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A Yogi's Advice on Receiving Criticism

Aktualisiert: 13. Dez. 2020

Personally, I've always struggled to receive constructive criticism without interpreting it as an attack on my worth as a person. My default reaction was anger, first at my critic, then at myself. If that sounds familiar, read on. Below, I share the lessons I have learned in Yoga, but also at university and in theatre.

In my experience, there are 3 factors that influence your reaction to constructive criticism:

1. Your confidence in what you do

Basically, the less confident you are in the quality of your work, the more likely you are to feel degraded by constructive criticism. In her book Anger and Forgiveness, Martha C. Nussbaum refers to this perceived down-ranking as a “status injury.” The less confident you are, the more you rely on your ego to lift you onto a shaky pedestal, which crumbles when prodded by criticism. Low confidence and self-esteem collapse the boundaries between your self and your work, leading you to perceive any criticism of your work as a down-grading of your person. Your ego’s subsequent cries of “INJUSTICE” drown out all criticism, whether constructive or not, and leave you feeling wronged and hurt.

I used to (and still do sometimes) struggle with this in university context. Out of the two subjects I study, I feel far less confident in History than in English. Used to the very good grades I get in English, getting a really bad grade on a homework assignment in History a few weeks ago severley wounded my ego. I didn't even read through the individual points of criticism because I couldn't bear to face my mistakes. The next time I was sent my corrected homework assignment, I resisted even opening the document until the next day.

On the other hand, confidence in the quality of your work and knowing your own worth prevents the ego from turning constructive criticism into a threat to your status. In theatre, I was always able to receive constructive criticism more easily than in other contexts, because I felt confident in what I was doing. I perceived constructive criticism not as a humiliation, but an opportunity to further improve my work.

To work towards this sense of confidence, before asking for anyone else's feedback, always solicit your own honest criticism first. Hold yourself accountable by setting your own standards for your work and checking whether you've met them or not. When faced with criticism from another person, your standards will act as a safety net: Knowing that you have met your own goals keeps you from feeling down-graded and humiliated when you don't meet those of others.


2. Your emotional investment

Any kind of work that you care about is an inherently vulnerable endeavour, and being met with criticism can be discouraging, especially for so-called perfectionists. I challenge you to ask yourself what it is that you are emotionally invested in: Is it really your work, or is it other people's reaction to your work? Do you derive your happiness from the work itself or from other people's approval? If you tie your sense of worth to other people's ability to see it, you're setting yourself up for many disappointments.

As Brené Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly: "Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?" I was brought face to face with my destructive perfectionism at University, when a term paper I had spent months on didn't get the top grade from a professor I was determined to impress. It was my very first term paper, and the grade I got was still very good, but my emotional investment had warped my persepctive. Think of yourself as one of those detectives in a crime series: If you are personally invested in the case, you're out (Let's ignore for a moment the fact that television detectives never obey the rules and always investigate cases they're emotionally invested in).

When going into a feedback session, make sure your mind is clear and you're not falling prey to unrealistic expectations. Again, setting and adhering to your own standards will help you with this. Listen to every bit of criticism and evaluate its value for your future work.


3. Who your critic is

Depending on who your critic is, you may be more or less inclined to see it as a helpful suggestion, or an attack. Personally, I know I struggle with constructive criticism from my parents, because my inner child feels entitled to their unconditional approval.

But we all know that it doesn't take a person we consider an authority to crush our self-esteem with criticism: Even the mumbled words of a complete stranger or the raised eyebrow of a collegue you've never talked to before can be enough to sow the seeds of doubt and feelings of failure. In these situations, ask yourself whether your critic is qualified to give you feedback.

If you're a Yoga teacher, and a student gives you negative feedback, before you take it to heart, find out who they are - have they been coming to your classes for some time and know your style of teaching? Might it simply be a case of you not meeting their personal preference? Do they have experience practicing Yoga? Have they been to other teachers and find you lacking in some key teacher qualities? Or have they never practiced Yoga before ?

Also bear in mind that one person's opinion never gives you the whole picture. As Mariel Witmond, a dear friend and brilliant Yoga teacher (mindfulsonder on Instagram) explained to me in a conversation last week, even if 99% of feedback is great, we tend to focus on that 1% of students that weren't happy. But remember that pleasing that 1% comes at the price of your individuality. When choosing your critics, look for a variety of qualified people who represent your target audience.

Of yourse, your critic may also be yourself. The problem about the inner critic is that he is hardly ever objective. Instead of helpfully pointing out aspects to be improved, he tends to inflate your mistakes so much that they deflate your confidence. Your inner critic can't give you any guidance on how to move forward, because all he knows is what you know. When you sense your inner critic holding you back, it's a good idea to ask another person for feedback - again making sure to ask a qualified person.


Lastly, as we are nearing the end of 2020, I encourage you to take some time to give yourself constructive feedback for this year:

  • What progress have you made?

  • Which mistakes have you made?

  • Whom have you helped?

  • Who have you hurt?

  • Which habits do you want to leave behind?

  • Which habits do you want to keep?

I will take the chirstmas holidays to work through this list. Remember, there's no need to put yourself down for mistakes you've made. Quoting Mariel, the only important thing is that you "face it until you make it."


Elisabeth xx

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