“Who Does She Think She Is?”—How Criticism Shapes our World
This was a statement directed at me a few days before my launching of quranrehab.com. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which we are constantly judged and criticized, with criticism often being disguised and packaged as gifts of unsolicited ‘advice’ and, ‘feedback.’ Our intentions, beliefs, physical appearances, choices and dreams are just a few of the things that suffer such attack.
There are certainly parts of ourselves that we could, need, and may want to improve for the better. However, it is imperative that we develop the ability to control the floodgates of external opinion. We must first learn to identify any criticism from the feedback we receive to ensure that we nurture our hearts and minds with that which will allow us to grow and not that which is toxic to our mental & emotional well-being and will only hurt and destroy us. Secondly, we must learn to build the mental filters that will allow us to distinguish feedback that is relevant and helpful from that which is not. These two processes are essential to freeing our authentic self and to achieving the happiness and inner peace we all seek.
Although criticism acts as a natural filter in preventing people of ill or egocentric endeavors from pursuing their harmful intentions, the inability to manage feedback in a productive way has unfortunately resulted in many other individuals being held back from fulfilling their full potential for positively contributing to the world. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we have come to commonly fear and actively avoid criticism in order to escape the hurtful and destructive consequences of broken self-esteem, unfulfilled dreams, etc. We must realize that we owe it to ourselves to take back complete control of our lives.
Dodging Verbal Bullets—Why Criticism Hurts so Much
It is important to note that the reason why experiencing criticism hurts is because it questions the key things we seek as humans. This includes the desire to be understood and accepted. Fundamentally it questions the very thing we need and seek most as humans: love. Hence, when people constantly criticize us, we often exhibit the opposite emotion, a hatred towards them, and sometimes we even form a hatred of ourselves as a direct result of feeling unworthy and unable to attain such love.
Many people, however, do not realize that we have two sources of unconditional love from which we can forever be comforted and supported: Allah and ourselves. To fall in love with Allah is the epiphany of all love stories. The noble journey towards attaining Allah’s love is beautifully and concisely expressed in a saying by one great Companion, Khabab bin Al-Arat, who said:
Do whatever you wish to get closer to Allah. Indeed you will never get closer to Allah with something more beloved to Him than His own words (i.e. the Quran).”
As for the journey to truly loving ourselves, it begins with a single choice. We must choose, despite all the personal criticism we are faced with, to never becoming our own number one critic.
A Voice of Salvation—What the Quran Can Teach Us
It is important to remember that we are never alone in our struggles with criticism and feedback, nor are we deprived from the tools with which we can successfully manage them, alhamdullilah. Allah informs us that within the Quran He has clarified all matters [Surat Al-Nahl, 16:89]. From the haze of confusion caused by unchecked criticism and frivolous opinion, we are delivered clarity and calm through Allah’s divine book. Its deep oceans of knowledge are abounding with precious pearls of wisdom and guidance. We find within it many stories relating the lives and struggles of our amazing role models, the prophets. They dealt with criticism in all forms and extremes, and their experiences have been preserved for us to learn from.
Distinguishing valuable feedback from criticism that is harmful is something most struggle with. After all, is feedback not a form of nasiha (beneficial advice) which we are obligated to listen to? Is it not an act of arrogance and pride to reject advice from our brothers and sisters in faith? It’s important that we realize that not all feedback constitutes nasiha and neither are we obligated to accept all the feedback we receive. Dismissing feedback is not a sin, or an act of weak faith or a sign of arrogance. This is because as humans we are flawed. Our hearts can carry jealousy, envy, desire for control, selfishness and other spiritual diseases. We are creatures who make mistakes. It is for this reason that we accept wholeheartedly and unquestionably only what Allah offers us. Allah defines arrogance specifically as rejecting the truth of Islam and looking down upon others, so in order to experience the freedom and sweetness of faith we must ensure that the principles and actions we live by are those defined by the Creator and not by the creation. When we learn to know our Lord, we learn to know who we truly are.
