This week I went to a bimonthly gathering of area Science of Mind and Spirit ministers. The meeting is usually a sharing of what’s going on in our lives and an opportunity to receive support. At the beginning of your turn, you draw a card with a quote on it and read it to the group. Here was mine –

“Honest criticism is hard to take, especially from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.” (Franklin P. Jones)

Like this one, most of the quotes read are a mixture of humor and wisdom. You immediately laugh and then get hit by its deeper meaning. The ministers also joke that we select from the can just the right meaningful quote for ourselves. This one, for me, was no exception as evidenced by the fact that here I am writing about it!

How open and accepting are you to criticism? On the flip side, are you driven to receive compliments and praise? 

My Inner Work

Years ago in some profound self exploratory work, I came to realize that there was a large part of my desire for personal success in my career with the Federal government that was driven by a deep-seated need to be seen as competent by others.  That was not my only motivation, but I could tell that I was driven in many cases to receive praise and became obsessed when ever I was given criticism.  I know that I am not alone in this as I have spoken with many people who can receive an employee evaluation with twenty items where they are told they are excellent which they will tend to skip over so as to dwell on the one item that recommends improvement.

In my personal work I began to recognize that somewhere in my distant past I had erroneously internalized through events in my life that I was somehow “not good enough” or “not worthy” as a person to claim title to any kind of “greatness”. On some level, I was simply not “lovable”. I realized that I had become driven to external success in order to fill the internal hole I felt.  Although I believe that in years past I have made great progress in healing this issue, its shadow can still rear its ugly head in certain moments.  I feel it when I realize that I am seeking out external praise or dwelling too much on outer criticism.  Those moments offer me another opportunity for personal healing.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being competent at what you do or gaining external success. In fact, when we are driven by our higher desires to “self actualize” and we are living our life purpose, we will generally receive a degree of worldly gains. The issue really is this – what is your motivation? Do you do what you do because at some level you want to be rewarded by the praise of others or avoid what you see as the punishment of their criticism? If that is what is driving you, then there is a rich field of shadow work calling you to be healed.

Evolutionary Forces?

Positive and negative reinforcers have served us to a degree in our animalistic evolutionary past. Modifying our behavior to receive pleasure and avoid pain has kept us alive so that we could pass along our traits to our descendents. We received pleasure whenever we learned how to obtain food, shelter, sex and so on. We received pain whenever we did something stupid or foolhardy that ended up physically harming or killing ourselves. Basic “survival of the fittest”. These motivators are still with us – if you don’t think so, just pick up a hot frying pan with your bare hand.

Positive and negative reinforcers also served our evolutionary advantage as we learned to live in groups. As we came together first in bands, then tribes, then villages, cities and countries, we found personal safety in the numbers of our group.  The abundance created in food and other necessities through group effort gave us a degree of personal freedom to explore, learn and grow. Yet these and other advantages came with some costs as we had to learn how to fit in with others. In smaller groups where you could know everyone, you could come together by your love and care and concern for one another.  As the group grew in size though, norms had to be put in place so as to give “order” and “control”.  Consider that much of the early books of the Old Testament were given over to important Jewish social rules.

The more our efforts supported the success of the group, the more we were rewarded through status and wealth. The more our actions hurt the group by breaking the rules, the more we were punished by being ostracized, stripped of our possessions, physically hurt or killed.  We learned the importance of fitting in.

Skinner and Maslow

B. F. Skinner and the arm of psychology called behaviorism once tried to explain all behavior through a system of how we learned and internalized our interactions with life via our receipt of positive and negative reinforcers and punishment.  We learned to maximize those behaviors that which gave us pleasure and minimize those actions that caused pain. To a degree, they were correct that these are powerful motivators. Behavioralism can enlighten us a great deal about those factors that have moved us along our animalistic path. However, we have also come to understand that we are driven by much more. There are internal factors which also motivate us.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines this quite well. His “lower level needs” (physiological, safety and security, love and belongingness, self-esteem) which he termed “deficiency needs” (because we are driven to fill what we see as a lack) can be in large part determined through the factors described by behaviorism. However, his  “higher level needs” (self-actualization and self transcendence) which he termed “being needs” (because we are motivated to give out of our sense of fullness) are, in my opinion, less determined by the external factors of positive and negative reinforcers and punishment.  Their causes come from somewhere inside us.

Living in Two Worlds

As I have written about previously, we “human beings” live simultaneously with one foot in our animalistic past driven by physical evolutionary factors and lower needs and our other foot in our spiritual future driven by transcendent evolutionary callings to our highest future. We dance the dance of being pulled by competing motivators. This dance is quite evident in our relationship to praise and criticism.

For you and I, our training on how to fit in began in our youth. Our parents and teachers rewarded us with praise when we performed well.  We were punished or criticised when we got off target.  Somewhere deep within us, this training still guides our actions as we continue to seek praise and avoid criticism.

These desires can be exacerbated by modern life which is filled with life in groups.  We define ourselves by our family, our country, our political party, our religion, where we work and so on.  Within each setting, in our humanness, we want to be accepted.  This can lead too many of us to care way too much what others think of us, good or bad.  Unfortunately, this obsession can limit our personal and spiritual growth.  When we seek to expand our lives towards what we know in our hearts is possible for us, we can hold ourselves back fearing what others think.  Our animal past is restricting our spiritual future. Our “humanness” is blocking our “beingness”.

Releasing “the Good Opinions of Others”

I love the Wayne Dyer quote, “What other people think of me is none of my business. One of the highest places you can get to is being independent of the good opinions of other people.”

What Dyer knows is that if you can release attachment to both the need for receiving praise and avoiding any kind of criticism, you can shift to the place where your motivations are driven internally.  Here, you seek to do your best for its own sake, to fulfill your vision for your life’s purpose, to answer your own internal calling to be of service for humanity’s highest expression. Here you will have taken critical steps to heal your shadow and the evolutionary desires of your animalistic past and moved boldly forward into your spiritual future.

Letting go of concerns for what others think can be difficult.  I am reminded of the story Eckhart Tolle tells of when an individual is receiving what might be seen as “good news” or “bad news”.  The story also offers guidance for when we receive what could be perceived as criticism or praise. In the story, as I recall it, the character always simply and nonchalantly says to both types of comments “is that so?” They listen to what is being said without attachment. They recognize that their ego does not need to be stroked by good news (or complements).  They know that they cannot be wounded by bad news (or criticisms). They recognize that it is simply another person’s opinion. They listen without emotion.  They consider what is useful to hear. They know in their heart that who they are as a person and their personal worth is in no way dependent upon this message.

The world is going to continuously present to us opportunities to grow and evolve along our spiritual path.  Some of those opportunities will come in the form of praise or criticism.  You have a choice each time that one of these moments appears in your life. How will you respond?

So let us live this day – you and I – at that place of our highest possibilities where we impose no limits on ourselves through any attachments to the opinions of others.  Let us be true to our higher selves and release our need for praise or fear criticism.  We are always worthy of love and greatness at all times and in all ways! I know this is so!

Namaste.

Mark Gilbert

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Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!