ADHD: Learning How to Handle Criticism & Self-Doubt
One of the most common and recurring strategies that successful Hunters tell about is how they’ve learned to handle criticism...
It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.
-Benjamin Disraeli speech, Jan 24, 1860
Learn from criticism...and then let go of the blame
One of the most common and recurring strategies that successful Hunters tell about is how they’ve learned to handle criticism.
A successful ADHD entrepreneur tells the story of how devastated he was in a high school presentation that he’d spent the better part of two months on for English class. He read dozens of books, dug out arcane facts, sifted through quotes and stories and information, all to find what he thought was the absolutely perfect summary to make his point.
With great enthusiasm he pulled an all-nighter, writing the final paper, and marched off to school the next day with his head high and the smell of academic victory in his nostrils.
At two o’clock he walked into his English classroom and marched up to the teacher’s desk, the paper in his hand. “Here it is,” he said, and handed it to her with a dramatic flourish.
She took one glance at it, leaned over the side of the desk, and dropped it into the wastebasket. “You didn’t double-space it,” she said. “When are you going to learn to read the directions?”
Stunned, he began to protest, to tell her about the hours of work he’d done. She shook her head, as if shaking his words out of her ears, and interrupted him, saying, “You have to learn how to do things right. This will be a good lesson for you. I’m giving you an F for that paper, and there’s no appeal because today was the last day you could hand it in.”
He went home that night and, at the ripe old age of fourteen, cried himself to sleep.
“I learned two important lessons from that experience,” he told me, twenty years later. “The first was that I needed to slow down, to force myself to read directions. In that regard, it was probably a positive experience. But it also almost destroyed my commitment to her, to the class, to the school, and to any future academic achievement. And that was where I learned my second, and most important, lesson: When you fall down, stand back up, dust yourself off, and carry on.”
“That sounds easy,” I said, “but how do you do it? How could you keep from being angry with her, from blaming her, or, for that matter, from blaming yourself?”
“I have a picture in my mind,” he said, “of a man who’s walking down a dusty rural road. He trips on a stone and falls, face-first, into the dirt. And then he reaches over to the side of the road, grabs a stick, and begins to beat himself over the head with the stick, yelling at himself about how stupid he was to trip and fall. Between these comments, he’s cursing the stone for being there and blaming it for tripping him.
“That’s absurd, isn’t it? But it’s just what many people do. When I imagine that picture, and see how absurd it is to wallow in self-blame, I feel empowered to get on with my life.”
Unfortunately, the “absurd” behavior that this entrepreneur described is just what so many people do-particularly those who’ve spent their lives feeling like they’ve never quite lived up to their potential.
They respond to criticism first by blaming the critic, and then by beating themselves up. They rationalize the former by taking a debating position, finding flaws in the criticism or the critic, and then rationalize the latter by telling themselves that if they beat themselves up emotionally they’ll “learn from the experience.”
In real life, it rarely works that way. People who pursue this strategy instead just end up bruised and ineffectual, paralyzed by fear of criticism, or by the damage they do to themselves in the name of lesson- learning.
So how can we best handle criticism?
The first step is to examine the criticism to see if there’s any truth in it.
Usually there is some truth to criticism and, if we can separate out the kernel of truth from the emotional baggage associated with it, we can often learn something useful.
For example, when my first book about ADHD was published in 1993 (Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception), one reviewer wrote a scathing and sarcastic commentary about it. While much of the commentary was off-base or factually inaccurate, he did point out one very real deficiency: my premise of Hunters and Farmers was based in anthropology, but I hadn’t gotten the endorsement of any anthropologists or cited any anthropological texts in my bibliography.
So, deciding that he had a point, I sought out people with the requisite knowledge of hunting and farming cultures. I first found Will Krynen, M.D., who, while not an anthropologist, was one of the few medical doctors in the world to have spent years of his career as the physician to an indigenous hunting society, with one of the Native American tribes of Canada.
Every year he followed them with his small airplane as they made their annual 300-mile trek following the caribou they hunted. He told me that when he first arrived, he found that the previous doctor had diagnosed 100% of their children as ADHD, and had put their entire school on Ritalin. That was pretty good validation to him of the Hunter/Farmer theory.
Then I met cultural anthropologist Jay Fikes, PhD, who wrote the famous (in anthropological circles) book debunking Carlos Castenada. Dr. Fikes obtained his PhD by studying the few remaining native American hunting societies of the American southwest and northern Mexico.
After reading my book, he wrote a ringing endorsement of it, saying that his experience taught him that hunting and agricultural societies were profoundly different, and that the individuals who make them up are profoundly different. There is a startlingly high percentage of what we would call ADHD among the members of the native hunting tribes Jay had lived among and written about.
So that criticism of my book, as sarcastic and stinging as it was intended to be, nonetheless led to a strengthening of the science behind what I’d first presented only as a model or a paradigm. It improved my book and gave new credibility to the thesis that people with ADHD really are descendants of ancient hunting societies.
The second step to handling criticism is to let the pain in it roll off your shoulders.
After learning what we can from our critics, we have to let go of the emotions that criticism arouses in us.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was attacked by every armchair general in the world: every move he made, every speech he gave, every law he proposed was mercilessly torn apart by his critics. Yet Lincoln endured.
When someone told Lincoln that his Secretary of War, Edward M. Stanton, had called him a “damn fool” for one of his orders, he went to Stanton to ask what was foolish about the order. Stanton made his case, and Lincoln agreed, rescinding the order.
And then he took the second step: he let the pain of being publicly called a “damn fool” roll off his back. To use the entrepreneur’s metaphor, Lincoln stood up and dusted himself off and continued walking along the road.
Lincoln, reflecting on this need to carry on regardless of the emotional sting of criticism, wrote:
“I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won’t matter. If the end brings me out wrong, then ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” (These words were so inspiring to Winston Churchill that he had them framed and hung in his office during World War 11.)
So whether the criticism originates from others or from within us, the two-step process to deal with it is to first learn from it, and then to let go of it, turning the emotions associated with blaming into the process of learning
Stand back up, dust yourself off, and get back to walking down that road of life!