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Women and Criticism

Why it’s especially hard for women to take critique and how to discern what to do with it.

I hate criticism.

Not because I think I’ve arrived.

But because I fear I never will.

There are some personality and family issues at work there, but it also has something to do with the challenge of being a female leader. When I hear criticism, even from well-meaning people, it sounds just like all those voices that told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t do something I felt I should or could do. And in addition to actual faces and words—try as I might, I can remember who communicated those negative messages—there is a gaping void in the place where I might look for positive reinforcement to help me combat the sinking feeling that criticism brings. There are no women I can look to and say, “But I’m just like her, and she could do this, so I’ll do it like her.” There are no moments I can remember when my pastor looked at me and said, “I see something in you. Have you ever considered ministry?” So, the apparatus I use in the rest of my life that helps me filter criticism just isn’t there to help me process it well in my ministry. My problem is not with healthy, helpful criticism. My problem is that the work of discerning whether and how to internalize criticism is exhausting.

It’s been said to me more than once, you’re too sensitive. This is one of those criticisms that, when you try to defend yourself, only serves to affirm the criticism. The meta-level thinking folds in on itself and leaves me crumpled. Yes, I am sensitive (to the input of others and also to the needs of others), but not all of my discomfort with criticism is a result of sensitivity in the way people mean it to be. When a woman is told, “You’re too sensitive,” it can feel like she is being told, “Women figured out a way to work within the system before. Why is it bothering you now? Stop complaining and conform like you always have. Your discomfort is causing a ruckus!” I know there are parts of my discomfort that I just have to get used to; I also have to trust there is something in my discomfort which may be a result of suppressed truth and if I let it surface in a healthy way, it may bring freedom for us all.

This wrestling to discern criticism has been an undercurrent in my work since I stepped into Christian leadership. It came to a head when I invited a professional consultant to do an assessment of my ministry. I had invited this because I know, from my writing and the rest of my life, feedback helps us grow and improve. But when it came time to begin the assessment, I had what I can only describe as a panic attack. As the consultant and I talked through the design of the assessment, I felt my anxiety rising and found myself in a very unprofessional, very emotional state. “What’s wrong with you, Mandy?!” I asked myself. I’d had book manuscripts picked to pieces. I’d been in intensely challenging conversations with friends. Those situations had not brought on panic attacks. I worried that my character was deeply flawed. Why would I not be open to healthy critique?

As the consultant shared the usual questions he asked and I knew my ministry would not hold up well to those inquiries, I realized my problem. Of course, part of me was uncomfortable for the usual reasons, but the reason it drew me to the level of panic was because I knew I was being held up against a rubric not designed for me. My ministry did not have some of the typical markers of health, but had other markers of health which would not be measured. I felt set up for failure—with an extra pressure not to be “too sensitive” if the assessment showed opportunities for growth.

One of the important factors in all this is that my default is to empathize and defer. Not all women have my personality, and I know there are many who are born with more certainty in their own perspectives than I naturally have. Regardless of our personality types, culture often teaches women we should understand and accommodate. When the predominant way of operating has been shaped by men for centuries, it’s a survival skill to adapt to a world not shaped by our values or ways of operating. Truthfully, there just aren’t many leadership development resources that relate to who I am and how I’ve been socialized. I’ve seen plenty of leadership resources to help the traditional leader personality (that is, those confident in their own ideas) to be collaborative, to develop listening skills and humility. I haven’t seen many resources to help the empathic leader discern when their own ideas get swamped by the ideas and needs and feelings of everyone else. I’ve never read an article that teaches me how to stop caring so much about how my decisions might make other people feel.

I’m still figuring this out but here are some ways I’m learning to move forward:

Share how you hear their words.
It may help both you and the person offering critique if you can say, “When you say this, you may or may not mean it, but here’s what I hear.” Even the process of discerning how to present the situation in this way may help you remember messages you’ve picked up from previous experiences. It may help you begin to distinguish what is actually being said here and what other memories you’re bringing to it.

Share what helps you receive feedback well.
For me, it’s helpful when the critique is presented in a broader context of my calling/gifts, with an acknowledgement of my good intentions, and/or couched in encouragement. I’m also learning from this how to provide good feedback in my leadership of others. As a leader of women, I also see how hesitant I am to critique women I lead, how much I’m tempted to avoid critique entirely, and how important it is to frame critique in a healthy way.

Don’t be afraid to share how you need to be encouraged.
When folks around us are free with critique but much more reserved in articulating the ways they think well of us, it can create an environment where it’s hard to hear any critique. Scripture commands us to encourage one another, not because we need to be reminded our hair is nice, but because we need to know that our efforts aren’t in vain. We need to know that even though we often feel empty or exhausted, we should keep following the call. Of course, we shouldn’t ask people to tell us things that aren’t true, but since this work is so hard, we can begin to create a culture where we all feel the urgent need to share every time we see something good in one another. Encouragement (when it avoids flattery) is spiritual warfare.

Give yourself grace.
It’s great to be willing to grow and learn. At the same time, no matter how much you grow, you will never be perfect. No matter how hard you work, on your dying day, you’ll still have flaws. If we buy into the lie that women have to be perfect to be embraced as leaders, we’re living according to a twisted reality. If we feel we have to be perfect leaders in order to be used by God, we’ll be working according to lies and forgetting every Scriptural story about God’s power being shown through the brokenness of human beings.

Find wise counsel.
Find wise and honest friends who can both help you set aside what is unhealthy and challenge you towards growth. Remember: as wise as they may be, they don’t know us as God does. Even the wisest friend may either be too harsh or too gentle, so there’s no replacement for bringing it before God.

Discern with God.
While critique is painful, it can become an opportunity to heal the messages we heard as girls (or the things we didn’t hear), the ways we’ve been dismissed or stereotyped. Every case of criticism becomes a chance to distinguish between what others say about us and how God sees us. It also becomes a chance to pay attention to the ways we critique ourselves constantly. (Maybe it’s hard to hear these things from others because they add to the criticisms we routinely say to ourselves?) Stand before the Lord and say, “What would you have me learn? How would you have me grow?” and know this is a work to allow God to do in you, not a work to do for God.

When all the opinions about us swirl in our head and mess with our own fears of who we are, the only true clarity comes from trusting that God is the only one who truly understands us, that God can help us discern what messages are true, that God’s correction is kind and for our good and the good of our calling. What if God wants to take the pain of these moments and transform our hearts so that we’ll be free to see ourselves and others as God sees? What if instead of making us perfect in the world’s eyes, God wants to use these moments to make us more like Jesus?

Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.

August20, 2019 at 10:00 AM

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