August 7, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to Deal with Criticism Using Stoicism
Everyone judges everyone constantly
We constantly judge our world and the people around us. We keep some of our judgments to ourselves, but not always. Although we may not care much how our judgments affect others, we ourselves are often sensitive to other people’s judgment, especially when it is critical of us. How do we deal with other people’s criticism?
If you are like the average person, your first impression will be to reject the criticism or ‘correct’ the other person so they will see you the way you see yourself. Or you may resent the criticism or complexly reject it.
Maybe the criticism is valid
But before dealing with other people’s criticism, we should first understand that the belief that someone criticized us is an ‘impression’, which can be right, wrong, or irrelevant. Remember, when we criticize others we believe we are not criticizing but just telling it the way it is. If someone says that ‘we are always late’ we may see it as a criticism, but when we say it to others when they are late, we believe we are just stating a fact.
So, when we think someone criticizes us, the first thing we need to do is to assess the validity of the impression that the other person is criticizing us. What was said was someone else’s opinion and therefore we don’t need to get upset about it.
When someone provokes you, if you respond with anger or some other negative emotion, your mind is tricked into believing you are being harmed. So it is essential not to respond to impressions impulsively. Take some time before reacting. You will see you are in better control. — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20 (Chuck Chakrapani, The Good Life Handbook, Ch. 20)
We ignore the criticism and simply examine it to see if it is valid. If it is, we can accept it and use it to change our behavior if we see that doing so will be in line with virtuous behavior. No problem here. It can be a valuable input to us.
Maybe the criticism is not valid
Let’s say you have examined your impression objectively and have come to the conclusion that the criticism is not valid. Here are some ways to deal with it.
1. Most people are likely to be wrong
We can start with the idea that other people’s criticism may be an indication that we are on the right path. After all, it is more likely that the majority is often wrong than right.
Human affairs are not so happily ordered that the better things are pleasing to the many; a proof of the worst choice is the crowd.
— Seneca, On the Happy Life, 2.1 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Happiness, Chapter 3)
If we try to get others not to insult us, we may be forced to do things that are not ethical such as flattery, bribery, insincerity, fibbing, and the like.
It takes trickery to cultivate approval. You have to make yourself like them […] If I see you much acclaimed by everyone […] how can I help pitying you? For I know what road one must have taken to gain such popularity.
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 29
2. Insult loses its force unless we are offended by it
Criticism loses its force, unless you are offended or hurt by it.
The success of an insult depends on the sensitivity and the indignation of the victim. — Seneca, On the Happy Life, 2.1 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Happiness, Chapter 3)
People often criticize others to elicit some reaction from them. But if the criticism evokes no response, it loses all its sting.
Stand by a stone and insult it, what response will you get? Likewise, if you listen like a stone, what would the abuser gain by his abuse? — Epictetus, Discourses 1.25.28 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Foundations, Discourse 25)
3. Undeserved contempt deserves contempt
When we don’t defend ourselves against other people’s unjustified criticisms, then it is as though we accept the criticism. But by not defending ourselves we treat contempt with contempt.
If you are despised because you want to be despised and not because you must be despised, you have contempt under control.
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 105
We are calm because we would rather spend our time pursuing excellence or virtue than respond to the criticisms of the ignorant.
You should listen to the insults of the ignorant with equanimity. When you are marching toward virtue, treat contempt with contempt.
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 76M
4. Not giving life to inert criticism
Most unjustified criticisms are inert and lifeless. They gain vitality through our response. When we respond, we grant life to the criticisms and give them the power to affect us. We don’t need to do this.
In the final analysis, if someone criticizes us and if we find that we are not at fault, we can follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice:
Does someone despise me?
That’s their problem. Mine is to ensure that what I do or say does not deserve sneer.
Does someone hate me?
Again, it is their problem. My job is to be friendly and charitable to everyone including those who hate me and show them their mistake.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.13 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 11.13)