During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was both greatly respected and greatly reviled. Blamed for causing the nation to plunge into civil war, he became the President people loved to hate. Those who opposed his views regarding the war and slavery as well as his efforts to keep the nation united were vocal and uninhibited in denouncing him.
On one occasion during the darkest days of his presidency, Lincoln was walking down a street near the Capitol in Washington, DC when an acquaintance caught up with him. While walking along with the President, the man brought up the subject of the growing anti-Lincoln sentiment flowing in Washington and throughout the states at the time. With brutal honesty, the man related to Lincoln many of the stories outlining attacks on Lincoln and his policies. As the man spoke, Lincoln remained completely silent and absorbed in his own thoughts. Finally, the exasperated man asked: “Mr. Lincoln, have you heard me? Are you listening to me?”
Lincoln stopped, looked directly at him and spoke for the first time, “Yes, I have heard you, but let me tell you a story. You know, during the time of the full moon, it is the habit of all the dogs to come out at night and bark and bark and bark at the moon. This keeps on as long as the moon is clearly visible in the sky.” Then he stopped speaking and continued his walk.
Confused by Lincoln’s response, his companion shouted back, “Mr. Lincoln, you haven’t finished your story. Tell me the rest of it!” Once again Lincoln stopped walking, looking at the man and said, “There is nothing more to tell. The moon keeps right on shining.”
President Lincoln is a good role model for managing criticism. Although he was aware of his shortcomings and knew that many highly respected and influential people disagreed with him, the President could tune out the negativity, and follow his own intuitive sense that his policies would eventually win over critics and unify the country. One of the challenging realities of daily life is the fact that there are always people around us who are faultfinders, people who seldom see the good but are quick to point out the negative. Like Lincoln, we all need to find ways of hearing our critics without being distracted or destroyed by their opinions. Here are several suggestions for dealing creatively with criticism.
Do not be intimidated by criticism.
The fear of criticism is a greater threat than the criticism itself. People who are intimidated by their critics live timid, hesitant and invisible lives. The writer Elbert Hubbard observed, “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” Cowering in the face of criticism always produces a negative impact upon life. Fear of criticism can affect you in ways both trivial and serious,” notes Napoleon Hill in his book, Keys to Success. “It can lead you to buy the latest fashions, the fanciest cars, the most sophisticated stereo audio systems because you fear being left behind the times, out of step with what ‘everyone’ is doing. More insidiously, it can prevent you from presenting and acting on ideas that are revolutionary, ideas that would give you independence. It robs you of your individuality and your faith in yourself.”
Although the fear of criticism is a common one, face the fear with courage and conviction. Remind yourself that you can feel the fear and still move forward. By refusing to be intimidated by critics, you rob them of their power to sap your initiative and creativity. As you move forward, opposing voices will shrink and shrivel in the presence of your determination.
Move from being emotionally fragile to emotionally resilient.
Some people let themselves become far too delicate emotionally and, as a result, are extremely vulnerable to criticism of any kind. The antidote is to work at building emotional muscles so that you are stronger, more confident and less influenced by the opinions of other people.
One effective way of moving from being an emotionally fragile person to one who is more emotionally resilient is to create an affirmation for yourself. This is a technique recommended by Psychologist David J. Lieberman. author of Instant Analysis, recommends the following technique: “First, write a statement of how you feel about yourself in terms of how others see you. For example, ‘It’s important for me to be approved of by other people.’ Then write the antidote–not an opposite, but a statement of how someone who has a healthy attitude about the opinions of others would view himself or herself. One antidote for the above statement is, ‘Other people’s opinions of me are not as important as my opinion of myself.’ Put this statement in a place where you can’t avoid looking at it at least three times a day. When you see it, read it aloud to reinforce it and empower you to believe it.”
Try to view a criticism as an indirect compliment.
The philosopher Schopenhauer once observed that “vulgar people take huge delight in the faults and follies of great men.” By that, Schopenhauer meant that those who are trying to make things better, taking a stand for justice, and improving their society will always become the targets of critics. Criticism can be viewed as an indirect compliment because it means that others are noticing you and your involvement. Minister and author Norman Vincent Peale notes, “If your life has any vitality at all, if you are determined to get things done, you are going to encounter hostility and opposition.”
When you come under attack, remind yourself that the criticisms are actually compliments in disguise. Anytime you are providing leadership and engaged in making your home, your company, or your neighborhood a better place, there will be criticism. Expect it and don’t be devastated by it.
Look for wisdom in criticism.
While many criticisms that come our way are unwarranted and unjustified, some feedback is not mere faultfinding but “friendly advice.” Train your mind and spirit to sift out critical remarks that are simple nonsense from those which contain wisdom. When asked about criticisms frequently hurled at her, Eleanor Roosevelt replied, “Criticism makes very little dent upon me, unless I think there is some real justification and something should be done.”
Responding positively to the wisdom in a critical comment can make us better people as well as enhance a career. Author Arthur Gordon tells of standing in a long line at an airport early one morning. Due to inclement weather, flights were delayed and canceled. Ahead of him in the line was an irate passenger. His plane had been stacked up over the airport for an hour. In addition, the airline customer service personnel ran out of coffee and he was furious. In a loud, angry voice, the man was berating the person behind the counter. The airline agent remained patient and polite, frequently apologizing for the delay and inconvenience. In spite of his attempt to defuse the matter, the passenger continued to vent his anger.
Finally, an elderly woman also standing in the line made her way to the angry passenger and gently tapped him on the shoulder. “Do you mind if I say something to you,” she said gently. The passenger turned, looking surprised.
“Sir,” the woman explained, “you have just traveled across an entire continent in five or six hours. You were lifted above the clouds and drawn here through the skies where you saw the dawn rushing to meet you. You have just experienced a miracle that mankind could only dream about for thousands of years. And you stand there complaining about having no coffee!”
There was a long pause. Finally, the passenger replied quietly, “Madam, you are quite right. Thanks for setting me straight. It will be a long time before I forget what you just said.”
Follow the lead of American presidents.
Among the most criticized people in the world are United States’ presidents. Yet, they continue to lead, create policy and generally be at peace with themselves. When criticized, take comfort and guidance from the attitudes of some American presidents. For instance, Ronald Reagan once explained, “I don’t pay much attention to critics. The world is divide into two kinds of people: those who can, and those who criticize.” Or consider these words from Theodore Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again . . . who knows the greater enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
*”Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and freelance journalist, has authored many articles and several books, including Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds and Healing Grief. Victor and his wife live in Tulsa, OK.