Killing My Critical Spirit

I’m ready to finally come to grips with my critical spirit.

In the last post I wrote about attending a conference and learning about all of the cool things that are happening in healthcare.  During one of the presentations I found myself in an internal dialog criticizing or critiquing the new ideas and developments under discussion.  I don’t remember consciously choosing to be critical.  It sort of just happened.  At some point I “woke up” asking myself, why am I doing this?  Why am I so critical?  Why can’t I just go with it and be excited for all the good things coming?  After a few minutes of reflection, I was able to shift my outlook and come away from that meeting excited about the overall direction of healthcare.

At the time I didn’t sense that this experience was an intervention from God, but since then it’s been weighing on my mind. I’ve been continuing to think about why I criticize.   No one likes it.  Even I don’t really like it when I get critical, but it seems so natural sometimes.  Although, by worldly standards I’m a pretty nice guy, over the last week I’ve come to believe that God is now telling me that it’s time to deal with my critical spirit.

So then, exactly why am I so critical?  After a few days of reflection, I think that I become critical in an attempt to defend myself (or more accurately my self-image) from anything threatening. New ideas and change in general can be threatening. (And not just to me. Remember Galileo?)

My critical spirit seems to show up mostly work, perhaps because that’s where I can get most defensive.  Some of this might be a carryover from medical school and my subsequent training as a physician.  Doctors are generally expected to be “right” or correct at all times. Mistakes are simply unacceptable!  In any particular clinical situation, a physician must carefully sort all of the diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities.  He or she must critique the alternatives in order to decide exactly what’s happening and what treatments to administer.  There is a high premium on being right, because there is a potentially high price to pay for being wrong.

But I have felt this need to be right in many situations beyond patient care.  Clearly, my ego is threatened by being wrong.  My self-image is too invested in being knowledgeable or right, and I can feel diminished or “less than” if I am mistaken. Consequently, when I hear an idea or opinion which contradicts any strongly held position of mine, my first response is usually not, Hmm… Maybe they’re right, but rather to go on defense (at least internally if not actually out loud.)

I also feel some need to be “important” at work, and learning of others’ accomplishments certainly can diminish my own sense of importance.  This is obviously a problem because there are many people (who are not me) doing great things in my organization and in healthcare in general.  Instead of just celebrating what others are doing, I often begin an internal conversation about why it won’t work or what’s wrong with this or that program or idea.  Even if these assessments are true, it generally isn’t a helpful way of thinking, at least initially.  Yet this seems so automatic; how can I let it go?

Of course, at work there is potentially more at stake than just my ego. What about my actual job duties?  If others have good ideas and are achieving results that are related or overlapping with my work “territory,” where does that leave me?  Could my role shrink or even disappear?  This isn’t just bad for my ego; it could be bad for my paycheck!  It’s not totally unreasonable to be concerned.  Yet, I also know that teamwork and collaboration are critical for success in today’s very complex healthcare environment.   How good of a teammate can I be if I am constantly defensive and critical of the work others are doing?

External issues may be influencing me here as well. Stress is probably an exacerbating factor in my recent negativity, and, as you know, I have found my job to be quite stressful in the last year or so. I don’t think I’m unusual in getting more defensive under a strain, but that doesn’t make it right.  In addition to lowering my stress level, I’d like to develop the ability to remain positive in challenging circumstances.

And how about our culture?  The polarization and increasing hostile nature of our public debates on a whole host of issues – income inequality, healthcare reform, military intervention overseas, budget deficits, etc. – can carry over into my thoughts, emotions, and behavior if I’m not careful.  I read some pretty aggressive blogs on a daily basis.  Could this be turning me into one of those self-righteous TV pundits?  Maybe, but I don’t want to be like that.

So, I’m clear that I need to change, but not in everything.  Don’t get the idea that I’m a completely negative person.  In general, I’m a happy and optimistic person, and I enjoy being an encourager. (when I’m not feeling threatened. 🙂 )  I like myself, and I like my outgoing, energetic personality.  I just want to lose the critical spirit while retaining the ability to be discerning. I’d like to see problems and issues without being negative.  How can I do that?

The answer seems simple. It’s time to stop defending my self-image, my importance and my job role.  Since my criticism stems from this perceived need to defend myself, if I can let go of that, then I can be more open to most any new ideas.

Fortunately I know that, through Jesus, I can surrender and let down my defenses. In fact, Jesus calls for his followers to die to their self and self-image and to give up any personal ambition to be “important,” me included. But he also promises to take care of me.  Regardless of my job, my worldly importance, and my knowledge (or lack of knowledge), God loves me and will provide for me.  I know that following Jesus is what’s required.

Of course, knowing is not doing.  I’ve known all this for some time, but still I have been overly critical and defensive.  I’ve not yet fully “died to myself.” Of course, few of us have. God’s grace makes that okay too, but the Holy Sprit seems to be pushing me to change.  So that’s what I’m going to do. It’s time to kill my critical spirit.

I have a three-part strategy.  Part one is prayer.  God help me let go of my need to be important and to be right.  Remind me that true importance comes with seeking your kingdom first, regardless of where that leads.  Remove any fear and defensiveness from me.

Part two is mindfulness.  I will work on being more aware in the moment of any creeping negativity.  If I can recognize it early, I can shift my thinking before I get sucked in. I did it at the conference; I can do it again.  With practice it should get easier.

Part three is where you come in.  Timely corrective feedback is always helpful for effecting change.  So please tell me when I’m being negative or defensive. Remind me of my desire to trust Jesus and to be more encouraging and helpful.  If you see me backsliding at work, please tell me so right then. If negativity and defensiveness creeps into a blog post or two please correct me in the comments.  I could use the help.  (Of course, encouragement is also welcome!)

When will I be completely free of my critical spirit?  God knows, but I feel liberated already, and I know that I can count on the Holy Spirit to bring his work to completion.

Comments

  1. I like the word and idea of discernment…I think it speaks of appropriate reflection on issues, with wisdom and help from the grace of God. Michelle

  2. Hi Pete,

    Great blog. It takes a lot of courage to be so open about our failings. We all have them, but bringing them to the light and overcoming them is so hard. It really is threatening. The moral man Paul describes in Romans 2: 14-16 had these same issues. It funny how he describes the same inward reaction to these issues that you described…”alternatively accusing and defending ourselves”. “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

    Another thing that comes clear in this passage is that even though it is difficult for us to delineate our motives, he will ultimately judge the secrets of our hearts. Interestingly the Bible also give us some practical insight into understanding our motives in Hebrews 4:12 NASB For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. As we prayerfully ask for clear understanding of our motives, (Psalms 19:13 Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I will be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.) and carefully consider the Scripture, God reveals the intentions of our hearts to us. Thank God He still speaks to mankind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can certainly relate to you.

    • Peter Weiss says:

      Thank you Ray. I appreciate your perspective, and I am thankful that God is in charge and working on me.