Who You Take Criticism From and the Heart Behind It Matters

Part of being in the military is learning to take orders. You also get a barrage of feedback, and because,in a lot of cases, time may be short, nothing is sugar-coated. Over the course of my 34 years spent in combat boots and my rise through the ranks from enlisted infantryman to Lieutenant Colonel, I experienced a lot of different leaders. Some were full of encouragement and helped you find your best self. Others could be harsh in their critiques, and you left your review feeling deflated. A few years ago, when I started thinking about my future once I left the U.S. Army, I recognized a hard truth: I had slipped into the habit of focusing on the negative. Growing up poor with a single mom as one of six kids and dealing with constant criticism from teachers who labeled me “stupid” early on didn’t help. When I took a long, hard look at myself, I realized I’d become my own worst critic. I beat myself up over past mistakes and every little misstep every single day. My negative thinking was magnified by constantly replaying the cruel words of my worst critics whenever I messed up. When you are transitioning to civilian life, you must reconnect with yourself and others and figure out who you are now and who you want to be moving forward. That’s one of the 7 Steps to Remarkable Resilience and Triumphant Transition in my forthcoming book WARRIOR’S CODE 001. Transition is always tough. You are moving into unfamiliar territory. What I figured out was that to make progress toward the next stage in life, I needed to reconsider whose criticism I listened to – including my own inner critic. That’s not a very good idea. You’ve likely heard that statement whenever you’ve expressed a plan at many points in your life. But what’s interesting about that statement is that it has a fluid meaning. What I am saying is that whenever you hear that statement, you have to consider who is telling you that and what the intention behind that statement is. A good way to determine that intention is to imagine how it would sound If they finished that statement out loud. Example A) That’s not a very good idea, because I tried to do that and failed. Example B) That’s not a very good idea, because that’s illegal, and you could get arrested. Example A is criticism motivated by fear or doubt. Maybe you say that those words to yourself whenever you come up with a dream or plan that seems a little too big. Or maybe somebody close to you – a family member or a friend – is quick to shoot down any goal or idea that is outside their realm of experience or that makes them uncomfortable. What someone else couldn’t do has nothing to do with you. Of course, you should always ask more questions and learn from the failures of others. But doubt is infectious, so don’t let it infiltrate your thinking. Example B is a critique that comes from a place of love and concern. Although this example is extreme, it shows the behavior and advice that comes from someone who genuinely has your wellbeing at heart. Those are the people, who deserve to be your battle buddies and mentors as you create your new life. Which brings us to the core issue this post helps you examine: When should you listen and who you should listen to? The stakes are high. When you transition out of the service, you can fall into the trap of isolating yourself. If your own inner critic is the only voice you hear, that’s dangerous. It’s equally bad if you surround yourself with naysayers, who don’t share your vision or your goals for you and your loved ones. What are the intentions of those whose company you keep? Do they genuinely support you and your decision-making when it comes to what’s best for you and your family? Intentions matter. They are predictors of whether your battle buddies will help you rise to a challenge or leave you stranded. Recognize when someone doesn’t want you to succeed. Fear and doubt-based criticism might not be malicious. In fact, sometimes people aren’t even aware of the motives behind the critical things they say. However, to guard your mind from the dream-killer of negativity, you must consider the heart behind their words. Are they saying you shouldn’t try because your dream exceeds the limits of their imagination? Is it because they’ve never seen or heard of anyone doing it — therefore, how could you? If that’s the case, take it personally and prove them wrong. My ex-wife told me that I’d never amount to anything and had no hope of getting a college degree and becoming an officer. I used her putdowns as fuel. I graduated college, got my master’s degree and a law degree and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served twice as an Inspector General. Are they stomping on your dreams, because they were never able to succeed at your stated goal themselves? Egocentric doubt is cancerous. Limit your exposure to these folks – even if they are family. These are the people who will leave you stranded in no man’s land. On your journey, if there is a goal, an opportunity, a seemingly improbable dream — something that keeps you up at night with a fire burning in your gut — don’t let anyone tell you it’s impossible. Your fire is sacred. Guard it vigilantly. If a thousand people have failed before you, it’s irrelevant. Learn why they did, and do it better. There are too many variables in play to let their failure serve as proof that you can’t do it. Any great victory that is remembered through the ages looked unlikely with the odds stacked against the eventual winner. You’ll never regret trying. Faith and belief is oxygen. Fear and doubt snuffs your fire out. But it’s still a balancing act. While trying to keep doubt and fear away, it’s easy to miss those kernels of truth that can help guide you. Even your worst enemies might give you a clue. Perhaps something you’re great at makes them insecure or uncomfortable. Maybe they truly have seen a weakness or something you could improve at and are gleefully pointing it out. Only you can learn to identify your allies, your enemies, or those who are apathetic towards you, and figure out the intent behind their words. The flipside of the equation is that we don’t always want to hear the truth. We can be our own worst enemy. For example, you tell your friend you want to compete in an ironman competition — but you don’t exercise and your fitness isn’t where it needs to be. He tells you that you should start exercising more and focusing on swimming, biking, and running. That’s a simple statement of fact, a love-based critique. Your ego might not want to let that information sink in and take action on what your buddy said, but you’ll never reach your stated goal unless you let your guard down. Your allies and battle buddies can be just as useful at gathering recon for your strategy as you step forward as you are. But assessing their reports is up to you. Now let’s say that same friend tells you, you can’t compete in a triathlon, that you’re never going to be able to make it. That person is not helping you rise to the challenge. Limit their influence. That’s exactly what I did after I had to have a hip replacement and learn to walk again after injuring my hip during my last month of deployment in Afghanistan. My doctor told me I’d likely never run again and certainly never practice taekwondo. Within the year I completed a triathalon and last month I earned my third-degree black belt. Be humble, adjust course, and at the end of the day, ask yourself one question:

Is this critique going to help me reach my goals and dreams, or is it going to leave me stranded in no man’s land?

Stay in the fight,  Mark Green