Dealing With Criticism: A Compassionate Approach
It is never pleasant when someone hurts us with their words or actions. The good news though is that the unpleasant moment is momentary, it only lasts a second. The bad news, however, is that most of us are very good at creating permanency in impermanent things. Whatever has been done to us, we tend to repeat it in our minds again and again, each time allowing the memory to hurt us that little bit more. For instance, if someone calls us ‘worthless’, it isn’t nice. But because we go away and stew on it, thinking, ‘They called me worthless… worthless, ouch… worthless, oh my. Now I really do feel worthless.’ We allow an even greater harm to be done to us by choosing to ruminate on these thoughts.
As Ajahn Brahm says: “Why can’t we let go of simple things like past and future? Why are we so concerned with what someone else did to us or said to us today? The more you think about it, the more stupid it is. You know the old saying, ‘When someone calls you an idiot, the more times you remember it, the more times they’ve called you an idiot!’ If you let it go immediately, you will never think about it again. They only called you an idiot at most once. It’s gone! It’s finished. You’re free.”
Let’s not forget that one person’s criticism of us is their perception and not necessarily the truth. For every person who sees a negative quality in us, there will be many others who could talk about the positive for a lot longer. It is fine to take heed of constructive criticism when we can see the benefit in improving ourselves. But we should never let another’s criticism become a recipe for destroying our inner confidence and joy. Other people’s criticism is usually their own internal suffering being directed toward us as well, so we shouldn’t take it so personally. Instead, they should become objects of our compassion.
And we need to be aware that we don’t build permanent constructs in our mind about the other person because of their temporary negative behavior. Try not to refer to them in your mind as ‘the person who hurt me’, or any other label that creates a barrier of fear and aversion toward them. Labels are easy to stick onto bottles, but after some time, they are usually very difficult to pull back off; you need all sorts of dissolvents the longer you leave them on. So in the same way, we need to remove the labels we create about other people and let them go as soon as we see them arise. Since everyone and everything is constantly changing, if we try to hold onto a negative view about someone, we might potentially miss out on having a beautiful relationship with them.
So if we want to practice kindness to ourselves and others, we need to remember to let go of the harm others do to us (which they only do through their own ignorance), and be willing to stay open to new experiences with that person without erecting any barriers of anger or distrust. Although it might seem that they will be the sole beneficiary of our kindness and forgiveness, the truth is, we are the ones who will gain the most by cultivating an open heart, full of forgiveness, kindness and joy.
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