I just finished reading Maria Chaudhuri’s memoir “Beloved Strangers,” an account of her growing up as a child in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and then as a woman in New York, in the United States. I picked up this book after hearing Maria speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year and sensing a sensitive soul in her.
In the passage below, Maria describes how she was humiliated by her Math teacher as a six-year old for failing to “get” numbers, their addition and subtraction, their multiplication and division.
Invariably, Mrs. Bashir would fling my lesson book across the classroom, grab me by both ears to pick me up and place me, red-faced and burning on the “shame bench” outside the classroom. There I remained until the noonday sun baked my skin dry. As the energy seeped out of me in streams of sweat, it took me all my strength not to faint.
The shaming continued until it became clear that I would not make the same mistakes again. I stopped making mistakes because I stopped being able to add or subtract at all. On one occasion, Mrs. Bashir was perplexed when she opened my lesson book to see that I’d neatly copied the assignment but left it entirely undone. Concluding that the shaming had been inadequate, she dragged the red bench, which had stood just outside the classroom window, inside, and placed it next to the teacher’s desk so the victim could squarely face the gleeful spectators of her torture. Saved from the tropical sun, my skin began to recover its natural tone again but my six-year-old heart was broken. As my classmates looked on mockingly, I hung my head and wished I would faint after all.
How did this criticism affect Maria? Did she start to “get” Math?
Unsurprisingly, all that Maria was able to take away from this experience was a fear of Math, and worse, a sense of shame. Whenever punished, Maria escaped the classroom by running away in her mind.
This was when I invented the odd game with numbers. I ran up and down the shapes of their horrid bodies, hid in their nooks and crannies and refused to hear anything they might have to say to me. I fantasized chopping them into edible bits and gobbling them up, once and for all, so they’d leave me alone. No matter what I tried though, they stayed with me. They greeted me every morning from the pages of my books, cooing incessantly in my hand, “Shame-shame, shame-shame, shame-shame…”
Has harsh criticism ever helped you do better at anything in your life? Either as a child or an adult? Personally, I cannot think of a single time when such destructive criticism has helped me “improve” my performance. Like Maria, I have wanted to escape and run away to somewhere safe when faced with harsh criticism. Such criticism has made it harder for me to do something that I’m finding difficult to do in the first place.
Destructive criticism breaks our spirit, makes us fearful, makes us freeze. It clips our wings, making us do worse, instead of better. Praise, on the other hand, gives us wings and helps us fly.
This was true for Maria at school, this is true at work.
In a recent study, researchers found that some managers consistently rated all their employees higher, and others consistently lower, than the average. They wondered if this was a result of bias and wanted to understand the effect the ratings had on people who worked with these managers. The authors say:
Are the positive-rating managers indulging in grade inflation? Do the lower ratings actually represent a more objective and deserved analysis of a subordinate’s performance?…Or perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse.
We favor that second interpretation, since whether deserved or not, the psychological effect of these ratings was dramatic. Anyone who joined us in the discussions with the subordinates of these two sets of managers would have instantly seen the impact. The people who’d received more positive ratings felt lifted up and supported. And that vote of confidence made them more optimistic about future improvement. Conversely, subordinates rated by the consistently tougher managers were confused or discouraged—often both. They felt they were not valued or trusted, and that it was impossible to succeed.
Praise and confidence in employees sets them up for success. Holding them to meet impossible standards brings them down.
So, the message is clear. If you’re faced with a choice between praising and criticizing, choose praise. If you’re struggling through harsh criticism you’ve received, praise yourself for your efforts instead of beating yourself up. From the wise and wonderful Louise L Hay comes this wonderful affirmation:
I praise myself for big and little things.
I am a wonderful being. I used to scold and criticize myself because I believed it would help me improve my life, and yet, criticism has not improved me over the years. In fact, criticism seems to make it much harder to change and progress. So, as I listen to my inner dialogue and find that I am being critical, telling myself that I’m not good enough or that I’m doing something wrong, I recognize the old patterns of childhood, and I immediately begin to speak lovingly to my inner child. Instead of tearing myself apart, I choose to nourish myself with praise and approval. I know I am on the way to becoming consistently loving.
What are some strategies YOU use to deal with harsh criticism? How do you take the learning from the criticism without letting it get you down? Do share your experience in the comments.
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