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Five Tips for Handling Criticism as a Catholic

My first boss at Catholic Answers, Jan Wakelin, told me during my first week on the job that everything would be different going forward. “You’re a public figure now, Patrick,” she said. I was slow to understand what she meant.

But she was right. In previous career iterations, whether I performed impressively or poorly, very few people found out about it. Hosting a popular live radio show with an international audience is a very different animal.

Every word I say on the air goes out (as of this writing) to 330-plus stations, on Sirius 130, and around the world via the Web. I can’t take my words back, can’t improve their tone or edit their grammar, once they leave my mouth. They’re gone, and they live in the tiny forever of the Internet archive for all the world to observe, judge, love, praise, or hate.

Mercifully, my stack of hate letters is smaller than that of “love letters" from people who enjoy the show and who appreciate the job I do. But detractors are as certain as death and taxes. And often they’re the ones who are really committed to writing in exquisite detail what they think about you. (Typically delivered with no return address, no phone number, no e-mail. They just want to vent.)

I was asked recently about how I handle such criticism. It’s an important thing to ponder, no matter what you do for a living. Handling criticism is like hitting the gym to strengthen a muscle. You get better at it with more reps, more practice. The following simple tips have held me in good stead:

1. Unless your detractor is a rank sadist who just wants to unload on you (these folks do exist), chances are good that the criticism contains a nugget of truth. Ask for the grace to see and admit it, even if (especially if) it’s couched in a needlessly blunt-edged way. You don’t have to agree with every jot and tittle of the criticism in order to benefit from the gist.

It can be tempting to do the baby-bathwater toss without distinguishing valid points from what is simply untrue. Yes, the critic may speak or write in an off-putting tone, or may be flat out wrong about another aspect of your performance, but it’s advisable to listen closely for the uncomfortable part without committing to buying the whole. This makes it easier to respond with a soft answer, which the Bible says “turns away wrath" (Prov. 15:1).

2) Utterly refuse to let the negativity live inside your head. It’s not paying rent, is it? It needs to go as soon as possible. If you’re like me, you’re likely to glide past positive feedback and to ruminate over the negative. Consider this anecdote told about comedian Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm) to Rolling Stone magazine:

One night during his stay [in New York], David went to Yankee Stadium to see a game. His image went up on the big screen as Curb Your Enthusiasm's theme song played over the big speakers. An entire stadium of fans stood and cheered for the hopeless case from Brooklyn. It should have been a life-defining moment, the redemptive final scene in a biopic. But as it turned out—not so much. As David left the stadium, a guy drove by and yelled, "Larry, you suck!" That's literally all he heard.

David spent the ride back from the Bronx obsessing over that moment, running it over and over in his mind. It was as if the other 50,000 people, the ones who loved him, didn’t exist. “Who’s that guy? What was that?” he asked. “Who would do that? Why would you say something like that?"

Writer Jon Acuff calls it critic’s math. It works like this: 1 insult + any number of compliments = 1 insult. Don’t buy into it.

3) Say a quick prayer for your critic. I know. A tough pill to swallow. But Jesus Christ shed his blood for your critic, however vexing he may be to you. And let’s admit it—it’s fun to imagine heaping burning coals upon his head (Romans 12:19; Proverbs 25:22)! We don’t have to “like" him or be his best buddy. But pray for him we must.

4) Bear in mind that the only opinion that really matters is God’s.The one who is “no respecter of persons" (Rom. 2:11) also loves us without limit or condition. (See John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Galatians 2; Ephesians 2:4-5; 1 John 4:7-8, 9-11; Zephaniah 3:17; and 1 Peter 5:6-7 for starters.) So be a little detached. Humility is the truth about ourselves, the “foundation of prayer" as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (CCC 2559). Are we as detached from praise as we are from criticism?

5) Remember that your critic’s “persecution" might be a confirmatory sign of your own fidelity to Christ and his Church. I’m not talking about mediocrity or some other fault. I mean the flak that comes from actually doing or saying something that shows you’re a believing Christian. In the fine print that came with our baptismal certificate, Jesus promised that “the world would hate us as it hated him” (John 15:18). Some critics are simply manifesting the spiritus mundi that is forever opposed to the gospel.

Vehement rejection of that sort can be a sign something is going right.

By Patrick Coffin


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