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Who Has Earned the Right to Give You Criticism?

I don’t have to tell you that being a human is really, really challenging. Becoming an adult is often described as one of the saddest things we do (which is ironically one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard). In many respects, I understand why. There are many reasons why being a functioning adult is really hard: learning how to go to work all day, every day for weeks, months, and years on end; figuring out how to have a (mostly) happy and fulfilling relationship that lasts; tackling the enormous prospect of parenting in a way that doesn’t screw your kids or pets up. This is just the beginning of an enormous list. It all can be extremely overwhelming to bear!

The most beautiful wisdom I heard this last year sounded something like this,

“If you have been truly and deeply loved, you will change. If you say you are loved and are not changed over the next few years, you haven’t been loved.”

Those are striking words. I remember hearing them and anxiously reflecting back over the last couple years, wondering if I’ve 'changed' in the way the speaker described. I’m relieved to say that I have. I’m pained to say that it has happened because of excruciating feedback loved ones have given to me.

That’s the wildest thing about love: it tells the truth. And yet, our culture has coined this terrible phrase, “tough love”, as a refined way of saying, “inappropriately critical”. Love is gentle and kind. It’s somehow also ferocious and untamed. Love beckons us to move. It beckons us to grow. It beckons us to change.

It’s in this space of feeling and being utterly loved that we need to receive criticism (I tend to prefer the term feedback but will use them interchangeably here). I’ve lived years of my life terrified of criticism, yet constantly asking for it. It was basically an act of self-sabotage, baiting individuals “to give it to me straight”, which was just code for, “I think - and am fearful - that you hate me because I am terrified that I am truthfully worthless”. When feedback came, it was another whip to my back, confirming how terrible I was. This did not encourage growth. This encouraged me to wither up into a ball and just survive.

"Tough love" is often inappropriately critical and encourages us to hide from truly helpful, healing criticism that beckons us to live a more fulfilling life.

After years of living in this crouched, scared posture, I tasted love. From both myself and others. As I felt accepted and cherished, I became strengthened. My skin thickened. And then I grew this capacity to care how I was treating others. I asked for feedback, but from a different posture. Rather than, “Give it to me straight”, it became, “How does my behavior impact you?” It became, “I feel weird about this interaction. What went wrong?” And I was able to tolerate it with more and more ease.

Let me say though that receiving criticism is still not easy. I’ve found over the last years, as I have softened to those in my tribe, I’ve had to become very protective over who is allowed to provide feedback for my tender heart. As my reach has grown, those who try to speak into my life have increased. So I made a list. I wrote down a lineup of individuals in my friend group, individuals whom I look up to (directly known and indirectly followed through social media, books, podcasts, etc.), individuals whom I work with, and individuals in my family who are allowed to provide feedback (without my prompting) to me.

Furthermore, I strove to include on that list individuals of color and culture who I may not even know yet personally. In my strengthening that I described above, I have grown to have the capacity and curiosity to know how I impact individuals from other communities. As you strengthen your ability to receive criticism, is there space for you to consider which people groups you need to hear from for your own growth and the betterment of our society?

Having a list of those who can give me feedback inadvertently means that I have a second list of individuals who are prohibited from speaking into my world. It’s a smaller list, but one that I keep close to remember who is and isn’t allowed to tell me how to become a better person. This small list of people are simply ones who are living a different kind of “better”. They’re pursuing lives that I am not able to or interested in pursuing. As a result, their feedback is unhelpful. For example, I want to continue to remain soft to the plight of the world and to the struggles in my own life. I don’t want to engage with someone who regularly diminishes my tenderness or says, “toughen up”. I can't afford to spend my limited energy with someone who is consciously (or unconsciously) pushing towards a life I have no desire in leading.

Do you know your list? To make an accurate one, you have to have some idea where you’re headed. Do you know where you want to go in this life? Is there anyone whom you look up to or want to be more like as you age? If you have any idea, surround yourself with people who you think have the same general path in their heads too. This is not a place to land per se, but it’s a good place to start. If you feel able, make a mental note of 2-3 people on each side of the list: those who are allowed/invited/encouraged to speak into your life, and those who are not invited to tell you what you need to change. Who comes to mind may surprise you.


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