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It Seems To Me: Dealing with criticism and praise

Posted: Friday, Feb 8th, 2013

I didn’t get a part the first time I auditioned for a college production – at least not at first. A few short weeks before opening night, though, I received a phone call from the director.

“Are you still interested in being in the play?” she asked. When I said I was, she explained, “I have an actor who doesn’t think it’s necessary to come to rehearsals because it’s too late to replace him. He’s wrong. Come to rehearsal tonight and you have the part.”

I was ecstatic. It was a challenge to learn my part, and I didn’t want to let the director or the other actors down, but I feel pretty good about what I accomplished.

When I read the review of my performance, though, I was devastated. The critic for the college newspaper praised the other performers, and referred to me as “the weak link” in the production. Every aspect of my performance was attacked, and it took every ounce of courage I had to drag myself to the second night’s performance.

The director took one look at me, pulled me into her office, and said, “I see you read the review. You do realize it was written by the person you replaced, don’t you?” Then she took her time and helped me rebuild my ego.

The reviews for the second play I was in were much more positive, and when I showed up for that night’s performance, the director leaned over and whispered, “Of course, if you ignore their criticism, you shouldn’t take their praise too seriously either.”

Even though that lesson has stuck with me, I still wrestle with taking both criticism and praise too seriously. Of course, neither should be summarily dismissed – constructive criticism often helps us see areas where we can improve, and sincere praise helps us recognize our self-worth.

But both should be examined. Sometimes the truth of each is hidden among illusions created by the selfishness and insecurities of those offering them. We are criticized because we choose to not live our lives according to the desires of others. At other times, praise is used to manipulate us so others can control us.

For example, I began to realize that when others have called me “selfish,” it’s because I’ve chosen to do what I want to do instead of what they wanted me to do. I nurtured myself and my own needs instead of feeding on their dependence on me.

And sometimes the qualities that are being criticized are the same qualities that we are being praised for.

Several years ago, I made a list of all the things about myself that I felt I needed to change. Then I made a list of all the qualities I liked about myself and wanted to strengthen. There was something about the two lists that bothered me, and I kept going over both of them until it struck me. The things I listed were actually different ways of looking at the same things. I wanted to overcome my tendency to be stubborn, but I wanted to hold on to my strong will. I wanted to overcome my being over-sensitive, but I wanted to hold on to my ability to be affectionate and open.

Eventually I’ve learned that the qualities and weaknesses others see in me are nowhere near as important as those I see in myself. That’s not to say that I never listen to criticism – it still captures my attention and I have to wrestle with it even when I know that it’s not valid.

I find myself wanting to explain, and then I realize that the need to explain is a way of accepting the criticism as though it were valid.

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