Criticism Fatigue part 2: Criticism is essential

Here’s a fun paradox: as I’ve explored in this first post about criticism fatigue, as a mental health service provider and peer worker, criticism is risky to me, my job, and my organisation. It makes me feel stressed, threatened, and unsafe, and at times it is all of those things especially when it crosses the line into abuse. However, I feel quite the reverse about being able to make complaints. It’s very important to me that my right to criticise is respected and supported. I want to be able to make a complaint easily, without penalty, and to feel listened to, taken seriously, and even see change happen as a result. Being able to criticise limits the power of people and services to abuse and harm me – as a consumer, a carer, or a peer worker. Being able to criticise helps me be safer. But receiving criticism threatens that safety and wears me out. How do we manage that reality?

If I believe that consumers deserve to have a voice, which I do, then I believe that criticism must be part of the process of service provision. If I believe that staff deserve to be safe from abuses by consumers or other staff, which I do, then I believe that criticism must be part of service delivery. If criticism is so essential, maybe we need a better approach to it in services – something that makes it less threatening and less risky.

Let’s look at the bigger picture for a moment. Criticism can be conceptualised as a form of ‘feedback’. Feedback is the process of sending a message back after an action, to modify the next action. It’s a form of communication, and it is incredibly important to the functioning of all organisms, eco systems, and structures made up of smaller components. This is moving into the territory of systems theory, a fascinating field of study that explores the relationships between individuals/units/components within a larger system. The nature of feedback is that it creates regulation – it gives information about the effect of an action so that future actions can be modified to achieve the desired result. Without feedback, there is no regulation, and without regulation, function and survival are threatened.

In relationships between people, feedback is essential to connect and to pursue goals. Feedback in the many complex forms of signalling contentment, distress, praise, criticism, and so on all set the boundaries and define the power balance in the relationship. 2 way feedback means that these signals can be sent and received by both parties in both directions – person A can tell person B when they are comfortable or irritated or hurt, and person B can do likewise with person A.

In systems where this feedback is inhibited there are higher risks of problems. If a consumer can’t complain to or about a staff member, they are less likely to be consistently engaged with in ways that meet their needs and don’t hurt or frustrate them. If a staff member must not have complaints made about them/their services then they are under pressure to meet consumer needs without being able to clarify when their efforts are not effective, and without being able to take risks that may not work out – bearing unfair responsibility that presumes mind-reading and infallibility. If a staff member can’t complain about a consumer but the consumer can complain about the staff member – or vice versa, there is a significant power imbalance at play that can allow harm to happen to the more vulnerable party.

Criticism is also essential in a less personal sense – we need to criticise services, resources, ideas, ideologies, approaches, politics. In a similar way that feedback regulates relationships, it regulates ideas. It is not possible to create anything that is perfect, static, unchanging. The most elegant and beautiful idea can be misconstrued, misapplied, inappropriate in context, overcomplicated, oversimplified, accidentally destructive, and deliberately twisted to cause harm. It is not only appropriate but essential that we debate, discuss, and explore our ideas. In the case of services we need to hear from all people. It’s not good enough to say – well ‘most’ people find this approach helpful so we don’t have to listen to those who find it harmful. It’s not good enough to assume that good intentions will prevent harm. It’s not good enough to create highly risk averse structures to prevent criticism and then take the lack of criticism as a sign that all is well.

Criticism is part of learning. It is a signal that we have made a mistake, and propels us to greater understanding. As Bradbury colourfully put it in Fahrenheit 451

You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.

Criticism is also inevitable. Do anything at all in life and you will have critics. Some you need for their useful ideas and input, and some are just the price you pay for being active. Criticism can help to expose you to ideas, experiences, and perspectives you could simply never personally gather in your own lifetime. My experience of setting up resources in mental health and doing consultation to garner what is most needed, where the gaps are, and the best use of resources has been that getting that information in advance is often very difficult from more than a small portion of the community. However, once a resource is running, criticism will abound if it fails in some way – and the resource can then be modified in the light of that. It’s often difficult for people to articulate what they need until they’ve started to see some options (show me a menu! I don’t know what to order) or started to have some experiences (this bit was great, that bit made me really uncomfortable). It would be a whole lot more comfortable for me if I could gather that information in advance and set up ‘perfect’ resources, but that’s more about my fear of criticism than it is about the back and forth of real community engagement. Accepting and being willing to engage with criticism has worn me out and led me to struggle with criticism fatigue, but it has also honed my ideas, challenged my ignorance, and made my resources better.

Criticism is also inevitable because of the massive diversity in people’s needs, values, and beliefs. It is simply impossible to perform any public action that meets with 100% approval. Some people are adept at criticising from their armchairs without ever risking getting involved. Some feel threatened by anything that brings an unpleasant reality to their attention, or that reduces their own power or comfort in any way. A local organisation had to fight an extensive court battle to open a respite facility for people with mental health problems when many members of the local community tried to block it on grounds such as their perceived risk of violence from the members, and possible lowering of house prices in the area. Most community services aimed at vulnerable, stigmatised populations face similar challenges with harsh criticism. Anyone who works in retail or any customer service role with the public has stories of people’s bizarre, confronting, irrational, and impossible expectations, opinions, and behaviour. The comments section on internet videos and articles is often testament to exactly how ugly ‘the public’ can be. People are highly diverse, not always rational, and not always community minded. Criticism can reflect human diversity, and it can be a weapon of human perversity and cruelty.

So, if criticism is risky, but also essential and inevitable – how the hell can I engage with it? The approaches we are inclined to when experiencing criticism fatigue are so harmful and create many more problems than they solve. Increasing control, reducing transparency, filtering access, giving up, hating ourselves, refusing to listen, and attacking back all deflect, avoid, and weaponise criticism. What are we left with? What does it look like when we engage with criticism as a healthy and essential part of communication? How can we recognise our own limits and vulnerabilities around criticism fatigue? How can we support ourselves to engage criticism in constructive ways? I am no expert for sure, but I have been lucky enough to have some good mentors and read some interesting books in this area which has helped a bit as I’ve fumbled my way through peer work. Something to explore in my next post.

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