When Lisa Pisha's son, Graham, was about 18 months old, she took him to an outlet mall in the dead of winter. "It was freezing outside but it was Christmas time, and I had to grab one last thing from one particular store," says Pisha, a family therapist and mom of two who lives in Naperville.
Inside, Graham took his shoes and socks off and screamed and fought to get them off every time Pisha put them back on. She decided to let Graham remain barefoot until they were ready to leave. "Well, we'd been in the store with him barefoot for no less than 20 seconds when another woman approached us to tell my son that 'his mommy better put his shoes and socks back on because it's cold outside!'" says Pisha. "I grinned at her through my clenched teeth and walked away."
Pisha admits the situation got the best of her, but every parent has had to deal with criticism from strangers and friends alike about their parenting. Yet criticism (even if it's mean-spirited) can give us insight into our own behavior, and may even spur us to make positive changes in our lives-once we learn how to handle it.
So why do people criticize? It depends on the person and situation, experts says.
"Sometimes it's about being aggravated and irritated," Pisha says. But criticism often reflects more about the criticizer than the person being criticized. "It can also be about a lack of self-knowledge and self-esteem," she says. "It's a whole lot easier to focus on someone else's mistakes and misgivings than it is to work on what you could do differently for yourself."
Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., co-author of Live a Little: Breaking the Rules Won't Hurt your Health, says she believes there are two forms of criticism. "One is a kind of mean putdown-'you're a jerk, I'm better than you'-and the other kind of criticism is where the intent is to be helpful and to guide the person."
That's why Domar draws a distinction between criticism and guidance. "When one of my kids shows up wearing something I don't think is appropriate, I'll say 'I don't think you should wear that.' She may think that is criticism, but the intent is to save her from embarrassment," says Domar. "So that's guidance. I think true criticism, in my mind, is for the person to make herself feel better and make the other person feel worse."
How you react to criticism depends on a variety of factors, including who's making the comment, your relationship with that person and what's said. "It also depends on your mood," says Domar. "If you've had a really bad day and your boss yelled at you and you're late and then someone criticizes you, you're not in a good place to start with."
So before you react to a critical comment, consider where the other person is coming from. Maybe your neighbor just had a rough day at work and complaining about your toy-strewn front lawn is his way of blowing off steam. That doesn't mean it still doesn't sting.
"I'm a processor by nature, aka 'dweller,' and as much as I'd love to say I'm not affected by others' criticisms, I am," admits Pisha. "But knowing that about myself, and how powerful and yucky that dwelling feeling can be for me, before I walk away from any criticism, I have to know why and where the criticizer is coming from. So I'll often ask, 'What did you mean by that?' More than not, I find that their intentions were not to criticize."
That's why Pisha suggests "putting the gloves down" before you respond to criticism. "Calm your defenses so you can attempt to hear the message that's being sent, or at least be able to ask for clarification. Not all criticism is bad or meant to hurt you," says Pisha. "Try to look at it as an opportunity to self-reflect and learn something either about yourself, about your partner or your child."
Hannelore Schlottmann, mom of one in Mokena, tries to follow that advice. "Maybe they are seeing something that I am missing because I'm too close to the situation," she says.
For example, a co-worker teasingly referred to her hair as "a bird's nest."
"I thought it was sort of casually pinned up, but in a good way. I was a little taken aback until I went home and looked at it in the mirror and thought, 'He's right, it does look really messy.' I had been putting it up that way for so long I just didn't see it."
Of course not all criticism means you must change how you act or feel. "I think you should also be able to kindly reject criticism, too," says Schlottmann. "You should be able to say, 'Thank you, I listened to what you had to say, but I'm going to do it this way.'"
What about the other side of the coin? How can you offer guidance, as Domar suggests, instead of criticism? First, choose your words carefully-name-calling or using words like "stupid" or "ridiculous" or "crazy" will automatically put someone on the defensive.
"I think starting a discussion with 'Have you ever tried …?' instead of 'You shouldn't …' is more like offering suggestions of a different way of doing things, as opposed to telling someone what you think they are doing is wrong," says Schlottmann. "And then I think once you've put it out there, you should trust the other person to accept it and act on it, or not-and then let it go."
That's excellent advice if you're on the receiving end of criticism as well. Listen to the comment, take anything positive from it you can and then move on.
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.