In our pursuit to master our management of criticism, how exactly can we learn from the Quran to distinguish between toxic criticism and that which is potentially fruitful feedback? Well, when reading the Quran, we find one prominent figure whose words were consistently laced with baseless criticism. The figure in question is Pharaoh, and the subject of his verbal attack was none other than our beloved prophet Musa. By examining the exchanges between the two, we find demonstrated a full spectrum of toxic criticism and the levels to which it can escalate. In one significant dialogue between them, we can see the five key indicators of toxic feedback.
Phase One –Identifying Five Levels of Toxic Criticism: Pharaoh and Musa
1) Recalling Favors:
And go, both of you (Musa and Harun) to Pharaoh and say, ‘Behold, we bear a message from the Sustainer of all the worlds: Let the children of Israel go with us!’ [Pharaoh said]: ‘Did we not bring you up among us when you were a child? And did you not spend amongst us years of your life?” [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:16-18]
Here Pharaoh attempts to make Musa feel a sense of obligation towards him by reminding him of the ‘good’ he had previously done towards him.
This is because humans are naturally inclined to reciprocate good done towards them, as well as to listen to those who have helped them in the past. The truth, however, is that the value of a person’s feedback should in and of itself be enough to compel us into action without the need for emotional manipulation. Furthermore, favors by their very nature are gestures of goodwill done without any expectation of something in return, as this would negate the gesture from being a favor.
Musa frees himself of Pharaoh’s attempt to subdue him into guilty obedience, by reminding Pharaoh that the so-called favors he did would have never taken place if he had not enslaved the children of Israel to begin with. Consequently, Pharaoh progresses to adopt a more aggressive vehicle to vent his criticism.
2) Recalling Flaws & Mistakes:
[Pharaoh continued,] And yet you did commit that [heinous] deed of yours…” [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:19]
Pharaoh then attempts to spark feelings of self-doubt and guilt within Musa by reminding him of a previous crime he committed. Although the death of an Egyptian man caused by Musa whilst he attempted to help a needy Israelite was accidental, Pharaoh nonetheless still attempted to sow doubt about the legitimacy of Musa’s leadership and message, both within Musa himself and amongst the people.
This type of psychological abuse tries to inhibit us from moving forward by making us feel inadequate and unworthy. The reality is, however, that humans by nature are all flawed and no one is free from mistake. If we are to allow such forms of criticism to occupy our minds and to prevent us from our journey to unleash our potential and positive contribution to the world, then we will forever be in a lingering state of procrastination in which we will never truly feel happy and fulfilled.
Musa overcame Pharaoh’s second attempt by informing him that the mistake he made was committed many years ago, before he had received guidance. Again, Pharaoh responds by increasing his assault.
Said Pharaoh: ‘And who is this ‘Sustainer of all the worlds?’ [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:23]
When Musa provides an answer, Pharaoh then responds with
Said [Pharaoh] unto those around him: ‘Did you hear [what he said]?’ [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:25]
This is an example of Pharaoh’s tactic of posing sarcastic and rhetorical questions at Musa in an attempt to mock his message. We also witness Pharaoh directly mocking Musa as an individual by directly insulting his speech impediment.
Am I (Pharaoh) not better than this (Musa), who is a contemptible wretch and can scarcely express himself clearly?” [Surat Al-Zukhruf, 43:5]
Pharaoh’s mockery then develops from maligning questions and insults to directly challenging Musa:
[Said Pharaoh,] Produce proof then, if you are a man of truth!’ [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:31]
Mockery in its many forms is used as a weapon to weaken one’s confidence and make one appear inadequate in front of others. Highlighting gaps in one’s knowledge, flaws in one’s character, or shortcomings in one’s ability, is for the purpose of weakening one’s credibility.
The reality is, however, that no human is perfect, nor were we intended to be. Only Allah is perfect. There are gaps within our knowledge and abilities for others to compliment, just as our strengths compliment the gaps within others. We were created to work in unison, for what is required of us is beyond the capabilities of one individual. As for shortcomings in our character and faith, we have been gifted with the journey of life for the purpose of positively growing towards our most beautiful Lord.
