Why are some people so resilient? They seem to have the hide of dragons.
Criticism doesn’t wound them. When they stumble over a hurdle they pick themself up and continue racing ahead.
Other people crumple at the slightest expression of disapproval. Critical words tear them like barbs. It can take them days to recover.
Others respond to criticism as if it were a personal attack on their character and adopt a defensive posture. They often lash out in retaliation.
Resilience to the knocks that inevitably accompany our journey through life can be a valuable tool. It’s a bit like carrying a shield to protect yourself, if the road becomes perilous.
People who are resilient are hurt less and recover more quickly if something adverse happens. They are not stung by disapproval or derailed by failure. They see it as part of life and an obstacle to overcome.
Such people are often very successful. Other people’s censure is not seen as an obstacle to their success. Or they take criticism constructively and learn to build from it. They do not take it personally.
But if you find yourself really upset by conflict, let downs or when your work or conduct is criticised, join a sizable club. Criticism – particularly if something is important to you – can really knock your self-esteem.
This is more than just a matter of sensitivity. Sure, some people are naturally wired to be more sensitive than others and are more easily hurt. But it often has a lot to do with security. People who feel happy in themselves and are self-confident can find it easier to face an attack. They accept criticism as helpful. They can bounce back from setbacks at work, in relationships, or the myriad of annoying events in life.
A lack of resilience is particularly common in younger people. At university, lecturers often remark how fragile their students can be. They say they don’t recover swiftly from setbacks, and can be really upset and shaken by criticism of their work or conduct.
Many young people find it hard to cope with rejection, and censure and small knocks can prove excoriating. This may be because, at least compared to their parents and grandparents, they have had relatively little exposure to rejection and criticism growing up and it comes as a shock when, inevitably, it comes along.
Conflict is part of the human experience. Handling conflict well is a skill that can make the passage through life easier.
Learning to put it in context and not to dwell on it is something that comes with experience.
At school, a generation ago it would have been common for pupils to be told off, punished and told their work was rubbish.
“Hopeless”, “sub-standard”, “lazy” and “doomed to fail in life” were phrases that appeared on many a report card. Children were laughed at after being told by their teacher they were “useless little toe rags.”
These days teachers and parents are far less acerbic and excoriating. At one primary school “talking circles” exploring the emotions of all involved is the prescribed solution to bad behaviour in the playground and classroom. Not a firm telling off or detention.
This is not a bad thing, but what it means is that children today are less familiar with criticism and punishment by authority figures than perhaps ever before.
They have just not had a chance throughout their formative years to develop resilience and put criticism in context: either disregarding it or putting it in the ‘must-do-better’ box, that will lead to self-improvement.
Realising that criticism does not amount to a personal attack and is often not very important, in the scheme of things, is the first step to handling it well.
If you are feeling hurt or thrown off balance by a seemingly cruel comment, making a concerted effort to not let it bother you is the first step to building resilience. You need to divest it of its importance. Telling yourself something like “You know what? I don’t care” or “I have no respect for that person – so why should I be bothered by what they say?” can be quite liberating.
Criticism can sometimes be improving and generously meant. Maybe the person delivering it has faith in your abilities and wants you to reach your full potential. Although that notion can be hard to fathom when you feel you have been kicked in the head.
One young journalist took a job in a newsroom on a national paper and was horrified by the level of abuse bosses meted out.
More than once she went home crying, after being dragged across the coals by aggressive editors. But her colleagues who had worked there for years, just shrugged off the attacks. The barbs did not seem to sting them at all.
This was not an ideal environment to work in. But once she had realised that all the barking was not biting, the harsh environment bothered her less.
In time, she found herself immune to the insults flying over her head. She took the grumpy comments on board without rancour, and found – if you discounted the gruff method of delivery – some of them were surprisingly constructive.
Some of their more outrageous outbursts were so melodramatic they were funny.
Besides everyone was on the receiving at some point. It wasn’t personal and just came with the territory.
After a few years, she barely noticed the aggressive atmosphere. She had built resilience, based on a realisation that the insults could not really hurt her.
This was an extreme example. But it demonstrates that resilience is a state of mind that can be acquired.
There are events in life, such as losing a job, a relationship break up or a death in the family, which will knock anyone off balance.
But there are others that need not trouble you very much at all.
Criticism and disapproval does not need to wound you, unless you allow it to. Okay it might sting a little, but if you tell yourself it won’t damage you, you may find it easier to handle.
Ask yourself if the motive of the person dishing out the criticism is benign or malign? Are they trying to be constructive and help you to improve (and perhaps doing it in a cack-handed way?) or are they trying to hurt you?
If the former is the case, well why not consider their remarks and choose whether to accept or reject them – and nothing more?
What they are saying is not a measure of your character. You know yourself best.
If they are being deliberately cruel – ignore them. Why give them the satisfaction of upsetting you? Don’t dwell on what they said. They don’t deserve your time.
Everyone in life faces rejection and censure. It’s how you deal with it that counts.
And remember you are not alone. How many best-selling authors have files full of rejection letters. They were not derailed by it.
If you failed to get a job, well that’s disappointing but don’t be deterred. Few people waltz into a job first time around. It’s the triers who succeed.
Having self-belief is a key ingredient to success. And criticism needn’t dent this. You can handle it.
One last footnote. We all know that criticism can sting. So with this knowledge, it pays to be kind. So if you are delivering a note or a censure – to a colleague, partner or complete stranger – try to do it kindly.
As Plato once said:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”