Detoxifying Criticism

How to Help Clients Gain Perspective

Magazine Issue
March/April 2016
Work stress

Q: Many of my clients are successful at their jobs, but regardless of how much positive feedback they get about their work, the slightest criticism can send them reeling. What can I do to help them gain perspective?

A: I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of reaction at some time in their lives, but some people experience it daily or hourly. Many don’t even wait for someone else to criticize them: they provide it themselves, making it truly inescapable.

You say that your clients need to “gain perspective.” A surprisingly easy way to do that involves an approach that’s fundamentally different from most therapeutic practice. Because it’s so different, I need to provide a few simple examples to illustrate how it works, before offering a step-by-step case example.

If you think of a disturbing memory, most people experience the inner image as being quite close and large, sometimes so near that it might be described with the common phrase “in your face.” If you move that imagined image to a location that’s 30 feet away, you’ll find that your response to it is much less intense because the image is so much smaller. With a smaller image and a less intense response, you’ll more easily be able to examine it to find out if it has useful feedback information. If you move the image so far away that it’s only a tiny dot on the horizon, you won’t be able to see the content, so you’d have no response to it, but then you’d lose the opportunity to use its feedback. Changing the distance of the image is a pure process intervention that doesn’t change the unpleasant content of the image; it changes only how the content is perceived.

In general, any perceptual change that makes an internal image more similar to what you’d experience in the real world will increase your felt response to it. A big, bright, clear, colorful, 3-D moving image with sound will elicit a much stronger emotional response than a small, dim, fuzzy, flat, still, silent one, even when the content is the same, as you can easily confirm in your own experience.

Another important variable is the location of an internal image, often revealed in common phrases like, “I’ve put that behind me,” or “I’m looking forward to that,” or “That’s a high priority for me.” This kind of statement isn’t just a metaphor: it’s a literal description of an internal experience. Many people with a horribly abusive past see those images right in front of them. Besides being in a location that’s hard to ignore, it’s where many people visualize future events, so they expect to be abused again. If you think of a troubling memory, you can experiment with moving it to different locations in the mental space around you, and notice how your response changes.

Most clients have no conscious awareness of how close a troubling image is, or where it’s located, or whether it’s in color or not, but they can easily become aware of these variables when asked about them. Most clients also don’t realize that they can change these variables in order to change their emotional response, giving them some choice. Here’s an example of a series of process interventions I used with Ron, who’s quite a good amateur performer in his local theater group.

Plagued by Perfectionism

Ron told me how he could receive a hundred compliments on his work, but one criticism could nullify the hundred in a nanosecond, pitching him from confidence into a pit of despair and shame. This is what most people experience when they’re plagued by perfectionism. When I asked Ron if he’d like to try something really simple that could make a big difference in how he responds to criticism, he said, “Sure!”

“First I need to gather a little information about how you think of yourself as a performer, which is an important part of your self-concept. When you think of your ability to perform, what do you see?” I asked him.

Ron looked up to his left, as if he was focused on an image that was fairly large and close to his face. “I see a picture of myself in a top hat and cane, sort of like Fred Astaire, and then I get a nice, solid feeling of confidence.”

“I noticed that you looked up to your left, as if that picture was about 18 inches square and about two feet away,” I told him.

Ron looked a little surprised. “I didn’t know I did that,” he said, and then corrected me, adding, “Well, it’s actually more like a foot square and about three feet away.”

Whenever we need to understand a word, whether chair or love or, in this case, performer, the image that appears spontaneously is what cognitive linguistics research has called a prototype—a single image that represents all the different examples in the category. At this point, I needed to know more about how Ron thinks of all his examples of his being a performer, because that’s where we can make useful changes.

“I know you’ve performed a wide variety of roles in different plays over a period of years. At this moment, how do you know that you can do all that?” I asked.

Ron looked up to his left again, and his left hand lifted a little as he said, “Another image pops up in the same location, and after a while, another one pops up.” This told me that he experiences his database of images sequentially, one at a time. The other way that people represent their mental database is simultaneously, as a collage or grid of different images, for instance.

“Okay, now tell me what happens when you receive a criticism, like reading a critical review,” I instructed.

Ron again looked up to his left, his shoulders slumped a bit, and he said with a dour expression, “All I see is an image of what’s in the criticism—that I was just ‘a narcissistic show-off.’ That unpleasant image stays there a long time. It’s all I see, and it’s hard to get rid of it.”

“Great, that’s the kind of information I need,” I told him. “Since ‘all you see’ is the criticism, that means that you no longer see your image of being a talented performer, so you lose the good feeling you get from knowing that. That loss is even more unpleasant than what is in the criticism. Now compare a positive image of you performing, with your image of the criticism. Look at them side by side, and notice any differences in size, brightness, color, or movement.”

Asking Ron to see the positive and negative images side by side allows him to respond to both, providing a more balanced perspective. Ron looked up to his left again for a minute or two, relaxed a little bit, and then said, “They’re the same size, and they both have color and movement, like the beginning of a movie. But the criticism is much brighter, and flashing like a strobe light, and it’s also 3-D.”

“Since the image of criticism is brighter, flashing, and 3-D, it makes perfect sense that you respond to it so strongly. Now I want you to reach out and grasp that critical image with both hands, and squeeze it down until it’s only about four inches on a side. As it shrinks, see it become dimmer, flatter, black and white, and tell me how that changes your experience of it.”

As Ron did this, his shoulders lifted a bit, and he smiled. After a minute or so, he said, “That makes a huge difference in how I feel. But why not shrink it all the way to a tiny dot so I can’t see it at all?”

“Have you ever gotten so self-absorbed in a role that you actually did become something of a showoff, overplaying a performance?” I asked.