Musa provides answers to Pharaoh’s questions and provides him with clear and miraculous signs. When Pharaoh realizes that his attempts to crush Musa are proving unsuccessful, Pharaoh becomes more extreme in his approach.
Said [Pharaoh]: ‘Indeed, if you choose to worship any deity other than me, I shall most certainly throw you into prison!’ [Surat Al-Shu ‘ara’, 26:29]
Although threats made against us are very unsettling, it indicates that the perpetrator senses a lack of control in having his/her feedback accepted and acted upon. However, as long as we continue to contribute positively to others by doing what we love, there will be a growing need and support for our work that will outweigh any criticism.
Said [Pharaoh] to the great ones around him: ‘Verily, this is indeed a sorcerer of great knowledge, who wants to drive you out of your land by his sorcery.’ [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26: 34-35]
One of the most harmful and extreme forms of criticism is demonstrated by Pharaoh when he viciously branded Musa and his intentions as evil and harmful to the people.
When someone tries to wrongfully portray another in a negative light, the attempt is really to turn others away from an individual whom they feel they have no control and influence over. With regards to this form of criticism we need only remember that actions speak louder than words. Thus, we must persist in the good we are doing because those who benefit and receive true value from us will advocate on our behalf. Most importantly, Allah is aware of all things and his assistance lies with the believers and doers of good. Those who choose to judge us based on hearsay are not the type of supporters we should seek anyway.
When we receive toxic criticism, the best response is simply to ignore and dismiss it. There are various ways that we can actively avoid having to spend time listening or reading such criticism, like blocking individuals that are utilizing online platforms. As for dealing with criticism in person from family, work colleagues or strangers, we must learn to identify and apply a strategy appropriate to our situation. This might be to create a healthy distance, to refocus by renewing our good intentions, or simply to respond with something to the effect of: “I’m not open to feedback at the moment, but when I am, insha’Allah, I will be sure to seek it out.”
Toxic criticism can be lethal to our mental and emotional well-being, just as a virus can be to our physical health, so my advice is: Catch it, Bin it, Kill it!
Phase Two—Evaluating Benefit
How do we then filter general feedback we receive so that we can distinguish between that which will serve us well and contribute relevant value to us and that which does not? Well, once I am confident that the feedback I receive is not of a toxic nature, I tend to ask myself the following two questions:
1) ‘Did I personally ask for this feedback?’
If I did not, then allowing the feedback to occupy my mind and thoughts may be an unnecessary distraction. If I did solicit it, I would then ask myself the follow-up question; ‘Why?’ You may find that you asked in order to gain some useful information required.
Or, you may also find that you unconsciously sought affirmation, support or approval. Although relishing acceptance or praise is normal to human nature, this may be something you will need to address if done on a more regular basis, because this type of motivation is unhealthy and unproductive. As humans we need seek only Allah’s approval and pleasure.
Once I have established legitimate need for requesting feedback I would ask myself the second important question.
2) ‘Is this person qualified to give me this advice?’
If the individual is, then great; otherwise I would more productively redirect my request for feedback to another individual whose expertise would be more beneficial.
For those who offer me unsolicited advice that I decide not to take on board, I usually respond with something to the effect of: ‘Thank you for the time and effort you have taken in sharing your feedback. I appreciate your good will.”
Free Yourself from the Virulence of Criticism
It is vital for us to recognize that the number of critics we have usually does not even closely equate to the numbers of supporters we have in our lives. So we need to ensure that critics do not disproportionately occupy a greater percentage of our thoughts and efforts.
The fundamental reality we must keep in mind when addressing the issue of criticism is to realize that the only way criticism can ever truly be avoided would be for us to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing—which violates our very sense of purpose and fulfillment. By learning to productively filter the feedback we receive, we ensure that we protect ourselves from the life-crippling bullets of self-doubt, stagnation and unhappiness.
There is an apparent growth of criticism in our times, particularly with the evolution of social media. Nevertheless we can still choose to detox our minds and keep our lives free of toxic criticism, using the techniques provided by the Quran to filter the feedback we may receive from the world around us. We owe it to ourselves to free our minds, to reclaim control and to love our lives.