We’ve all experienced it – you think you’re having a friendly conversation with someone and suddenly, bam! They throw in a comment that catches you completely off guard and leaves you feeling hurt; you’ve just been criticised. In the novels by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones calls people who do this ‘jellyfish’ – they’re quick, they’re sharp, and they come out of nowhere to sting you.
It could be over something trivial: “What made you decide to cut your hair like that?” or something that means a lot more to you: “Isn’t it time you found a real job?”. Either way, those stings might linger and eventually make you start to question your decisions and doubt your own judgement.
Maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t really care – you’re a surfer, you’re used to all those pesky jellyfish, they don’t really hurt anyway. Or maybe you’re more like me and you care a whole lot. It takes a pretty thick skin and a level head to let criticism shape you, instead of crumble you.
Most critics will often be heard justifying their cutting words with an aside of, ‘nothing wrong with being honest’ or ‘everyone’s entitled to their opinion’; phrases which neatly excuse them from being accused of hurting anyone. But that’s usually exactly what they are doing, and I for one would like to be able to stop my self-esteem from taking a battering.
I heard some great advice a few years ago by a Christian speaker named David Oliver. He described criticism like a coat: when someone gives it to you, don’t immediately wear it. Hold it up in front of you, go and ask trusted friends what they think of it, try it on for size. If it’s for you – take it on board, wear it. If it’s not – throw it away. And by the way, if it’s one particular person who keeps on piling these coats on you, it’s ok to reconsider whether this person should be in your life at all (hard as that may be in a social-media crazed world…we’ve all hovered over that ‘Unfriend’ button temptingly haven’t we?!)
However, the problem isn’t always the critic.
My husband bakes the most divine cakes and treats. While this is obviously amazing, it does mean that if he ever dares to comment while I’m baking, I go into hyper-defensive mode. He might just be innocently enquiring about the size of mixing bowl I’m using, and suddenly I’m more Gordon Ramsay than Martha Stewart – yelling and ordering him out of the kitchen. And it’s not just with baking – I’m ashamed to admit that I regularly react like this when people try to help me.
Clearly, here, the problem is with me and not with anyone I might perceive to be criticising me. My strong reactions to criticism stem from my own feelings of inadequacy and if I’m not careful, I can end up pushing away the people I really love by constantly fighting against their words of advice. If you can relate to this, how about a good old-fashioned reminder from the Bible that you are not, in fact, inadequate at all: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful” (Psalm 139).
Just remember when you’re out at sea, take a closer look because sometimes it’s easy to see jellyfish everywhere when they’re actually just…fish.