Criticism, Critical Thinking, and Love


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One of the running themes throughout all of my blogs and many blog posts has been encouraging anyone who reads or strays across these posts and pages to try and lead as examined and reflective a life as possible. If I could give people—the world at large—my own children, one piece of advice, it would be this: Learn how to think. Learn how to think critically. Developing one’s own capacity to think better, more clearly, and more deeply, more critically, will do wonders for one’s level of inner peace. It will go a long way in freeing a person from the tyranny of others’ opinions and the emotions that are roused by their opinions. If you learn how to think clearly and coherently, you will depend less and less on the opinions of others and more on the opinion of yourself.

Paradoxically, you will also begin valuing the feedback or viewpoint of others more and more. Especially when that feedback is honest and insightful. Which means you will begin valuing criticism—especially constructive criticism.
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The only way to determine (decide) whether criticism is true or untrue, justified or unjustified / unfair / ignorant, is by *thinking* about it, and not by reacting to it emotionally (out of pride / ego).

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Others do provide a reflection or mirroring of us. We all have our blind spots, parts of ourselves we do not see or that we’re not aware of.  If we go to the extreme of relying solely on our own opinion, we can fall prey to grossly overestimating ourselves or deluding ourselves. Part of leading an examined life means not just defensively dismissing other peoples’ opinions, but metabolizing them legitimately. Most people are not leading very examined (or honest) lives. Most people are leading lives of quiet desperation—lives ruled by denial & repression—forms of inner dishonesty. Most people are not leading lives where they’re fiercely dedicated to truth and reality and growing as a person at all cost or at nearly any cost. Most people prefer the comfort, including the comfort of a plausible enough lie over the sting of a truth. Most people prefer the path of least resistance. They don’t want to have to think (“It’s like you expect me to be a god or something. I don’t want to have to think all the goddamn time. I didn’t come here to have my life be made harder; I came here to have it made easier!” [read pg. 303 of “The Road Less Traveled”]). And so because of all of this, most people’s feedback tends to be fairly dishonest. Not completely dishonest—or at least not always. But a muddled mix of some parts honesty, some parts dishonesty, some parts accurate, some parts egocentric and slanted and biased. Most of us are not surrounded by (or have not surrounded ourselves with) accurate mirrors. Most of us live in a funhouse, surround by warped mirrors who show us very distorted reflections of ourselves.

And the only real defense we have under such conditions is to learn how to think more clearly and accurately.

But there are other—and easier—and illegitimate—alternatives available.
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When we don’t really know how to think for ourselves, other people’s opinions / mirroring holds a lot more sway / importance than it ought. And so one of the ways of trying to deal with this is to crusade for nonjudgmentalness / acceptance, become a people-pleaser / accommodater, and try in that way to curry favor, pander, and get people to think and speak well of you, validate you, flatter you, say nice things about you, and not say (or think) unkind, mean, or critical / judgmental things about you. (Good luck.)

The other way of trying to deal with this is to go to the other extreme and just not care at all about other’s opinions. (Another form of dishonesty—all or nothing thinking; throwing the baby out with the bathwater; letting one bad apple spoil the bunch.)

Or, what most people do, try some mix of the two—seek flattery and validation. And when the opposite comes, wall it out, deal with it emotionally and egocentrically and illegitimately, or counter it by trying to find someone who will say something nice about you.
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In-the-choice-between-changing-ones-mind-and-proving-there's-no-need-to-do-so,-most-people-get-busy-on-the-proof-2

Faced with the choice between really listening to something we don’t want to hear or face about ourselves, or proving there’s no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

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But either way, don’t think about it honestly, and don’t deal with it legitimately,

This is the way the vast majority of people go through life. And it’s why they’re “blind”: the refusal (mostly, the inability sometimes) to think in a way that is honest, less biased, more objective, more dedicated to reality and truth and virtue.
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One of the things that defines (and hence separates / differentiates) us is our attitude toward criticism. Some (few) people seek it, value it, thrive on it, want honest and constructive feedback and reality checks. It’s a sign of a healthy organism and of healthy ego development (or healthy psychological development). A healthy and growth-oriented person can deal with criticism; his or her map of reality is open to challenge, and it is through challenges to one’s map that growth and refinement occurs.

