No one escapes criticism. All of us have experienced the hurt — ranging from slightly offensive to soul-crushing — when someone says something negative about us.
Sadly, we often take that criticism and allow it to define us. We let someone else’s judgment intimidate us and hold us back, becoming enslaved to a version of ourselves that we are not.
The truth is, we don’t have to give others the power to define us. We can turn criticism into affirmation by using it to identify our positive God-given characteristics.
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Why Criticism Hurts so Much
Criticism affects us so deeply because it usually strikes at the core of who we are and attacks characteristics that define us.
Those who are most critical of others are often those who were also hurt and have remained stuck in that pain. We’ve all likely heard the phrase, “hurt people hurt people,” and we see that played out time and time again.
These critics often don’t realize that their own hurt is driving them to hurt others. They are only focused on their pain. Somewhere along the line, they came to believe satan’s lie that if they put others down, it will make themselves feel better. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Think about your worst critic. It may be a boss or co-worker. It could be a family member — a parent, sibling, or spouse. Maybe it’s a friend or neighbor or someone in your church. Step back from your hurt and look at them as objectively as possible — not as your critic, but as a person who is misguided in their attempts to hide from their own pain.
Next, reflect on the criticism itself. What parts of you does it attack? Could it be that the reason it hurts so much is because it attacks a core characteristic of who you are, turning your identity as God created you into something negative?
Use Criticism to Help Identify Your Positive Characteristics
Here’s the good news: we can use others’ negative judgments to identify our positive characteristics.
Let me tell you a story from my childhood:
As a child, I loved to ask questions. Yes, I know, most children go through a “why” stage. But my question-asking stage never ended. I remember asking question after question, and any answer I received only fed my curiosity and caused me to have even more questions. Rarely was I satisfied with only the initial answer. I wanted to know all there was to know and get to the core of everything.
Unfortunately I was teased unmercifully about this by a peer, many times in ways that were condescending. My parents, on the other hand, patiently answered my questions as well as they could. I don’t remember once that they responded in annoyance or rebuke.
But here’s the thing: we often allow one person, usually our worst critic, to define who we are. It doesn’t matter who or how many others are saying something different — our tendency is to allow the critic to have the final say.
For many years, I tried to curb my tendency to ask questions. I allowed that identify that I “ask too many questions” to hold me back from being who God created me.
Thankfully, that identity didn’t stick. As I matured, I came to recognize that characteristic as a positive one — certainly one to curb in some situations, but mostly one to nurture and use to its full advantage. God created me to ask questions so I can drill down to the heart of the matter, whether I’m studying the Bible, researching a topic, coaching others, or finding solutions in many different situations.
A few years ago, I took the Kolbe A Index which measures our instinctive way of doing things — our MO (mode of operation). I scored very high as a Fact Finder. It was another affirmation to me that my instinctive nature to ask questions is an important part of how God has wired me.
Steps for Turning Criticism into Affirmation:
So, how do we identify our positive characteristics from the criticism we’ve received?
First, make a list of all the criticisms that have affected you the most.
The point here isn’t to dredge up old wounds nor to dwell on the negative. Remember, the criticisms that hurt us the most are those which attack our core characteristics. By identifying those criticisms, we can reverse engineer them to identify our positive traits.
Second, next to each criticism, list your positive characteristic that the criticism attacked.
I think you’ll be able to identify these fairly easily. You knew as soon as you heard the words of your critic exactly what part of you they were attacking. One of the reasons a criticism hurts so much is because we fear it’s true. And we fear it’s true because we can identify the characteristic of ourselves that is being attacked. The problem is that our accuser is twisting this positive trait of ours into something negative, and suddenly we fear that something is wrong or broken about us.
For instance, maybe you’ve been told over and over again that you are “too sensitive.” Or that you are “absent-minded” and “never listen.”
In reality, those who are “too” sensitive have the beautiful gift of sensing many things that others can’t. They make the best counselors, teachers, medical personnel, and friends.
Those who are “absent-minded” or “never listen” are often intelligent deep thinkers who have many interests that keep their minds preoccupied.
Third, embrace the positive characteristics you’ve just uncovered as your true identity.
Refuse the negative identity and accept the positive in its place. This may take time, especially if you’ve lived a long time with the negative identity.
Write down the list of positive characteristics and review them often — daily or even multiple times a day. The negative has been reinforced for a long time. The positive will need to be also.
What if the Criticism is True?
None of us is perfect. We don’t always use our strengths in positive ways. Or, we let them go unbridled, as I did as a child with my many questions.
To get the full benefit out of others’ criticism, we must consider if we need to modify how we use the trait our critic attacked.
For instance, if I would continue to ask question after question of every person I converse with, it would be annoying to others and, in many cases, invasive of their privacy. I don’t really need to know everything about everything.
Likewise, if a sensitive person is offended by almost everything others say or do, he is allowing his sensitivity to rule him, rather than using it as a tool to help others and to see aspects others can’t.
If the deep thinker never exercises self-control over her thought life, she will have difficulty being fully present with others and focusing on their interests as well as her own.
Purpose and Beauty from the Ashes of Criticism
The truth is that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 139:13 says that God “created my inmost being,” meaning He put those unique characteristics in us to equip us to fulfill His purpose for us.
The truth is also that we are sinful beings and we sometimes use the strengths God has given us in ways He did not intend. John says in 1 John 1:8-9: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
God is able to turn the ashes of criticism into the beauty of purpose when we:
- Realize that the criticism that targets our positive traits is the kind that deeply wounds us, and that by recognizing this we can use that hurtful criticism to help us identify our God-given traits.
- Recognize when there is an element of truth in the criticism and when we need to adjust how we are implementing the positive characteristics God has given us.
We bring God much glory when we use the many wonderful characteristics He’s equipped us with for fulling His purpose. Don’t let anyone — especially your critics — keep you from using your strengths for His glory!