Are You In the Arena?

Constructive vs Destructive criticismEveryone’s a critic. We all experience some kind of criticism, whether it’s constructive or destructive. It reminds me of the saying, “Opinions are like assholes – everyone has one and most of them stink.”

There are two main types of criticism: constructive and destructive. The difference between the two is who delivers them and how they deliver them. One is helpful (constructive), and one is hurtful (destructive). As a podcaster and voice in the secular community, I expect to receive criticism from listeners. Most of that criticism has been constructive, but there’s always one or two people who feel the need to give destructive criticism.

In my ten years in the military, I often received constructive criticism from superiors. Their intention wasn’t to knock us down, but to help build us up and help us improve. But even constructive criticism can be a hard pill to swallow. That’s especially true if the criticism is about something that you’ve put a lot of time and energy into creating. You can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time, but I always try to please every listener.

So what’s the best way to deal with destructive criticism? I’m not proud of it, but most often my first instinct is to go into attack mode. I slip into that defensive, “if you attack me, I’ll attack you back” mentality. This is the most unproductive response you can have.

Former FLOTUS Michelle Obama said it best during the Democratic National Convention: “When they go low, we go high.” It’s very easy to lower yourself to an unhelpful critic’s level. But it’s far better to make them raise to your level if they want to communicate with you.

I recently watched a video by Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In the video, titled Bravery & Authenticity in a Digital World, Dr. Brown discusses how to respond to destructive criticism.

The video includes an excerpt of a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt. The excerpt is called The Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

This quote completely changed how I will respond to future destructive criticism. If the person doing the criticizing isn’t in the arena, their criticism doesn’t matter. I know this seems harsh, but if the critic isn’t sitting at the same table, why give any thought to what they have to say? If another podcaster offers criticism, their words hold weight with me because they’re in the same arena and sitting on the same side of the table as I am.

The next time criticism comes your way (and it will), ask yourself, “Is this person in the same arena?” If not, don’t give them the satisfaction of your response.

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