Affirmation and Criticism


This one might be kind of personal.

If you’ve ever read my blog before, you might have just laughed or gotten very nervous.  I tend to be personal.  I value being honest and transparent.  I think of these as means of being in relationship with God.

Tonight, though, I’m reflecting on something that I’ve pondered a lot, but I haven’t sorted it out.  I may not be able to now, either.  This is a work in progress.

A question I just posed on Facebook is, “Why do we hear criticism more loudly than we hear affirmation?”

Context:  I just finished teaching a class.  I loved the class.  I mean, I love the students in this class and I also deeply enjoy the class itself.  It’s a Bible class with high school seniors.  They’re about to graduate and I’m sad to see them go, though I’m choosing to focus on rejoicing that they’re going to try their wings and pursue their calling.  Okay, I’m trying to choose that.

So I asked them to fill out an evaluation of the class, either shared doc or handwritten, signing their names or anonymous.

I want to know how I can make the class better.  Truly and sincerely, I do.  I want to hear what things I could improve.  Any teacher, any pastor, any Bible teacher, any educator, I’m sure wants feedback.  Right?*

I just don’t want to be told I’ve done anything wrong.

You’ll notice that those sound like they contradict each other. 

As far as the desires and intentions of my heart, I really want to be able to hear critique and learn from my mistakes and even from my weaknesses.  I want to be faithful to the students I teach; I want to use the gifts God’s given me to their fullest.

But somewhere in my damaged little heart, desires + intentions collide with emotions + history.  You could call it baggage.  Or maybe trauma.  Scar tissue, but with still-raw nerve endings.

Truthfully, I got some feedback so positive that I want to print it out and save it for those days I most need it.  For at least a few of my students, we exceeded the goals and hopes we had for the class.  It may even have been life-changing, in the scope of their young lives.

And, of course, some didn’t love the class.  Of course.  Mom had been telling me “you can’t please everybody” since I was young enough to listen.  At least one student was bored.  Another just felt that my whole approach was wrong.

I’m not looking to discuss what I did well and poorly in teaching my class.  I’ve got instructional coaches for that!  And I’m really glad my students could give me honest feedback.  That was the point of my evaluation.

No, the question here is how we respond to criticisms and affirmations.  The real question I’m raising here is why we–and by this I mean me for sure and maybe you–can’t balance the positives and negatives we hear. 

Why are criticisms heavier than affirmations on our scales?  Why are criticisms louder in our ears?

Here’s what studies in three different fields show:  We need a ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative.  5:1. 

To thrive.  To grow.  To stay married.

Harvard Business Review summarizes these findings for strategic-business-unit leadership teams.  The Gottmann Institute, which I referred to in my post on healing damaged marriages, counsels this for creating healthy marriages (and identifies a negative ratio, which they term “disdain,” as the leading indicator of divorce).  And Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), a leading educational framework, states, “Studies indicate a 5:1 ratio, or, 5 confirmations, praise and approvals for every 1 criticism or disparagement.”

So if you want to succeed in school, marriage or business, your best hope is to hear five positives for every negative.  Likewise, if you hope to help others succeed, they need to hear five times more positives than negatives from you.  Obviously, this has huge implications for parenting, and for many other areas of our lives.

It still doesn’t answer our question of “Why?”  Harvard Business Review and education experts and the leading marriage counselors in the US all tell you, “Negatives hit harder than positives, you need to balance how you give feedback, not merely even between positive and negative, but five times more positives.”

If we are healthy, self-confident people, you might suppose that a 1:1 ratio could work.  Hear a good, hear a bad, live in our normal equilibrium.  It doesn’t. 

Mind you, this feedback may be about something I genuinely need to change.  But for positive results, to help us grow, thrive in relationships, succeed and become more effective at work, and learn, we can’t take too much

My working theory on this is that I already believe negatives about myself.  They are playing in my head all the time.  When I hear negative feedback, it seems to confirm what I’ve been suspecting about myself all along.  I don’t respond, “Oh, great, here’s something I need to do better.”  I mean, I want to.  But my more probable response is, “Just as a I suspected.  I suck.” 

There are a number of problems with that latter response.  It is counter-productive, to put it mildly.  For those of us who deal with depression, we always have to stay vigilant for the things that might send us spinning downward. 

But it’s crazy, too.  I might have three people whom I trust deeply tell me how wonderful I am and one person who has proven, repeatedly, not to be trust-worthy tell me I’m pathetic and who do I listen to? 

Nope, it’s not just me.  That’s what these studies and identical findings in various fields confirm.  We’re like this.  Corporately.  Us. 

So here are some insights from my wise friends:

Why do we hear criticism more loudly than we hear affirmation?”

Poppy says,

Because we are already our own worst critic. It’s easier to focus on the negative. We are suspicious of positive comments. We are dodo heads.

This makes sense, and also shows her conclusion is sound.  We are dodo heads.  Why are we more suspicious of positive comments than negative ones?  People don’t ever have underlying motives or agendas or an axe to grind when they say negative things, only when they say positive ones? 

In one of the best classes I took in seminary, the professor said, “seventy-five percent of the feedback people give you after a sermon is about them, not about your sermon.”  People have agendas, we all have motives, mixed and conflicting and some sub-conscious, so even when we think we’re just giving straightforward input or comment, there’s more going on. 

