How to Handle Unfair Criticism
Guest blogger, Vincentia Schroeter, PhD, is a somatic psychotherapist and the author of Tilt: Seeking Balance in Troubled Times (release date March 19, 2021) and Communication Breakthrough, How Using Brain Science and Listening to Body Cues Can Transform Your Relationships (2018).
An article I read on Facebook during the third month of the pandemic noted that there was a marked increase in suicides in the USA since the COVID-19 quarantine started. The article concluded that the increasing suicide rate justifies ending shelter-in-place orders. This bothered me. As a psychotherapist, I am aware that suicidal impulses demand immediate action to save a life. Therapists say, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” This means that if you can intervene to treat the suicidal person when they are in danger, they often can stabilize. However, you cannot let the fear of the risks of loss of life in one form (suicide) make you throw caution to the wind for the other silent killer in our midst (COVID-19). I decided to respond to the woman who posted the article.
Here was how I responded to the article.
“This (the rising suicides) is distressing; however, it is not an either/or situation. An increase in suicides does not justify ending shelter-in-place… (I advocate for more mental health access) … We are dealing with death either way, suicide or Coronavirus… Both need to be tackled, one by safe distancing, one by access to mental health treatment.”
I was a little taken aback by the responses back to me. Here are some of them.
“What about depression and suicide because of lost business?…therapy won’t cure that… Please don’t be so close-minded.”
“…Also, SIP orders haven’t proven that effective! God bless those trying to live their lives as they see fit. This is definitely an overreach!” (angry face emoji)
“…I could post lots of articles showing how shelter-in-place does not help much… If I talk of a devastated economy, I’ll be accused of thinking money is more important than lives… What about the lives lost from the side effects of the economic shutdown? … Coronavirus…is not as deadly as first feared…look at the big picture…look at the real numbers.”
Being called “close-minded” stung. I also noticed a common thread in the responses to me, statements like “Shelter-in-place orders are not very effective or do not help much”; “Coronavirus is not as deadly as first feared”; “Look at the real numbers…”. The common thread is that these people do not believe the virus is very serious.
These opinions made me think that since these people believed the virus was not that bad, it made sense that they would be more focused on ending the (unuseful) shelter-in-place (SIP). If you believe the virus is not that bad, it makes sense your brain would look for and emphasize problems arising from SIP. This allowed me to understand their point of view better. Though I began to understand their perspective, I still disagreed with their opinion that I am “close-minded”. I had no interest in staying in dialogue with these strangers on Facebook. But what if I was interested in keeping the conversation going? What if this was a roommate, family member, or co-worker who criticized me? What if I valued the relationship enough to try and stay in the arena and keep talking? This made me think about a technique for staying in contact when you feel unjustly criticized.
How can you stay in a dialogue when you feel unjustly criticized? Staying engaged without reacting from a place of anger or hurt can be difficult, but here is a technique you can use.
In Chapter 10 of my book Communication Breakthrough, I share three ways to stay open during conflict. This “Covering Technique” is one way to handle criticism. When falsely accused, you may feel angry and want to fight, or you may feel shame and want to shrink away. Covering helps you hang in there and keep the dialogue going. You can agree one of three ways: agree in part, in probability, or in principle. I want to apply the technique here in my case of being called “close-minded”.
1. Agree in part: “Sometimes I can be close-minded…”
2. Agree in probability: “You may be right, I may be close-minded…”
3. Agree in principle: “It is true, if I believed that Coronavirus is not that deadly, and that quarantine is causing more problems than it solves, I’d be close-minded to not be more open to ending SIP.”
The Covering Technique’s goal is to stay in the arena during conflict and continue the dialogue in a calm way. Why do this? It is a sign of resilience to be able to take criticism and keep listening. When you keep a contentious dialogue going, you may achieve some agreement or at least find some peace with your accuser.
In the case of my being criticized online, I do not have to respond to those posts from strangers and have decided not to because I am not involved personally with these people. You may also choose not to engage with strangers and may see it as a waste of your precious time.
However, I also see my post’s responses as an example of a current, wide, ideological split in this society where what people see as “facts” varies based on what each wants to believe. When we cannot agree on what news is true and what is fake, it is hard to communicate effectively. It is like we are both standing on quicksand. Neither of us can get a foothold when the ground is not stable. Agreed upon facts create a solid foundation, which is in short supply in America these days. I feel sad about how divided we are as a nation and how little we seem to be able to reach across this divide.
Without that common belief in the same facts, what can we do?
Even if we cannot get our heads around the same facts, we can sense the feeling behind the opinions. Everyone seeks safety and security, and it is that need that is our common ground. People are sometimes afraid, worried and frustrated during this crisis. The more distress we feel, the less open-hearted we tend to be, and the more critical we are of others. When you feel unfairly criticized and want to keep the dialogue going, look for something to agree upon. This is at least one way to keep the door open.
To learn more about Vincentia and find links to her books, please visit her website vincentiaschroeterphd.com