Sunday, September 12, 2010



I just finished running a 6-day Scanner's retreat for 15 people in a beautiful medieval village in Tarn, not far from Toulouse. (I won't take time to explain what a Scanner is but you'll find photos and explanations at I love running these retreats. The people, the inns, the food (!) are all heavenly. But today I'd like to share one specific thing that invariably comes up, usually by the second day. It's one of the major obstacles that prevents us from turning dreams into reality: memories and expectations of hurtful criticism. No one criticizes dreams at my retreats. We figure out how to make them come true. But hidden in the back of everyone's mind are memories of critics past and the dread of critics waiting at home who could have the power to take our dreams away.

But they don't call me The Resistance Whisperer for nothing. I'm on a mission to save the dreams of every dreamer I meet. Now our good Anne-Claire at My American Market, () a wonderful newsletter from her Toulousian business that gets me my peanut butter fix whenever I need it) is giving me a chance to save some dreamers I haven't met by sharing one of the simple methods you can use to identify and protect yourself from destructive critics, in all their guises.


You just got a fine idea for an internet business, or came up with a really useful invention or wrote a great letter to some editor, and you rushed to share your enthusiasm with someone you know -- only to get the wind knocked out of your sails. Instead of becoming excited, your friend/boss/partner/brother tossed off your idea as worthless, even ridiculous. Or they did something subtle you can't quite put your finger on, but your delight disappeared and was replaced by uncertainty or defensiveness, or both.

You've just brushed up against a critic.

Now the shine is off your idea and you're wondering if it's any good after all or if you're just a moron. What you might not realize is that this might be exactly what the critic wants you to do. Because certain critics -- the destructive ones -- are a special breed. They're not just meanies. They're up to something.

If you're someone who is curious and inquisitive by nature and takes a child-like joy in discoveries, you're often the target of critics. Chances are good that you're far from stupid (curiosity is a sign of intelligence). Maybe you're not an expert, but you have a good eye for something fresh and you love sensing potential. You might even have plenty of experience and knowledge to back up your discovery, but that's not always protection. Destructive critics are on a mission, and they're never stopped by their own ignorance.

All critics aren't destructive. Some are wonderful.
Sometimes you'll come across a genuinely constructive critic, and that's a person you want in your life. These people know what they're talking about and sincerely believe that your idea has flaws. Hearing that a favorite idea is imperfect is never fun, but these people are willing and able to explain what's wrong with your idea and either offer some solutions or point you in the right direction. This kind of critic can save you endless time and keep you from traveling up one blind alley after another. If you find someone like this, you're very lucky. The other name for a constructive critic is 'Mentor.' Constructive criticism is a treasure.

But even the most venomous critic will insist he's only trying to help. And who knows, maybe he's sincere and you're just being too sensitive. So how do you tell the difference?

Stop being the Fallen Hero and turn into Sherlock Holmes.
First, try to drag yourself out of the role of the Unjustly Injured and take a good look at the critic. Ask yourself some questions, like 'How typical is their behavior? What's behind it?' In other words, instead of being hurt or angry and fantasizing about how rotten they'll feel when you win the Nobel Prize, it's time to start scratching your head and wondering why they just did that mean thing. Nothing else will protect you from random slings and arrows of outrageous critics.

But you'll need some special techniques because belittling someone who's enthusiastic isn't in your bag of tricks. You have no idea why anyone would want to be a destructive critic.

Step One: allow yourself to suspect that a destructive critic is up to something.
Criticizing requires no special expertise but it does require a special kind of motivation. When someone like you runs up to a destructive critic with your face full of excitement, the critic gets very cranky. Of course, some recipients of your fine idea are innocent enough; they really just don't 'get it.' But you can tell the difference between the innocents and someone who wants to see the joy leave your face in a minute: the latter are always angry.

But what did you do to deserve anger? You meant no harm. How can you make sense of this?

Step Two: look at yourself with the critic's eyes.
There's no other way to understand what motivates people who return delight with anger except to try to see what they're seeing. There's always a chance you've been insensitive or unaware of their mood when you bounced into their world full of jolly news. Maybe they just lost money in the stock market or kicked their toe against a door, in which case you might owe them an apology. But that's not who we're talking about. The people we're talking about people are typically putdown artists. Now, why would they be offended by your happiness? What is it you're doing wrong?

To find the answer, change the question to this: What do they see when they look at you? If you can imagine yourself in the position of a destructive critic watching you bubbling over with a childlike delight, the answer usually hits you right between the eyes: he won't give you the credit you're hoping for because, plain and simple, he doesn't want to. It has nothing to do with the quality of your idea. It has everything to do with his resentment.

Here's how one encyclopedia defines anger: 'Anger is a feeling related to one's perception of having been offended/wronged and a tendency to undo that wrongdoing by retaliation.' That is to say, you had no way of knowing it, but you just offended someone. But why would it offend anyone to see you enthusiastic? After all, you're not kicking his dog or slashing her tires. What's going on?

