To be criticised is never pleasant. It is
rarely a good day when we have to read an
unflattering social media post about ourselves,
when we are given harsh feedback on a project
or hear that we are being gossiped about by
However, the question of how much criticism
needs to hurt depends on something which has
nothing to do with the specific attack we
happen to face: how much we happen to like
The degree to which we buckle in the wake
of negative comments reflects how we, deep
down, feel about ourselves. When we carry
within us a sufficient ballast of love, criticism
need never be very much more than niggling.
We can overcome it by dinner time – or at
least the end of the week. We can take on
board with relative good humour that we are
not necessarily loved by everyone, that not
everything we do is perfect and that there
may be one or two outright enemies, who would
prefer us dead – even while most people tolerate
us easily enough. There need be nothing surprising
or terrifying in being doubted by a few others.
But for the more vulnerable ones among us,
there is no option but to experience criticism
as an assault on our very right to exist.
We don’t hear that we are being mildly upbraided
for an aspect of our work; we at once feel
that we are being told to disappear. It isn’t
just one or two people who are mocking us,
the whole world is apparently thinking only
of how ridiculous we are. We will never get
past this moment of negative assessment; the
hatred will never end. It’s a catastrophe.
If criticism from outside proves devastating,
it is because it so readily joins forces with
an infinitely more strident and more aggressive
form of criticism that has long existed inside
of us. We are already struggling so hard to
tolerate ourselves against inner voices that
confidently assert how undeserving, ugly and
devious we are, that there is no room left
for us to take on further reminders of our
awfulness. The key of present criticism has
inserted itself into a lock of historic hatred
- and let loose an unmasterable surge of self-loathing.
When we are suffering, we should remember
that we aren’t exceptionally weak; we almost
certainly had a far worse childhood than the
Once upon a time, we were probably humiliated
and shamed without being soothed, held or
reassured, and this is why we now take current
criticism so much to heart. We don’t know
how to defend ourselves against our enemies
because we have never been deeply appreciated.
We already hate ourselves so much more than
our worst enemies ever will. A part of us
is responding to adult challenges with the
vulnerability of a child who faced disdain
on a scale they couldn’t master. The present
challenge feels like a catastrophe because
catastrophe is precisely what was once endured.
We may not easily be able to stop feeling
unhappy about criticism, but at least we can
change what we feel unhappy about. Our vulnerability
need not be – as we initially, instinctively
think – a sign that we are actively awful.
It is evidence that we were, long ago, denied
the sort of love that we would have needed
in order to remain more steadily and generously
on our own side at moments of difficulty.