Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How to Handle Criticism

A Case Study on Self-Esteem

It can be brutally painful to accept criticism.  Sometimes it can feel shaming.  Doubts creep up.  Self-confidence crumbles with every stone thrown.  The perfectionist wilts and wallows.
I try to keep in mind that critiques and criticisms are merely opinions.  Everyone has their personal preferences and ideas of how something should be.  These notions tend to differ from one person to the next.  Not only are opinions not gospel, solid truth, but one’s opinions are also ever-evolving.  How much stock can we truly place in an opinion or criticism?

Well, that depends on me--the recipient of the criticism. 

In a hypothetical example, my client "Sally" tells me she hates my massage and is never returning.  I have the option to feel bad about myself.  I also have the option to probe for more details and evaluate her comment on my own terms.  I ask Sally what, specifically, did she dislike or that I could have done better.  Sally rattles off a list: “The lights were too bright; the room too cold; your pressure too light; your carpet too old; and you didn’t use hot stones.”  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist rhyming.)

As I assess her comments then, I can determine on a case-by-case basis what is “real” for me.   If I resonate with the feedback--if it feels “true” for me--I then determine if making modifications to my environment or technique is in alignment with my goals and who I am. 

I may find it very useful to note that Sally--and perhaps other clients who may be shier about speaking their mind--found the lighting harsh and the room chilly.  Since I strive to provide a comfortable and relaxing setting for my clients to enjoy their massage, I may give strong consideration to installing a room heater or table warmer, purchasing softer lamps, or offering an eye pillow to the client.  I may choose, however, to forgo installing dimmers on the overhead lights if that is outside my budget. 

I may consider checking in more frequently with the client and encouraging honest feedback about the pressure.  If, however, I felt I had adequately done so with Sally, and I was working as deeply as I could at the time and simply had no more strength to give, or felt that more pressure would be contraindicated, I would chalk up Sally’s pressure preference as merely preference (or even, perhaps, miseducation, as deeper is not always “better”).  After all, I gave her my best and that is all one can do.  If I injure myself attempting to please this one particular client, I may not be capable of treating all the other clients who do benefit from my massage.  If I had injured Sally by working too deeply, I can imagine I’d feel a whole lot worse.  So after assessing this comment and arriving at these conclusions, I would dismiss this particular criticism.  If my pressure does not meet her expectations, then Sally may simply not be the right client for me.

Likewise, unless I have it in the budget to replace my carpet, and wish to deal with the landlord about it, I will probably choose to ignore that comment as well and focus instead on the myriad compliments from other clients regarding my decorating skills.  I find it really important to remember all the positive comments I have received in the past.  It can really help pull me out of a self-doubting funk.  When I can’t think of positive things I have accomplished because said funk is clouding my thoughts, I turn to friends and loved ones and ask them to remind me about my positive qualities and accomplishments.  (Somehow they always seem to be able to recall more than I.)

Lastly, I assess the upset Sally had about not incorporating hot stones into my therapy.  I made the decision long ago that--even though I am certified in Hot Stone Therapy--I would no longer utilize hot rocks in my practice.  The number one insurance claim filed against massage therapists is for burns incurred during Hot Stone sessions.  The safety of my clients (and for myself) is my number one priority.  Because I am not comfortable compromising on that priority, I have made a conscious choice to remove Hot Stone Therapy from my menu of services.  I am firm on this, so I can easily let Sally’s comment go. 

Accepting or declining criticism requires a healthy self-esteem.  I identify self-esteem as knowing who I am, what I want, and what I am or am not willing to do to get it--all the while remaining comfortable with myself and the decisions I make.  Self-esteem is about loving myself and feeling good about the direction I’m heading.  When my actions are in alignment with my ethics, values, and principles; when I am clear on what I am willing to change about myself and what I will not; and when I am true to myself, I am exhibiting healthy self-esteem.  This puts me in a balanced position where I am capable of assessing feedback and judging for myself whether or not its incorporation into my life or practice would be valuable and in line with my personal truth and mission.  When I cannot do this, it is usually because it has touched on an aspect of myself or area in my life where I am low on self-esteem or am experiencing toxic shame.

In her blog (www.juliesheart.com/blog), my friend and educator, Julie Newendorp, further defines “self-esteem” as “a feeling of being a valuable and worthwhile person,” while toxic shame is the polar opposite feeling.

Newendorp shares how we can turn our thoughts of shame or self-disappointment into the more empowering and productive self-esteem:
In order to shift from toxic shame to good self-esteem, we need to recognize what the internal messages are that are feeding the shame.  Notice what makes us feel embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed.  People who were shamed [as children] may become perfectionists because if they do everything perfectly, then they won’t be shamed again.  The antidote for toxic shame is to stop these thoughts and replace them with statements that reflect self-worth:  “I am OK.”  “I am valuable.”   “Everyone makes mistakes.”  “I am good enough.”  “I am kind and lovable.”  It is also important to appreciate yourself and to acknowledge something you have done well.  Think of at least three things you are grateful for each day.
When we have a healthy sense of self and self-worth, we can be much more open to criticism from others.  In fact, it becomes much easier to consider the comments more as “feedback” than “criticism.”  That is, we can take the feedback to heart in a constructive fashion and see it as something potentially beneficial for us.  In order for it to be truly worthwhile, however, we need to be in a place of objectivity and self-knowing.  The intention is not to change who we are at the core simply because someone tells us they don’t like something about us.  Instead, it is to accept comments from others as a way to take stock of who we are, assess our progress marks toward our goals, improve where we choose to improve, and ignore what doesn’t truly serve us.  When we can do this, we are being examples of good self-esteem. 

And, as Julie puts it: “The more people who have good self-esteem [...], the healthier our society will be.  By having a strong sense of self, becoming more aware of others' feelings and interacting in a compassionate way, we can bring a sense of connection to our world.”

Suzanna Young, LMT is a State-certified, licensed massage therapist 
and owner of Take 5 Bodywork in Santa Barbara, California.

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