Because we pick up subtle clues, we know people better than we realize. You can get some amazing insights with this simple exercise:

Discovering a hidden drama
You're going to write a short dialogue between two people. Pick up a pen and on the top line of a blank sheet of paper write your name and after it, start writing down your discovery. Enjoy yourself. Write about your new great idea as if you were a kid. When you're done, move to the next line and write 'Critic:' See if you can become this angry critic and write down your reaction to the first lines of the drama. Then be yourself again, and answer the critic with your typical defense.

If you can keep up the dialogue for a few rounds you'll start to understand the critic's motives better than you ever imagined you could. More often than not, you'll see that you walked into a drama that has nothing to do with you -- but the critic believes it does. He feels wronged and has you mixed up with the culprit who wronged him. Often the critic is jealous. You might have a hard time believing that, because jealous people see you in a way you never see yourself. Sometimes, the critic wants the attention you're unwittingly demanding when you say 'Look at what I found!!' You might understand the critic's viewpoint in a flash. Or you might never know what set the critic off. All the same, looking for the motive behind the blow a critic dealt you is always useful.

What will all this get you?
Even if you don't figure out what made a critic do a really mean thing, you've shifted the attention to the right place. Instead of feeling uncertain, foolish or injured, noticing the oddness of a critic's behavior means you're acting like someone with very high self-esteem. People who keep their self-esteem continue to value their ideas even if a critic has tried to trash them because they sense the critic's anger and protect themselves. That means that by focusing your attention on what the critic is really doing, you might have just saved a really good idea. Too many quality ideas have been thrown into the trash for no good reason at all, just because their inventor got caught in the sights of a critic.

For that matter, a critic who is mean day after day can actually make you sick if you don't protect yourself. So how do you protect yourself?

Summary and Solution:
Good critic or bad critic, you should try hard to respond in the same way: put aside your sensitivity and try to replace it with curiosity. Instead of 'Ouch!' or 'No fair!' try thinking, 'What is this guy doing? And why?' With that in your mind, you'll be safe when you ask a critic the right questions. They're simple enough: ask them, without attitude, what they think is wrong with it, and what they suggest you do instead.

The results can be amazing. Often the critic is exposed: he has no idea what's wrong with it, and no suggestions for what you might do instead. You'll just get a lot of bluster and the critic will know he's been exposed. But even if someone manages to come up with some disdainful answers, all you have to do is nod with interest, even write them down. (That always gets a satisfying reaction. Try it and you'll see.) In any event, you're running the exchange, you're watching them, and your enthusiasm won't be dampened, just put aside and protected for a little while. If someone really tries to sabotage your enthusiasm when you're alert, they'll be disappointed when you stay cheerful. (Disappointing bad guys feels really good.)

Even if the critic turns out to be one of the truly constructive ones, curiosity is called for. You might get some great help launching your idea. In any event, defensiveness would be the wrong move entirely. You never want to make a good guy work too hard when they're of a mind to help you.

Don't be shy about asking the critic, helpful or destructive, aways with respect and curiosity, 'How do you know that?' If your critic is a deflator, he'll give a stupid answer and walk off in a huff. But if you've found a truly knowledgeable critic, you'll get a real answer. If that happens, you've gotten a gift of high value: the attention of someone who can tell you what you need to know -- and might actually enjoy seeing you succeed.

Such people are rare, but if you find any, listen to their words with care. They could change your life. And when you're rich and famous, you can become one of those rare good critics yourself and do the same for others.


  1. Thank you for being a champion of dreams.

    I think understanding the dream crushers is helped by thinking of Javert in Les Mis. He has such a rigid ego-based view of the world - competition based on relative position in a moralistic view - that he is enraged by anyone challenging the validity of his system. Valjean is compassionate and "saved by grace," which in Javert's rule-bound world makes no sense. Javert's choice when he realizes Valjean does not fit into his rigid worldview is suicide.

    The rigid ego cannot survive in change. Expansion of the self is death of the rigid ego. So the rigid ego fights to maintain status quo, taking out anyone it needs to as it defends its beliefs.

  2. Excellent article! Sometimes our over-enthusiasm and ego do get in the way when it comes to accepting someone's comments, even if they are given out of good intentions. So I agree that the best way is to stay open and don't be defensive no matter what you hear.

    It's also interesting to note that someone whom you deemed to be a good critic can also dish out bad critiques at other times. A good example is none other than ourselves! Recall times when you give genuine constructive comments to someone you like. And don't forget the other times when you give curt, unskillful comments to people you think little of, only to regret later. No one is perfect and what comes out of our mouth is highly dependent on our mood, our unconscious intentions, and even how hungry we are! :)

  3. Imagine what the world would be like if there were more mentors and less meanies...Barbara teaches us that we each have gifts to share with the world and that it is our DUTY to do so. If we share our ideas (which are really our gifts asking for permission to come alive) with Meanies, the world may never benefit--which is a tragedy! Let us utilize these words of wisdom the next time we do encounter that meanie--kill 'em with curiosity!

