Giving and accepting criticism gracefully can be a tricky business.
Many a friendship or family relationship has foundered on the
shoals of major, minor, or even anticipated criticism. Performance
evaluations at school or work are minefields of misunderstood
criticism. What makes criticism so darned difficult? And how can
we make it easier? Some of the answers may lie in a better
understanding of the relationship between criticism and the basic
emotion we call shame. It may seem both obvious and inevitable
that criticism and shame should go together, until you meet someone
who manages to listen to criticism seriously, but without reacting
with shame or anger, even if the criticism is harsh. Such a
person has somehow learned to view criticism as potentially useful
information from a different perspective than her own, and to hear
it without the strong visceral reaction many of us experience.
Those of us who haven't mastered such an enlightened approach are
likely to feel attacked, ashamed, guilty, and / or angry. Usually
we react with these feelings instantly before we have had a chance
to evaluate the clarity or meaning of the critic's point of view.

The reason we react this way has to do with the nature of the
primary emotion of shame and the fact that our earliest experiences
of criticism are so often powerfully associated with shame. Shame
is one of the nine basic emotional responses with which we are
born. Like anger, fear, and several others, it is evident in
distinctly recognizable facial expressions in very young babies.
Shame is the affect associated with surrender and defeat. It is a
powerful basic emotion because it has survival value. The defeated
dog that slinks away after the fight is demonstrating the posture
of shame, and its abject posture prevents it from being killed by
its enemy. It is an intensely uncomfortable affect, experienced
internally as a kind of death, but it can be triggered in a young
child by almost any scolding or rejection on the part of parents,
older siblings, or other important figures in the child's life. As
the personality develops, an individual's shame response may grow
to emphasize either the impulse to submit and surrender or the
surge of aggression and anger that always follows the initial
surrender. If you speak sharply to a two-year-old, it is not
unusual to see him cloud up in tears of shame and distress, then
regroup and assault you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.
When shame is evoked as an automatic emotional response to
criticism, we tend to respond in one of the two ways characteristic
of shame. We may accept the criticism without question and feel
guilty or miserable. Or we may reject the criticism without
question and feel angry and defiant. Sometimes we bounce back
and forth between the two. Whether humiliation or anger dominates
the response, the intense feelings evoked interfere with a calm and
objective review of the situation.

Most of us learned our own personal styles of reacting to criticism
when we were very young, when criticism was most often experienced
as a scolding or teasing and therefore became associated with
shame. Since shame is always painful, and it is the most natural
thing in life to want to avoid pain, early criticism, no matter how
well intended or deserved, may soon lead to complex avoidance
behaviors. So it is that some children learn to lie or blame
others to avoid the pain of criticism. So it is that other
children learn to criticize themselves ruthlessly - partly to
anticipate and avoid external criticism, perhaps, and partly in
hopes of reassurance from an external authority, a loving,
forgiving parent. In Norway , cruel teasing among peers was deemed
to be such a virulent problem, contributing to potential depression
and violence in young people, that a curriculum was developed for
dealing with teasing.

It is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate the shame
response entirely from the arena of criticism. Shame is the
foundation for conscience, and helps us remember the importance of
other people's standards and expectations as well as our own.
More often than not, however, an excessive shame response confuses
the giving and accepting of criticism. So it is useful to learn
methods of side stepping the intense automatic shame response and
cultivating a more detached and objective view of the perspective
that the critic may provide. A variety of techniques for
sidestepping or modifying unwanted emotional responses have been
demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of phobias and
anxiety disorders, and in anger management programs. We have also
learned a lot in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behavior
problems, and therapy for habit control, all of which involves some
learnable ability to quiet or change an internal emotional state
that drives unwanted behavior. Such techniques can be applied to
modifying an excessive shame response to allow for more comfortable
and effective responses to criticism.

Many people may find benefit simply in adopting an attitude toward
criticism based in assertiveness principles stressing our
individual right to and responsibility for our own values or
standards. When we hear criticism, it is fair to assume that we are
not living up to someone's standards or expectations. Since it is
impossible to live up to everyone's expectations, it is important
to determine whether we understand and agree with the critic's
expectations before we can decide what to make of the criticism.
It can be a respectful and powerful response to criticism to say:
"I've thought about what you said, and I understand what you think
I should have done in that situation, but I don't happen to agree.
We have different values there." Of course it is also powerful
to be able to say, sincerely, "I agree with your criticism and I am
going to try harder in the future to meet that expectation because
I believe in it, too."

Some individuals, whose early life experience may have conditioned
them to have very powerful and easily triggered shame responses,
will have difficulty believing that a comfortable response to
criticism is possible. Constant self-criticism as well as the
painful response to others' criticism has significantly marred
their self-esteem. Learning new responses to criticism may require
more persistent and creative intervention for these individuals,
but can open a door to strikingly different perceptions of
themselves. Sherri would cringe visibly when describing any
situation in which she was being criticized. Despite the absence
of any history of abuse, she could not imagine disagreeing openly
with her husband for fear he would get angry. The idea of
analyzing criticism as non-threatening input was intriguing to her,
but she was very skeptical that she could ever learn to quell her
automatic fears. With some persistent, creative application of
guided imagery techniques and the support of friends, however, she
discovered a way to use her own sense of humor to diffuse the
automatic panic associated with criticism. The resulting increase
in her assertiveness and general sense of confidence was striking.
And her husband's anger was not nearly the problem she had
anticipated.

There is skill involved in giving criticism, too. If the
object is not just to make a person feel bad, but to motivate them
to change their behavior if you are not happy with it, it helps to
understand the potential impact of careless criticism.
Unfortunately, many people rely on intimidation or manipulation
without recognizing that the shame and anger they almost certainly
evoke may backfire to their detriment. An approach based on
assertiveness principles entails making sure to express
expectations that are clear and realistic, then asking the person
if they understand and agree with these expectations. Compliance
will be much more likely once misunderstandings and disagreements
about expectations are worked out. A great deal of time and
energy is often spent in complex avoidance and retaliation in
response to criticism that is unclear, unrealistic, or poorly
understood.

A better understanding of the nature of the powerful
basic emotion we call shame, its prevalence in our interpersonal
interaction, and its significance in the development of
self-esteem, offers opportunities to redress common problems in
communication at work, at home, and even within ourselves.

Author's Bio: 

Brock Hansen, LCSW, author of Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection, is a clinical social worker and personal effectiveness coach with over thirty five years experience in counseling individuals with a variety of problems related to shame and anger. Educated at Johns Hopkins University and Smith College School for Social Work and trained in hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming, as well as cognitive therapy, he has a private practice in Washington, DC. He is also available for telephone coaching and can be contacted by email at brockhansenlcsw@aol.com. Other articles on topics of shame and eating disorders and emotional intelligence for kids can be found on his website at www.ei4rkids.com and www.shame-anger.com. He lives near his DC office with his wife of 35 years, Penelope.