“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!” Remember this childhood saying? It’s not true. Harsh, critical words do not leave bruises on the outside like sticks and stones. However, they do leave bruises on the inside in a person’s soul. A person gets sympathy from having an outer bruise but an inner bruise is covered and the person often suffers alone. Every adult and every child at all economic and social levels has to face criticism. How a person responds to criticism shapes his attitudes, self-image and behavior for life. I’ve met many wounded adults who are still bleeding internally from critical comments they received from their spouse, parent, teacher or influential friend. Today I’d like to offer three stages of criticism and three healthy responses that I have come to understand as a minister and in my own life. The simplest form of criticism is labeling. “You’re a jerk! You’re stupid! You are so incompetent!” The critic is judging you – not your behavior. You know immediately if they have “hit a nerve” when you find yourself defending or justifying your actions. Stage two is what I call the non-verbal critic. Even though a word is never spoken they communicate by rolling their eyes, sighing deeply, turning their back or leaving. Their disapproving thoughts are “loud and clear.” Finally, a really seasoned critic will use insults and humiliations to express his opinions. The outward behavior we associate with this is “bullying”. We often look at the actions of a bully not considering the critical spirit that fuels his actions. He has labeled his victim, expressed non-verbal disgust and is now ready to humiliate and intimidate him. It takes intervention by a more mature person who is not afraid of the bully to end his reign of terror. Just this week my husband found himself in such a position. Larry enjoys a large tropical fish tank in his office. Although he has had a variety of fish through the years, currently his aquarium is filled with African cichlids. They are aggressive fish and you have to set up the right mix or there will be war in the tank! A young male cichlid recently developed to adulthood. He was a beautiful Sunshine Peacock African cichlid. He “labeled” all the other fish in the tank as “weaklings”. He exhibited his non-verbal displeasure by showing his colors and acting as if he was the only fish on the planet. His nickname around the office was “Big Buford” and everyone kept up with his antics as they would a soap opera. The coffee break discussion would center around, “well what has Big Buford done today”? As Big Buford increased his humiliation and intimidation, he became less known for his beautiful colors and grand size and more known for his bullying. Finally, he killed his wife and ate half of his children. Larry entered Big Buford’s world and made some adjustments. A large net skimmed the aquarium until the right moment came. Big Buford was captured, placed in a jar and hauled helplessly to a local pet store. He was released into an aquarium with several fish that were twice his size. As Larry left the store Big Buford was cowering in the corner of the tank exhibiting some new body language! There are varying opinions on dealing with criticism. One author says, “Those who don’t do – criticize”, implying you should just consider the source and not worry. Another says, “You should treat your critics as unpaid consultants”, implying they can see things about you that need to be changed that you may not be able to see. I think both are correct. When you are criticized, don’t immediately accept as the truth or reject as false what is being said. Take some time to consider the matter. Bounce it off a friend you trust. Consider whether you have heard the criticism before. Repeated statements from various individuals at different times might indicate a need for change on your part. Watch body language and determine what is being said non-verbally. This is so important with your children. They may not have the courage to criticize you face-to-face, but the non-verbal communication can be expressed at full volume. Recognize the conflict and take time to talk out any differences you may have. Finally, no one deserves to be attacked by a bully. If the relationship has digressed to this level then some action needs to be taken to modify the situation. It’s not healthy to live in fear and intimidation. Follow the legal, logical and scriptural steps to put an end to the bully’s reign of terror in your life! Set boundaries that protect your heart-Proverbs 4:23. Criticism is a commodity in great abundance in this world. You don’t have to be shaped by it nor do you have to shape others. Dale Carnegie wrote, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain; and most fools do.” We have the option to be parents, spouses and children who choose a higher road. Let’s do it!