Thinking about Criticism

I awoke this morning contemplating again the subject that has been on my mind and part of conversations recently. It is the idea of criticism - when is it appropriate, helpful or received, and by whom. I personally have a problem with criticism, as it has such a negative connotation in my mind. The idea of 'constructive criticism' is an oxymoron in my way of thinking. Constructive seems to indicate building up, yet criticism is a tearing down.

In my pondering abstract concepts such as this, I always like to start with definitions. Here are some I found on the web:
  • disapproval expressed by pointing out faults or shortcomings
  • a serious examination and judgment of something
  • The word critic comes from the Greek κριτικός (kritikós), "able to discern", which in turn derives from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation
  • The act of criticizing; a critical judgment passed or expressed; a critical observation or detailed examination and review
So, I can see from those definitions that the original meaning of the word is good; reasoned judgment, analysis - that sounds fine and acceptable. But, obviously, no one is fond of the first definition. In my experience, that best fits my definition of criticism.

We cannot escape the judgment of others, that is just a fact. Whether it is verbalized or not, we are creatures of judgment, making determinations about each other constantly. I desperately try to accept those around me just as they are, struggling to see the best in others. Do I always succeed? Not hardly, but it is getting easier as I mature. Do I think I have the right to criticize others according to my judgments? I would think not, especially if they are not hurting themselves or those around them*.

Personally, I have granted, you could say, permission to a few to criticize my behavior. Those that have more than earned my trust, respect and have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have my best interest at heart. I know that they would not intentionally hurt me. In order to accept criticism, you have to make yourself vulnerable and most are unwilling to do that with just anyone. I would certainly not care for someone who has not earned that right to approach me with a criticism of my behavior or words, and honestly, I probably would take is as a personal affront and be 'on my guard' with that person in the future. Why? Because I am unsure of their motivation. Why are they criticizing me? Is it to make them feel more powerful? More important? More right? Are they trying to make me more like them? Can they only accept me if I fit into their mold?

There is one exception and that would be in a teacher-student type of relationship. As a student, you have put yourself 'under' the teaching of one more learned and experienced for the purpose of growing and learning from them. You would want them to direct you and train you - this type of criticism, or training, is not intended to wound, but to teach. Most acceptable and right, in my view.

I'm not sure I will ever be able to change my view on criticism, as I just don't see it as a useful tool in edifying others or building them up to be the best they can be. Perhaps that is my immaturity speaking, and I will ponder it further...maybe I just haven't seen criticism used in a loving way with positive results. If I have, I certainly didn't label it as criticism, I suppose. I know that I have been criticized throughout my life and it has been usually about personality traits that I cannot really change, like a loud laugh or feeling too deeply.

I guess my bottom line is that I have to admit that I am my own worst critic - no one berates me or criticizes me more harshly than myself. I have to believe that we all can say the same.

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
~Thomas Merton

*Would I criticize them if they were hurting themselves or others? I probably would try to engage them with questions and loving concern, instead of criticism - that is, if they were open to talking about the situation. Much care and compassion is needed when people are getting hurt, I believe.


Nitrocat said…
Greg Boyd says that judgementalism is "gossiping in the privacy of our own brain" or ascribing worth to ourselves that we steal from others.

I've been pondering the same thing. ;)

Anonymous said…
Very well written!!!

I must say that I try to separate criticism and feedback. If someone can see something that I cannot see is willing to step away from the situation and look in- I find that very helpful. The suggestion to make something better - that I welcome, but it is all in how it is presented. To find fault without meaning - is very hard and I too find it unsettling at times. I also know that it is hard to help a friend and criticize something in their life. I like to think that if they are brave enough to share there thoughts that maybe I should listen since they have put feelings, friendship, trust and the uneasiness in the relationship. However, those I do not know I am cautious with.

Trying to be the best I can be.

S and D
tpoteet said…
Well written indeed.

When I think of criticism I think also of the prune God does in our lives as He builds us up and perfects us.

Pruning is a painful process at times. If a farmer wants good growth from his trees he must prune away the dead. In doing so he has to cut into the living tissue. This hurts the tree in the moment, but causes greater growth than fertilizing, watering, and sunshine can provide.

Likewise, muscles are built in an athlete by creating tiny tears in the muscles that the body responds to by making the muscle fibers bigger, thicker, and thus stronger.

Criticism works in the same manner when applied to the benefit of the receiver. Even when criticism comes from an untrusted source meant to harm, it doesn't mean it is wrong, or can not be used for good. All criticism is an opportunity to reflect on ourselves. This reflection either strengthens our resolve in our own beliefs, or causes us to discover a new truth we were unaware of before. Neither is bad.

As an artist and teacher I am constantly exposed to criticism. I have seen it's evils, but I have relished its good when placed in the right hands.

Todd Poteet - The Farmer
Ari C'rona said…
It always comes down to definitions and motivation, doesn't it?

How something is said so often reveals the motivation...

And, once someone uses the permission you've given them to hurt... Well, there goes the trust.

Love how you tied it all together with that awesome quote, my dear. :o)
Mama Cache said…
Okay, I had to get out my fat books since you referenced the Greek. *smile*

Obviously, a more exhaustive study would reveal much more than what I have to share, but I found something interesting even at first glance.

If you look up the instances in which that Greek word is translated as "discern" (actually ἀνακρίνω, in that case), the word means "determining the excellence or defects of a person or thing."

Isn't it interesting that criticism, as it is most commonly understood (i.e. that first definition you noted), rarely mentions the excellence of a person or thing? We don't think of critics as discerning positive things because, frankly, in the vast majority of cases, they don't! (Who is suggesting that these self-ordained, perpetually negative critics actually possess true discernment anyway?)

Our trusted "critics" have earned their places by offering much edification and positive encouragement, I would think, before they have ever ventured to lovingly and gently point out a weakness. In most cases, we have already sensed those weaknesses ourselves, and our "critics" are actually beloved sounding boards who have heard us ask, "What do you think?"

At that point, we should be ready to hear whatever will follow, shouldn’t we? At that point, we probably can.

Once again, my mind heads back to the Proverbs . . . “faithful are the wounds of a friend” . . . emphasis on the word “friend.”
Hendel D'bu said…
Thank you so much, my dear friends, for such insightful and loving comments. I will be spending time pondering your thoughts as I continue to seek understanding.

I so appreciate the time you have taken to read and comment - it means the world to me. :-)
Hendel D'bu said…
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt, speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago (April 10, 1899), in Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, p. 79.

(thank you, MC, for sharing this quote with me on this subject - it's awesome!)