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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?

August20, 2019 at 10:00 AM

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