detailed criticism, it's usually because they are interested in your work and interested in making it stronger. When your faculty readers criticize your work, it is almost certainly because they want to help you finish your project. Sure, of course there are professors who are mean and petty and get a thrill from insulting others, but most professors are not that way. Most professors really want to help people learn.

There's a parallel in the world of publishing--if you submit a work and you get criticism that is more detailed than a flat rejection, it means that the person who made the criticism is actually interested in your work and believes that it has potential.

So the criticism you receive is often with the desire to help. This doesn't necessarily make it feel good to receive the criticism, but if you can keep thinking about the motivation of the critic, it can often help.

If we can embrace the criticism, if we can open our eyes to the issue being presented, we can learn about our written work and learn how others are responding to it. This helps us understand if we are going to get a reaction that we want from a wider audience, and it can help us see how to revise our work so that we do get the response that we want.

Half the battle with many things, including criticism, is to fight down the fear of what might be so that we can open ourselves to the real possibilities that might arise. By telling ourselves that we fear criticism, by telling ourselves that criticism is bad can set up an emotional state in which receiving criticism is even more difficult.
By contrast, if we can tell ourselves to embrace criticism, and if we can tell ourselves that criticism will provide an educational opportunity, we can set up an emotional state where the criticism is not nearly as painful, nor as difficult. As in so many other things, if we can embrace the difficulty, then we have a great opportunity to grow and learn and, ultimately, to be more successful and more happy with ourselves and our lives.

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