Q: I have to admit that I am not that great at receiving correction. I get super defensive or I end up feeling really guilty. I sometimes even feel like a failure. What should I do?
A: I am so proud of you for asking this question. Too often, too many of us don’t even care how we receive correction. Even if you find yourself automatically taking a defensive position, it sounds like you know that that is not how we are ultimately called to respond. So the fact that you want to know how to move forward is a very good sign.
First, I want to acknowledge how you described your initial reaction to correction: defensive or defeated. This makes sense. It is a version of the “fight or flight” reaction we all have to the presence of danger. We are tempted to either defend ourselves or our actions or we are tempted to give the correction so much power that it overwhelms and defeats us. This is normal. Just like the “fight or flight” response, it is involuntary and amoral. (To say that it is “amoral” means that it is neither good nor bad; it just is.) So my first counsel is to pay attention to your immediate response, but you do not have to give it more weight than it deserves.
Nonetheless, it can teach us something.
When we pay attention to our gut reactions, we can sometimes gain insight into our personalities and temperaments. This can, in turn, provide some wisdom in how we ought to proceed. For example, if you recognize that your tendency is to immediately argue with the one offering correction, you might soon realize that you will have to actively learn how to listen patiently. If your tendency is to allow yourself to be crushed by even a whiff of criticism, then you may discover that you need to be attentive to your sense of identity and self-worth.
But after the initial response of defensiveness or defeat passes, there is a simple question that needs to be asked.
For example, this happened to me the other day. I had gone to a movie (in the theaters even! Remember that?) and had liked it. So I did something that I do not often do, but I went to Twitter and commented on how much I liked the movie. There were people who responded (as happens on Twitter). Some agreed with me (as happens). Some disagreed (as happens). But one person commented something along the lines of “we don’t need priests giving movie reviews on Twitter.”
Naturally, I immediately experienced the reaction anyone would experience. In my case, I was a little defensive and wanted to post some kind of snarky and superior comment. But of course, I know how Twitter works. I know that nobody wins there. Ever. And I knew that I would certainly not be representing Christ well if I gave in to my impulse to punch back. So what to do? Well, I asked the one question that always needs to be asked when a person is offered correction: What part of this is true?
That is the question all of us have to ask and answer in order to be able to receive correction well. What part of this is true?
In my case, I very quickly realized that the individual was right: No one asked me to offer my opinion of this movie. No one needs to know what I think about any movie. There was nothing that this person said that wasn’t true. So there was nothing for me to argue with. I might not have liked being “called out” for sharing my opinion, but that isn’t the issue. I was defensive because I was corrected. It was no more complicated than that.
When I asked the question, “What part of this is true?” I experienced a great deal of freedom. I didn’t have to defend myself, and I didn’t have to feel defeated. This stranger simply reminded me of something true, so I was free to learn from him.
In another case, the person offering correction might be wrong. In that case, the question is even more helpful. “What part of this is true?” comes back with “It isn’t. It isn’t true.” In that case, we can let it go and not give it permission to affect us.
If it is true, then learn from it. If it is not true, then let it go.
Last thing: There are times when I have been corrected and the person is telling the truth, but I have been so bothered by the fact that I did something wrong that I have found it difficult to let it go and move on. You may have experienced this as well. There are times when we have been corrected for something we know was wrong and was our fault. And we may have experienced some inner turmoil because of this.
I have found that those who could be described as “people pleasers” fall into this camp. This could be connected to a vice called “vanity.” As we have said before in this column, vanity is not necessarily thinking highly of oneself. Vanity is the inordinate preoccupation with the opinion of others. It is good to be aware of and care about the opinion of others (it is what helps us notice other people’s cues and needs). But vanity is caring about other people’s opinions in an out-sized way.
To break free of this, I recommend beginning to recognize it and to recognize the source of discomfort regarding other people’s opinions: shame.
Guilt is when I know that I have violated an objective standard. Shame is when I know that you know I have violated the standard. Shame is relational; someone else knows. In this case, reconciliation is incredibly helpful. Reparation and a purpose of amendment is helpful. And above all else, knowing who you are in the eyes of the Father is necessary.