Sensitive to Criticism

Q: My 15-year-old daughter is hypersensitive when it comes to hearing any criticism from family members. I feel like I need to walk on eggshells if I have to suggest that she improve an aspect of her behavior. She generally wants to do the right thing and is proud of her convictions. Yet she falls apart easily, and begins to over-analyze herself mercilessly, when given constructive criticism. She is a girl who is naturally introspective. Perhaps you can give me some ideas to help her accept criticism in a more beneficial, growth-producing manner.

A: The degree of one’s level of sensitivity directly corresponds to one’s sense of being criticized. Insults differ from criticism, and one must learn to differentiate between the two. People may be insulting to others due to anger or jealousy, but there are cases where constructive criticism is given from which we may benefit.

While it is true that in some situations those offering the criticism could be more tactful, the actual content of the suggestions might be worth listening to and one can learn from those words. Even if there is only 10 percent of the truth in the criticism, this 10 percent can be helpful for the problem at hand. However, if only the hurt feelings are dwelt upon, whatever might be learned from another’s observations will be overshadowed by emotion and subjective reaction.

On a more philosophical level, it is beneficial to bear in mind that if you were not meant to be the recipient of these comments, Hashem would not have had this occurrence take place. This does not mean that the criticism must be accepted in total, but one can accept the portion that might be useful in that particular situation.

For example, you meant to help a person, but you inadvertently harmed him instead. Learning from this experience could mean that you need to be clearer in your communication to avoid misunderstandings. A person can also learn from criticism to be more cautious in confiding in others. Confidential information can sometimes be misconstrued by others and come back to you in a most unexpected fashion. There is much to be learned from one’s mistakes.

When criticism directly affects one’s self-esteem, different attitudes need to be stressed. When a person feels that he is under attack, it is helpful for him to remember his good traits. Writing these positive traits down on paper may seem rather simplistic, but it can actually be quite helpful. Thus one can feel, “Perhaps I have limitations, but I do have characteristics that are admirable.”

Ultimately, if someone has internalized the feeling that he has enough “admirable qualities,” accepting criticism becomes less of an issue. In other words, one needs to be “a big enough person to be able to take it,” i.e. have enough positive attributes to fall back on when criticism is given.

Believing in one’s own abilities, and potential abilities, is a Torah-true goal. There are times when one may be criticized for taking a religious stance. Our great leaders who have taken bold stands found that they were not loved by everyone. We know that Moshe Rabbeinu was criticized by Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar and yet he continued to do the will of Hashem. An understanding of the last passuk of Megillas Esther reflects the idea that Mordechai was accepted by the majority of the people (but not the entire population), according to Rashi. Yet neither Moshe Rabbeinu nor Mordechai were deterred from doing the will of Hashem due to the negative reactions of others. The true posek acharon (final decision) is reflected in the leaders of our generation who are steeped in the wells of Torah. Criticism does not deter them from taking a stand to carry out the will of Hashem.

Accustoming oneself to accept mussar can be a humbling experience. One always needs to build up the good within in order to be able to accept criticism intelligently and avoid becoming depressed by it. The ability to integrate constructive criticism and yet affirm one’s essential self-worth is a never-ending struggle for balance, towards which goal all human beings need to work.