It can be why we chase the trophy, the award, the professional designation, the client, lift weights, spray tan, or do good deeds. (Don’t get me wrong, we also do good things because we may very much want to be of benefit, whether it is public or not.)
This was not a pleasant discovery for those like me, who thought we had decent self-esteem. As it turns out, the genesis for some of what we do stems from a desire for external affirmation. And to have our work, our character, how we engage with our loved ones or coworkers, or even our physical appearances challenged in hyper-critical ways, does not cause self-worth issues, so much as put the spotlight on existing ones.
For people like us, this is a chance to unearth our issues of self-worth. When undue criticism smacks us on the backside, and we are used to praise and people being generally pleased with us, to be mischaracterized, misjudged, misunderstood, and slandered is new territory. Things like not being liked or approved of highlight our tender spots of insecurity.
To be of benefit, I have found it more productive and helpful to take hurtful criticism as an opportunity to improve, regardless of whether the intent of their criticism was to help me be better. I practice being un-bothered. And trust me when I say it is a practice. Sometimes I succeed; others not so much. Over the course of time though, we can all get better when we work on what we know needs to be worked on—whether it be the thing we were criticized for or how we actually received that criticism.
Have you ever struggled with a family member, friend, or coworker and their misperception of you? Or have you wrongly and harshly judged someone else? I have been on both ends. This year, I have been lambasted as though I am sitting at a detective’s table in a dark room, illuminated by one of those harsh, fluorescent lights overhead highlighting all of my flaws. And my deficiencies are not only the focus—they are also on display like a circus animal being publicly mocked and shamed for all to see.
On the other hand, when I receive fair criticism, I can own that and see it as a source of potential benefit and the beginning of a journey toward a better relationship with that well-intentioned deliverer of something difficult to hear—when and if there is mutual respect and a mutual goal of helping me be better.
Contrarily, when the feedback appears to be filled with anger, disdain, ridicule, or is harmful, just for the sake of hurting or “putting us in our place” with no regard to our well-being and, especially, when the assessments are wrong, it is much harder to stomach.
If you are like me, and are beginning to realize our self-worth isn’t as strong as we once thought, we think about attacks on us like this too much, ruminate, stew, and have full conversations in our heads with the other person and think of ways to prove our goodness to them. We lose sight that we don’t have to prove our worth or earn the love of anyone. And that self-worth comes from within anyway.
I remember as a child being accused by my stepmom of stealing her nail polish. There was no evidence or prior history to lead her to this conclusion. And I was dead set to prove her wrong—and ultimately did. My self-worth couldn’t handle being perceived as a thief in her eyes even though I knew I wasn’t one. It’s not easy, though it is easier, to accept and even invite people to point out to us the true changeable deficiencies in ourselves when done in loving ways. And self-aware folks like me know ruminating, having conversations in our minds, and striving to prove our worth and goodness to others are not healthy ways to handle things like this. And neither is simply ignoring the other person or their daggers disguised as words.
So how do we handle this?
We can change and improve our self-worth not by striving to change another person’s opinion of us, but by focusing on the fact that we are lovable, likable, or competent—even if their opinion never changes. And we can focus on recognizing the humanity and unhealed parts in them that perhaps prevent them from being able to fully understand that their methods of attacking/approaching people are of no benefit to themselves or their target.
Telling a judgmental person they are wrong about us, or trying to win them over through good deeds, or pointing out their own character flaws, or by changing our appearance, would not be of benefit, because the verbal punches they throw aren’t intended to help us anyway. And lashing out in kind is disrespectful to them, to our mutual loved ones or colleagues, and to ourselves. Doing so would neither de-escalate the situation nor change their feelings toward us.
However, we can address their lack of respect and their delivery in mutually beneficial ways. The next encounter I have with a person like this, I will firmly yet gently ask them if they are open to hearing my point of view in an effort to understand me. And I will offer to hear their point of view in an effort to understand them. Because oftentimes, once context is given, perspective can change.
As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. The humanity is in not hurting them back. And as far as carving self-worth off the bone of outside approval from others, the humanity is in showing ourselves compassion and gentleness and also truly discerning if there is even a grain of truth in the words hurled at us—even when delivered by a negative person or in a negative way. And if so, using the experience to better ourselves…and not just an exercise to try and win their approval.
While the intention of people like this in our lives may not be to help us with our self-worth, they have, because these experiences can bring soft light (as opposed to the fluorescent kind) to areas that desperately need our attention. And for that, I am grateful. Another goal could be to discern whether or not there is any truth to their comments no matter the delivery and, if so, to work on those areas. And it is an opportunity to be mindful of our reasons for making changes to ourselves for reasons other than that we are seeking validation or approval of someone to protect our sense of self-worth.
Here are some guidelines on how to relate to a situation in which you are disparaged by another:
>> First, seek to understand the point of view of the other person. This doesn’t mean you have to agree.
>> Decide if there is any truth to their comments. This can be especially hard if they are mean and/or if what they have shared is hurtful.
>> Respectfully approach them about how they have delivered their message if you deem their delivery to be inappropriate or hurtful. To prevent them from being defensive or dismissive, try something like, “I understand you do not approve of x, y, z. And while at first blush, I do not agree, this has given me something to think about. And I will. For my own benefit. Because my goal is self-improvement. That said, going forward it will be better received and more respectful of you to approach me rather than go around me. It also comes across as genuine, caring feedback when you frame your thoughts on how and why you think it will benefit me (the team, the family—whoever) if you position it as a collaborative and supportive message.”
Example: “I noticed you have been very impatient for several months. And that your social media (or family involvement, quality of work, etc.) has a different tone lately. That is not typical of how you have behaved in the past. At first, I found myself judging and assuming things. But, I can recall what it feels like to be misjudged, and what I’m noticing about you lately is not in line with what I know about your character. So, I wanted to reach out and ask you if you are doing okay. If not, it’s okay. I just wanted to offer a hand, an ear, a resource, or whatever you need.”
>> If you are dealing with someone with whom you have a long history of rocky communication and/or mutual dislike, try to reframe them in your mind by thinking about things you have in common. Perhaps you both work for the same company and you know you both care about doing a good job. Maybe you are family members who disagree on how to behave in a situation but both love a mutual family member and realize you are putting that person in the middle. Find some way to see the humanity in them.
>> Tell yourself out loud, multiple times, that before you interact with them, you will not attack things out of their control, you will not raise your voice, you will not hit “send” on an emotion-filled text, email, or post without thinking it through for 24 hours.
>> Ask if they are open to listening to your point of view. And ask if they will do so without interrupting you to tell you that you are wrong or to tell you how to do something differently. Tell them you are not seeking to prove them wrong and yourself right, but that you are seeking mutual understanding. That way, if you never get on the same page, you can at least begin to understand each others’ perspectives.
>> Then, offer to do the same for them.
>> Consider that if they have particularly strong opinions of you, that they may actually be projecting and/or have some other experience in their life which impacts their view of you. Understanding this means you can appreciate that their feelings about you are really about something else. You can then practice not being hooked by their reactions.
Author: Gentrie Pool
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Lindsey Block