Dan says,

For me, it’s rooted in self-doubt and fear that people will see the weakness and shortcomings that I see in myself. Criticism validates the negative thoughts. it takes many more times as much affirmation to change the course of thought.

I love the honesty in this response.  My friend and I, we are always our own harshest critics.  Those weaknesses and shortcomings, we know them better than anyone else.  And though I’m trying to live transparently and believe God’s grace comes through my weakness–comes through your seeing my weakness–I still have areas I desperately want to hide.  I like people thinking well of me.  Many people aren’t great at seeing our weaknesses and still respecting us. 

Brenda writes:

An intense struggle that I find among the human condition, is the fear/anxiety/concern over other people’s opinions of us. It can be a difficult struggle, to allow our sense of self-worth to be tossed around, dependent upon what others think about us.

This goes back to why we give full credibility to any criticisms but freely doubt all affirmations.  We want people’s good opinions of us.  I know I do.  This desire has way too much power in my life.  As my dear friend points out, our self-worth rises and falls on the waves of others’ opinions of us.  We interpret those opinions, sometimes based on facial expressions, tone of voice, something left unsaid.  We’re guessing.  But we imagine that we’re experts and that this really does impact our self-worth.  So I’ll say it again: that’s crazy.  Our self-worth has nothing to do with someone else’s bad mood or fight with a spouse that is spilling over onto us. 

Even if they are giving 100% accurate critique of us, it still has no actual impact on our self-worth.  Our self-worth is not based upon that.  But just saying this won’t convince us.  I wish it were that easy.  However, saying it aloud is a start.

Poppy tells us,

Let’s stop doing those things! Let’s work on improving this quirk. We are adults, we know better and we should try harder! Let’s Do This! !!!!!!!!

ps I am really good at hearing the positive and taking it to heart AND ignoring the negative. I worked really hard at this improvement of myself. We spend the most time with ourselves we should try to be good to us!

Let me first say that my friend Poppy is extraordinary.  (Actually, all three of these friends are extraordinary.  I’m blessed with amazing friends!) She’s one of the most positive people I know, and it’s fully conscious and intentional. As she describes, she has made it a practice and a habit. 

What happens if we take the positives to heart?  When I read the feedback of one of my students, I broke down and cried.  It was positive, and I knew it was the truth.  It said something about “Thanks for saving my life.” 

I know someone else fervently disliked my class, maybe even hated it.  What do I do with that?  Does it make me feel bad about myself?  Does it degrade my self-worth?  Does it confirm my fears that my class sucked, that I failed to inspire my students, teach them how to read the Bible intelligently and apply it to their lives, to do what I could to help them know God? 


I had been obsessing over the criticism.  Really fixated on the negatives.

I cried because I knew it that affirmation was the truth.  I cried because it was what I’d prayed for my class to be for someone.  And I cried because it showed me how much I was letting the negatives overshadow the positives.  His wasn’t the first positive response I’d gotten. I’d gotten some really strong ones, and maybe even better than five to one ratio (so what, I need more than the average? Great.). 

What’s our take away?  Poppy is right, of course.  We have to make this a practice.  We have to choose to hear the positives and believe them.  There are negatives we should ignore and others from which we can learn.  But we have hope of learning, even from necessary critique, only if we can keep it in its true perspective, the proper proportion. 

The world may not cooperate and give us five positives for every negative.  I’m going to stick my neck out and guess it won’t.  I hope you’re in–or start–a marriage in which you give and receive 5 positives for every negative. 

Our true hope, bottom line, comes from God.  Our self-worth doesn’t change with people’s opinions because it is rooted in God’s love for us.  If we believe that we are God’s beloved, his sons and daughters, and that he delights in us, if we accept that it’s his pleasure to give us his Kingdom,** then we are “hearing” many positives throughout our days.  If you can believe that–and Jesus says you should–then you can believe me when I affirm you.  And vice-versa.   

Why do we hear criticism more loudly than affirmation?  Because we believe we are less than God makes us.  We believe lies about ourselves, including exaggerations and generalizations of negatives–often the most effective lies.  

Will this help me next time I’m fixating on negatives? Yeah, I think so.  Maybe only a little, but it’s all a process; it’s always step-by-step.  God can change our hearts and our minds to believe what’s true.  The volume control might be within our reach, after all 



*There’s a whole discussion, a whole science, concerning asking questions that elicit useful feedback and then knowing how to interpret the feedback you get.  I’m not wading into that here. 

**The one that spreads grace and calls us to love everyone–you know, the good one.

3 thoughts on “Affirmation and Criticism

  1. LowBrown

    Great blog! Love the insight and the comments from friends. One thing I find disturbingly intriguing is how this situation reverses for many people when the topic switches to a critique of a belief rather than a critique of a person’s job, abilities, etc. For example, if you use political philosophy as a topic, many people hear affirmation of their existing beliefs far more loudly, almost exclusively, and put virtually zero weight on criticism/critical opinions.

  2. That is a GREAT question! It doesn’t seem to follow logically at all, yet it’s really true. We don’t do well with criticism, yet having our positions criticized just makes us hunker down and circle the wagons. Having people from the opposite perspective criticize our views almost seems to confirm that we’re right. I’ve written a couple things about trying to see the other side, being more civil in our dialogue, recognizing the depth and complexity of issues rather than acting as if our view is patently obvious–and I think you’ve helped me with all of those. But I think your question would be a great topic for its own post…or book.

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