Have you ever been subjected to a destructive and extremely unfair criticism?
Have you been judged without understanding?
Have you been hurt with harsh words that you didn’t deserve?
If at any time you’ve been subjected to a ruthless criticism, it’s likely those words have been running around in your mind, fueling anger, insecurity and sense of guilt. However, when we allow criticism to become an active focus of discomfort, we empower the person who criticized us. And when we fall into his game, we lose.
No one tasted the flavors of criticism like Abraham Lincoln. The historian Donald Phillips wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was slandered, libeled, and hated perhaps more intensely than any other man to ever run for the nation’s highest office…” The press of the time didn’t skimp on insults. But Lincoln didn’t fall apart. How did he manage to handle criticism?
How to protect yourself from unfair criticism?
- Keep shining, like the moon
They say that one day, during one of the darkest periods of his presidency, Lincoln walked down a street near the Capitol in Washington when an acquaintance caught up with him. The man brought out the growing anti-Lincoln sentiment in Washington and spread throughout the country.
With brutal honesty, he told Lincoln many of the things that were said about him and his policies. As he spoke, Lincoln remained completely silent, listening.
Then Lincoln stopped, looked directly at the man and said:
“I’ve listened to you, but let me tell you another story. You know that all dogs have the habit of going out at night and howling at the moon. And they keep howling while the moon is visible in the sky.”
Then he stopped talking and continued his walk. Confused by Lincoln’s response, the man asked:
“Mr. Lincoln, you didn’y finish your story. Tell me the rest!”
Lincoln just replied:
“There’s nothing more to tell. The moon continues to shine regardless of the howling of the wolves.”
Lincoln wanted tos ay that sometimes we simply have to ignore the unjust, malicious criticisms that don’t contribute anything to us. In fact, in a letter to Cuthbert Bullitt he wrote: “Sometimes, some people may try to humbly humiliate a man, they will only succeed if he allows his mind deviate from its true purpose to meditate on that attack.”
- Do not respond impulsively, be self-disciplined
Sometimes it’s easier to say certain things than put them into practice. The shield of rationality and objectivity that we build is not impregnable. Sometimes there are tremendously unfair criticisms that come from significant people that hurt us deeply and provoke an intense emotional reaction. Lincoln was not immune either. But he had a solution: self-discipline.
When he got angry at someone who criticized him, he wrote him a letter expressing what he felt. But he never sent them. Those letters were discovered in a drawer of his desk. Lincoln knew the cathartic power of writing, and was also aware that we can repent of those decisions made hastily. For that reason, he preferred to let his emotions run wild in private and then, with the coldest mind, approach the matter in a more calm and balanced way.
- Know yourself
The most complicated part when we have to deal with a criticism, even with those unjust, is the part that could be true. If we put ourselves on the defensive before a criticism, it means that we are protecting ourselves from something. And that something can be a weakness or inner insecurity.
The historian Gleaves Whitney wrote: “The most important feature of Lincoln’s personality was self-consciousness. That was what allowed him to rise from such depths, endure such trials and overcome as many problems as a leader. He knew who he was.”
If we are sure of ourselves and know ourselves enough, an unjust criticism could cause us perplexity, but we won’t need to defend ourselves. On the contrary, if we believe that it contains a part of truth because it touched one of our weak points, we’ll try to defend ourselves.
If criticism, although poorly expressed, contains something of truth or helps us realize an insecurity, we must work on it. That means we can turn a seemingly destructive critique into something constructive. And if criticism is simply unfair, we can ignore it by resorting to our inner strength. Lincoln reaffirms: “Make sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
- Destroy your critics by turning them into friends
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”, was one of Lincoln’s sayings. When someone is very critical to us, it is often because he can’t understand our perspective. Instead of getting angry and blaming those who didn’t agree with his ideas, Lincoln listened to their arguments and then tried to explain his perspective. He did it with Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African-American leader of the time and a great critic of Lincoln.
When they met, Douglass expected the president to return the criticism with ferocity, but instead, Lincoln told him that he read his speech of early 1862 in which he criticized his “policy of delay and hesitation” regarding emancipation. He remembered the incident without a trace of anger and, after hearing what Douglass had to say, explained his reasons. Douglass didn’t agree with everything the president said, but recognized Lincoln’s honesty and since then they maintained a cordial and respectful relationship.
Lincoln wondered: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” He believed that sometimes kindness and respect are the best weapons to defend against criticism, even the most ferocious.
Thurman, J. (2018) How to Handle Criticism – Abraham Lincoln. In: Thurman.
Galbraith, C. (2018) How to handle criticism, the Lincoln way – A message for our time. In: Galbraith.
Carlson, P. (2011) Abraham Lincoln Meets Frederick Douglass. In: American History Magazine.