Defog the mirror

Dylan Doyle

Column by Dylan Doyle, contributing writer

It’s the kind of thing you hear people say in the heat of an argument: don’t get defensive.

When someone says something hurtful (a harsh truth, a boldfaced lie, a personal jab), it stings because we have been emotionally attacked, and our brains begin running defense.

The truth is, most of us are very doubtful of our own worth, at least in the privacy of our own minds. Plagued by insecurity, we rely on positive external perceptions to bolster our self-esteem, and we tend to react negatively to criticism, even if it’s constructive.

In short, people love compliments and hate condemnation. Shocking.

Humans are hardwired psychologically to protect our fragile sense of self-estimation – we reflexively seek retribution for perceived slights, and we tell ourselves things to patch up our damaged egos.

The trouble is, those things we tell ourselves? They’re not always true.

There is a strong case to be made for “chewing” on criticism – that is, taking a moment to evaluate the merit of what the other person is saying to you or accusing you of, in a manner as close to objectivity as you can manage. In other words, think about what you are hearing, take an honest look at yourself in the mirror and see if the person calling you a name is right or not.

This is easier to do when you know the other person has your best interests at heart. Taking constructive criticism from your parents or your professors is often fairly straightforward. The trick is to do the same with people at whom you are angry, and those angry at you.

All sorts of things can fog up your internal mirror, and most of them can be wiped away with simple honesty. Fight the urge to represent yourself as you wish you were. All you can do is see yourself as you actually are, and go from there.

It sounds simple, but it is quite the opposite. Training yourself to set your emotions aside and fighting that instinct to retaliate – these are not small things. Like anything worth having, it takes practice and perseverance.

Of course, none of this means you should let bullies walk all over you and call you every name in the book without protest. You are nobody’s doormat, and if someone is calling you discriminatory slurs or vague and unsubstantiated insults, show them the door. Remember, you are trying to see yourself in a more honest light, and bigots have nothing to teach you.

The final move in this process (and the most difficult) comes after you have chewed on the criticism for a while. Whether you decide the person’s attack is fair and plan future changes to yourself or realize their words hold no merit, the ultimate step is the same: let it go. You aren’t strong enough to carry around the burden of everyone’s opinion of you – no one is. Trying to do so will only make you miserable.

Unfortunately, it is often our reflex to latch onto negativity and let it consume us. This is yet another reflex you have to fight. If you have already learned what you can from criticism, thinking about it any further is no longer useful; in fact, it’s damaging.

Let it come, let it help you grow, let it go. You cannot work on your flaws if you do not allow yourself to see them. In the end, the truth is all we have.

They say it will set you free. See if they are right.