  4. This has happened to me more than once. I am one of those people that always has some great idea. I'm what Barbara calls a scanner. The impact of a nasty critic is awful. But I have to say that having an honest critic who wants to help is a godsend. My enthusiasm sometimes overwhelms my common sense. Bless the good critics - just be as kind as you can. Your squashing our dreams.

  5. Great article. I actually think there are three kinds of critic: the good & bad as you've outlined here; and what I call the "well-meaning, but misguided".

    Critics in this last category are people (often parents!) who genuinely want to protect you from a fall. They just do it in a terribly muddled, ham-fisted way.

    When they see you getting really high with an idea, and find themselves doubting the possibility of turning that idea into reality, they pull you back down - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but usually with the motivation of (they believe) keeping you "safe".

    The problem is, the reason they see your idea as impossible is that they're struggling to conceive of how *they* would/could turn it into reality - so they're failing to take full account of your own ability (they often fall into the category of people who struggle to see things from another's point of view).

    That can leave you feeling doubly deflated - they've pierced the bubble of your bright idea, AND they've signalled to you that they don't believe you're fully capable. Ouch!

    You can usually tell a critic in this category when you're experiencing criticism/negativity from them, but you're 100% confident that they do love you. Just because someone loves you, doesn't mean they can't trample right across your heart whilst believing they're doing you a favour. And of course, parents and "loved ones" can certainly fall into the other categories of critic, so you have to think very carefully about where they're coming from before you respond.

    If you think someone is coming from the "well-meaning but misguided" place, there are two broad ways of dealing with them, I find: 1) Don't tell them your idea until it's at least part-way off the ground, and YOU feel very solid with it, and/or 2) Make sure you're communicating something that makes them feel safe on your behalf (e.g. Hi Dad, I lost my job so I'm going to train to be an astronaut; the great news is, I've saved so much money over the years, I could comfortably survive without a job until 2026!)

    Basically, don't put your dream on the line to these people until you know you or they can cope with whatever comes up.

    Of course, by far the most painful thing about this type of critic is - often because of who they are in your life - they're the very people we *want* to turn to for help and encouragement. But we're walking into trouble if we delude ourselves and actively seek that kind of help from someone who just isn't emotionally capable/strong enough to give it (yet). Which is why building our own trusted support systems (e.g. Barbara's brilliant idea of Success Teams) is just so vital.

    Does that make sense?

  6. Great advice Barbara about replacing your sensitivity with curiosity when confronted with a critic, whether they are a good one or bad one, or whehter you haven't yet determined WHICH variety of critic they are!

    When we're forming a new idea, many of us feel vulnerable until that idea takes actual (& successful!) shape in the world. It's easy to melt into a puddle of sensitive reactions when someone kaiboshes your budding idea, especially if you're prone to feeling vulnerable and sensitive to begin with.

    If your usual knee-jerk reaction is to shoot directly into "sensitive" mode, it may take some time and practice to genuinely convert to the "curious reaction" approach. But I can see how it would be well worth it. Standing strong for yourself in support of your own ideas, by asking your critics "why" and "how" in an open and undefensive manner, is a crucial first step in being able to determine who the helpful critics are, and who are the harmful ones.

    Figure out whether your critic's comments come from a place of genuine wisdom and concern for your well-being before taking anything they say to heart.

  7. All the experts tell you to write posts on your blogs regularly, and, as you know, I don't. But one thing they forget to tell me (or I might post more often) that I'm always reminded of when I finally do put up a post: I get the most incredible comments!

    Thank you all for your wonderful, thoughtful comments. I love them. I think people who come here to read my posts get real help from them. And I think I probably have the smartest readers of anyone in Blogland.

  8. Three great questions to add to my toolkit - thanks Barbara. Plus studiously writing down a critic's comments. Can't wait to try that one - I'm imagining the look would be priceless!

  9. Dear Barbara, I love your blog post, because you give a simple recipe for dealing with critics. With two simple questions it is possible to distinguish between constructive and destructive critics: "What is wrong about what I did and what do you suggest I do instead?"

    By asking this question, we have a tool at hand to both keep the critic at distance AND possible learn from her/his ideas. Moreover, we can derive how we can become good mentors to others.

  10. Great advice for dealing with critics. I always enjoy the stories of the times the critics were wrong. Such as Harry Potter being rejected 12 times by various publishers, Decca records rejecting the Beatles saying "guitar groups are on the way out", and Elvis being told to go back to truck driving in Memphis. I am so glad these artists pursued their dreams and the critics lived to regret their words. I also really appreciate feedback from those people that care enough to share their thoughts, those that make me think in new ways to improve projects and ideas.

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