Ron smiled ruefully, and nodded.

“I assume you’d want to be aware of that possibility, so that you can avoid doing that in the future,” I told him. “If you shrank it to a dot, you’d become oblivious to that. From now on I want you to keep that image of the criticism small, dim, still, flat, and black and white. That way you still have access to all the information in that image, but without being overwhelmed by bad feelings.”

Creating Perspective in Space

“Now I want you to try another experiment,” I continued. “Your images of performance appear one after the other, in the same location. It’s as if all those positive images are stacked up like a deck of cards, all behind that front card that you can see clearly. If you were to see that stack of images from above, or if you pushed on the stack from the side, so that it fanned out a little so you could see the edges of all those cards, you’d be able to see how many images are in the deck. Put that image of the criticism into that deck so that you only see the edge of it and notice how that edge looks dim and gray and smaller, different from the rest.”

When Ron did this, he smiled broadly and relaxed all over, saying, “That sure feels different! It’s great seeing how many positive examples I have. That really makes the criticism seem less important.”

Seeing the edges of the cards provides a simultaneous sense of how many positive images he has—which is quite different from seeing only one at a time, or only the negative image. This provides a broader perspective in space, a larger context of positive examples in which the criticism is embedded.

Adjusting Perspective in Time

“Now, experiment with speeding up the rate at which the positive images change from one to another,” I said. “After they’re changing somewhat faster, see that image of criticism for the same amount of time—or even shorter—than the positive images, so that it’s immediately followed by a positive one.”

Ron took a little longer to do this. After pausing, he said thoughtfully, “When I change the pictures faster, I don’t have as much time to get into my bodily feelings, and that’s especially true of my image of the criticism, now that it’s small, dim, and flat. I don’t get stuck in the unpleasant feelings the way I have been. I pop back out again into the next positive image, and feel better.”

“Now that you know how speeding up or slowing down the images changes your experience, you can vary the speed according to what works best for you,” I told him. “You can slow down for the positive images, and speed up for a criticism, while continuing to see all those edges that provide evidence of how many positive examples you have.”

Instead of seeing only one picture at a time, now Ron can see his images as a more continuous flow in time from one moment to the next. Experiencing a broader perspective in time, as well as space, makes it much harder for him to get stuck in a single image.

“Now let’s test what we’ve done,” I said. “A few minutes ago, I asked you to think of the image of criticism, and you felt bad. I want you to see that image again, and without trying to do anything consciously, just find out what you experience.”

Ron thought for a moment then said, “I can see it, and I don’t enjoy looking at it, but it doesn’t have the emotional punch it used to—it’s no big deal. And it seems weird to me, but somehow the contrast between the criticism and all the positive examples makes the positives even stronger.”

Using Criticism as Feedback

Up to this point all the changes have been process interventions that left the content unchanged. Now that Ron was more comfortable with his image of the criticism, it was time for a content intervention—using the image of the past criticism to create a new image of what he can do differently in the future so that criticism won’t happen.

“Look at that old criticism that we’ve been working with and review it carefully to find out if there’s any valid information in it,” I guided. “The critic might have just been in a bad mood, so what he wrote really had little or nothing to do with you. But often there’s at least some truth in a criticism that you could make good use of to improve your next performance. So assuming that you find something that’s valid, close your eyes and imagine that you’re in a video editing booth, where you can remove the section of your performance that was criticized and use that as a basis for creating a new and better video of how you’d want to do that scene in a future performance. When you’ve done that, the criticism will have been transformed into a positive example. I suggest that you color-code it in some way, or put a special border around it, to remind you that it’s an example that you transformed from a mistake, and then put it back into that stack of images.”

Ron looked quite intent as he silently spent several minutes doing this process, and then said, “It’s even better now that I can see what to do to avoid criticism. I feel even stronger about my ability.”

Consolidating the Changes

What I did with Ron is much more like a simple conversation than traditional therapy. His verbal report—confirmed by his nonverbal shifts in facial expression, posture, and breathing—already gave me step-by-step feedback that he’d made changes he finds useful. Next I needed to verify that his new response is as automatic and unconscious as his old one was.

“I want you to think about that criticism again,” I told him. “Is there any way you can get back that bad feeling you used to have?” As Ron tried to get back the bad feeling, he first looked a bit puzzled, and then smiled, “No, I can’t—not that I really want to.”

Next I need to test his response to a future criticism. “Good. Now imagine that you get a new critical review, perhaps something like ‘He was off-key in the opening number, and his hand gestures were exaggerated.’ Don’t try to do anything consciously; just find out what you experience.”

Ron’s posture and expression didn’t change. He just shrugged and said, “That’s a possibility. I can check the video to see what the audience may have noticed. But I’m more just curious, instead of feeling ashamed or despairing about it.”

“Finally, I want you to close your eyes and pause to consider all the changes you’ve made. Ask yourself if you have any objection to anything we’ve done together. Notice any internal images, voices, or feelings that might indicate some difficulty.”

Ron smiled broadly and said, “No problem!”

The fundamental principles illustrated in this case can be used with a variety of other common presenting problems: guilt, grief, anxiety, anger, jealousy, phobias, and even the phobic core of PTSD. It’s a demonstration of the power of attending to the moment-to-moment way we each construct our personal version of reality. Once we begin to investigate the subtleties of this aspect of our unconscious functioning, we can open up new possibilities of how we can become the architects of our own experience.

Photo by Yan Krukov/Pexels

Steve Andreas

Steve Andreas, MA, was a developer of NLP methods and the author of Six Blind Elephants, Transforming Your Self, and Virginia Satir: the Patterns of Her Magic. He was coauthor, with his wife Connirae, of Heart of the Mind and Change Your Mind—and Keep the Change.