Most of us mistakenly believe that the labels and judgments we get from other people concern only ourselves. Actually, they reveal a lot about the people who made them.
Criticism is people’s way of hinting at their unresolved feelings and unmet needs. A person who calls you insensitive may be (awkwardly) asking for your affection.
“Well, if that’s what they want,” you may ask, “why don’t they just say so?”
Short answer: because it’s hard. Most of us aren’t in touch with how we feel, and those of us who are don’t always know how to articulate it.
On top of that, saying how we truly feel makes us vulnerable, something we’ve learned to think of as negative. So, instead of admitting we’re sad, scared, frustrated, angry, jealous or disappointed, we talk about how bad other people, and all the things they are doing, are.
With needs, it’s the same story. We weren’t trained to think in terms of needs; instead, we learned to think about what is wrong with other people whenever our needs are not being met. So, if we need peace and quiet to concentrate on our work at the office, for example, we’ll think of anyone who laughs and talks loudly around our desks as rude and obnoxious.
Looking at criticism as a reflection of people’s needs and emotions helps us deal with it more productively. It also makes us more empathetic.
So let’s imagine that a good friend tells you, “You’re the most selfish person I know.”
You may react by:
1) Blaming yourself
“Wow, I must be a really bad friend!”
2) Blaming your friend
“You can’t say that! I’m always doing you favors! YOU’RE the one who’s selfish!”
3) Expressing your own feelings and needs
“I’m really hurt to hear you say that, because I need some acknowledgment for all the times I’ve considered what you wanted, too.”
Blaming yourself makes you feel guilty, ashamed, and depressed —all of which are bad for your self-esteem. Blaming the other person doesn’t help and can end up ruining the relationship. Finally, simply expressing your feelings while ignoring the other person’s won’t improve the situation.
The counter-intuitive, but more proactive way to respond is:
4) Helping the other person express how they feel and what their needs are
“Are you upset because you’d like me to ask you about your preferences more?”
If you want to help the other person and learn something useful in the process, go with #4.