Constructive response to destructive criticism

by March 10, 2017

prāyaḥ prakāśatāṁ yāti
malinaḥ sādhu-bādhayā
nāgrasiṣyata ced arkaṁ
ko ‘jñāsyat siṁhikā-sutam

prāyaḥ — usually; prakāśatām — limelight; yāti — attain; malinaḥ — envious; sādhu-bādhayā — by harassing the saintly; nāgrasiṣyata — wouldn’t eclipse; cet — if; arkam — the sun; kaḥ — who; ajñāsyat — would know about; siṁhikā-sutam — Rahu (the son of Simhika)

The only way envious people can bring themselves into limelight is by harassing the saintly. How would anyone ever know about the dark planet Rāhu if it would not perform its regular task of eclipsing the sun?

— Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra, Durjana-nindā,


When we try to do anything worthwhile, some people will criticize us. Critics can help us recognize where our contribution needs improvement. But to be helpful, their criticism needs to be constructive, not destructive.

Constructive criticism affirms the contributing person’s effort and worth; gives specific, actionable points of improvement; and ends on an encouraging note. Destructive criticism, on the other hand, doesn’t just critique the contribution, but also disparages the contributor. It can destroy the contributor’s morale.

Unfortunately, some critics delight in destructive criticism; they criticize not to help others, but to throw their weight around and make their voice heard. They believe that their defining contribution is their criticism of others’ contribution – the more scathing their critique, the more brilliant their contribution. To ensure that their criticism is constructive, critics need to offer criticism with discretion, not let criticism become their default disposition.

The Bhagavad-gita (16.02) states that the godly are characterized by aversion to faultfinding. It doesn’t say that they are blind to faults, but that they don’t delight in finding faults. In contrast, the same Gita (16.04) deems harsh speech as a characteristic of the ungodly.

The Mahabharata tells the story of the demoniac Shishupala whose incorrigible faultfinding extended right up to the Supreme Lord. He knew that he was flirting with self-destruction – if he blasphemed Krishna more than a hundred times in one go, he would die. Yet he wasn’t deterred; he repeatedly launched tirades against Krishna, stopping just before the danger threshold. Eventually, in his self-appointed mission of criticism, he got carried away, overstepped the limit and met his end.

Whereas Shishupala was malicious, our critics may not be. While determining their motives for criticizing us, we can give them the benefit of doubt. Assuming that they desire our good, we can strive to clarify and rectify things. After all, we always have room for improvement – and criticism often spurs us to improve.

But if our critics are not ready to give us a similar benefit of doubt, if they keep going on a campaign of criticism against us and especially if their words sap our morale, then their motive is not as pertinent as their effect on us. We need to protect our enthusiasm by moving away from them, physically or at least emotionally.

After we do honest introspection and sincere rectification where necessary, if we find that our critics still remain critical, then the problem lies not in us, but in them. We need to give up futilely agonizing over questions such as “Why are they criticizing me like this? Why are they making such a big fuss over a tiny fault?” We can improve from others’ faultfinding mentality, but not from their fault-imagining mentality; all we can do is leave them with their imagination.

When responding to those whose only contribution is criticism of others’ contributions, the most constructive response is to imbibe their spirit: Just as they don’t stop making their “contributions,” we too shouldn’t stop making our contributions.

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