There are two ways to experience criticism. You can either “react” to it… or “respond.”
“Reaction” usually means you are taking the criticism personally, and when you “respond” with openness you create opportunities for growth and inner illumination.
Most individuals have been modeled after the behaviors of reaction, even in arenas that go beyond the simple form of criticism. Reaction is the dominant force, or “modus operandi,” of our western culture, and likely around the globe as well. It is also the primary reason for heartache and breakdowns in communication with others. This process is obviously quite complex and unique to the individual, as such, the most effective way to discuss it is to simplify – to distill it down to the essentials through a dualistic approach.
More often than not, reaction is the ego’s avoidance of vulnerability – a resistance to change. When we react or become defensive, we have moved into fear. In contrast, responding means holding a willingness to stand in the fire of criticism (or opposition) and remain an astute observer, with heart-felt objectivity.”
Standing in the fire means feeling the burn of the ego as it is forced to move into vulnerability – as it is forced to confront the potential of self-inquiry and change. A healthy response to this fire is one of embrace. This embrace doesn’t necessarily mean you are required to identify with the criticism being offered; however, it does mean you don’t immediately dismiss it either. You stay centered, and open yourself willingly to observe the criticism, and bring it to prayer and reflection. When this occurs, incredible opportunities for growth are made available; opportunities to evolve, to positively transform, and to deepen in self-awareness.
This is obviously easier said than done. When the criticism being offered hits really close to home, or touches upon core vulnerabilities, it can become incredibly uncomfortable. This is why it is described as “standing in the fire.” Most people have been taught to avoid these feelings at all costs – even if it means reinforcing an unhealthy pattern, or outdated paradigm of the self. In other words, when the fire begins to burn, more often than not, we move instantly into a “fight or flight” mentality. This relates to the base survival instinct articulated through Maslow’s “Heirarchy of Needs,” culminating in self-actualization.
To move a bit deeper into the experience of criticism, we discover the authenticity of our identity is being challenged, and most of us were taught to react to this fearfully. Moving into a healthy embrace of criticism is usually the last thing on the ego’s mind. The truth of the matter is that when we move into fear, the ego moves instinctively into either, attempting to fight for its survival at all costs, or into desperately running from the experience entirely to avoid the burn. In either case, the shadow (or ego) needs to close off the heart to alleviate the intensity of its feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. It is trying to defend itself. It doesn’t feel safe, so it disconnects.
This is just one of the many reasons intimate self-awareness is so important. It lets you know when you are not living in the heart – it reveals when the mind has taken over. When you know yourself deeply, you don’t feel the need to run or defend. Thankfully, the remedy for this dilemma is brilliantly crafted into the experience of resistance itself. The shadow is persistent, and its expression will gain in intensity and discomfort until you are forced into a healthy surrender and embrace of deeper truth.
The gems of this encounter are only revealed through embracing a healthy perspective. In other words, when we actively engage the process of resistance with awareness and willingness, we find the recipe for growth and deeper self-illumination are embedded within the core of any encounter (whether challenging or blissful). This being said, don’t be afraid to look deeply into these spaces within you. Through gazing into these parts of the self, you can find deep inner clarity. The criticism will either resonate, and be embraced as an opportunity for growth, or it will reveal the criticism was merely a projection from its deliverer, and be effortlessly discarded. Yet the only way to know which is true, is to be willing to bring it completely into your heart. Through the heart’s insight, it won’t matter whether the criticism is accurate or a projection – the healthy result of either is an awakening.
A wise woman once posed this question to me: “Is life happening to you, or for you?” This inquiry encouraged me to realize that experience is heavily influenced by perspective. In other words, “is the universe you enemy, or your ally?” Ultimately this is simply a choice. You have the ability in every moment to choose to “react” or “respond.” One path leads to suffering and the perpetuation of victimhood, and the other leads to liberation, empowerment, and inner peace.
The choice is completely up to you.