Other people—the vast majority—however, shrink from criticism (almost irrespective of its form, even if it’s delivered honestly and objectively). Instead they seek validation, support, affirmation, flattery, a kind (even if it’s completely untrue) word, acceptance, nonjudgmentalness—unless of course that judgmentalness is kind and positive validating and ego-bolstering / soothing / inflating and makes them feel good. If the feedback makes them feel good, then it must be true (or so goes their reasoning), and if it makes them feel bad, irrespective of how truthful or not it is or may be—because this is never investigated or examined—it is dismissed (along with the other person) as being judgmental, cold, mean-spirited, unkind, the product of an a-hole, et cetera. (Paradoxically, people who claim to be nonjudgmental and tolerant tend to be very, very judgmental and intolerant of anyone who they deem not to be nonjudgmental and tolerant.)
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People who purport to be nonjudgmental and accepting / tolerant tend to be very, very intolerant, judgmental, and non-accepting of people who are critical and or critical thinkers.

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Parting question / point to ponder . . .

What if our capacity to be loved and to love deeply (and in a way that is oriented towards growth) depends on our capacity to deal honestly / legitimately with criticism and contrary opinions, instead of trying to deal with them illegitimately, defensively, and emotionally (out of ego / pride)?

What if Love isn’t just about “acceptance” and validation, but it’s also about truth, growth, reality checks, not living in denial, becoming more dedicated to reality and growing up emotionally and psychologically?

What if Love requires some of both—criticism and acceptance, truth and comfort, rejection and support?
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Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Denial, John Kenneth Galbraith, M. Scott Peck, Matthew 7: 1-6, Mature Love, Mental Health, Real Love, Spiritual Growth, The Examined Life, Truth, Winston Churchill and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Criticism, Critical Thinking, and Love

  1. Very well thought out and reflective post, as always. I love the Hubbard quote. It about sums it all up

  2. You cover lots of ground here John…it will take some time for it all to sink in. Intuitively it feels bang on. Thanks.
    Jonathan

    • John says:

      Hello Jonathan,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. And that my post has prompted you to reflect and think is high praise indeed! That is the aim of much of what I write — to provoke thought and reflection and deepen understanding.

      Kindest regards to you, Jonathan, and I hope you and yours had a very Merry Christmas and that your 2013 is off to a great start!

      John

  3. hiddinsight says:

    Such a great post. I love the way you encourage balance in our thinking.

    • John says:

      Thank you, Hiddinsight, for reading and for commenting — and for getting it! It is soooo much about balance–balance between head and heart, between thinking and feeling. Good on you for getting the deeper current of these posts.

      Warmest regards, and I hope you and yours had a very Merry Christmas and that 2013 is off to a great start for you!

      John

      • hiddinsight says:

        Absolutely, and thanks! We are all doing great over here. There has been so much great stuff to read lately, that I haven’t been able to post, but I’m working on another “draft” soon, so maybe…

        • John says:

          Awesome. I look forward to reading your next post. Writing is such a great way to clarify things for ourselves and to internalize things even more. (At least that has been my experience!)

          Kindest regards,

          John

  4. biologymad says:

    Good post :). I’m not very good at handling criticism initially; I do get upset easily (I tend to go quiet when that happens). But once I calm down, I do tend to take it own board. I’m wondering if you have some tips on handling criticism in an assertive way as it happens. When I complete my PhD, I’ll do a viva, where I have to discuss my project & deal with any criticisms that arise. So I’m gonna have to find a balance between taking criticism on board & defending/proving myself. I’ll need to stop going quiet in the face of criticism, but to explain myself intelligently & assertively. Any advice?

    • John says:

      Hello Bekka,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting and for thinking! 🙂

      As for how to better deal with criticism in general, read philosophy–Plato, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill (“On Liberty”), Emerson, Thoreau, Schopenhauer (these were all critical thinkers) — and perhaps read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled.” A lot of learning how to deal better with criticism involves exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations. So join a Toastmasters, stand in elevators with your back to the door, do stuff that helps get you acclimated to having people stare at you or give you a look of scrutiny. Also, volunteer with Hospice — that’s just great advice in general. It gives companionship to the dying, but it also helps give the living perspective, to not sweat the small stuff so much. And practice, practice, practice giving your discussion and seek as much feedback on it from knowledgeable others — cross-examine yourself and your project fiercely, ruthlessly.

      Warmest regards, Bekka, and thanks again for reading and commenting!

      John

  5. vishal says:

    Very well written article sir!

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