Abraham Lincoln's method of protecting us from destructive criticism

    • Abraham Lincoln's method of protecting us from destructive criticism

    Have you ever been subjected to destructive and extremely unfair criticism?

    Did they judge you without understanding you?

    Did they hurt you with harsh words you didn't deserve?

    If at any point you have been faced with ruthless criticism, it is likely that those words have stuck with you, fueling anger, insecurity and guilt. But when we allow criticism to turn into the fuel of our malaise, we are empowering the person who criticizes us. And, by falling into his game, we lose.

    No one has tasted the bitter taste of criticism like Abraham Lincoln. Historian Donald Phillips wrote: "He was vilified, criticized and hated perhaps more intensely than any other man who ran for the nation's highest office ..." The press of the time spared no insults, but Lincoln never collapsed. How did he manage to protect himself from criticism?

    How to protect yourself from unfair criticism?

    1. Keep shining, like the moon

    It is said that one day, during one of the darkest periods of his presidency, Lincoln was walking down a street near the Capitol in Washington when an acquaintance of his joined him. The man communicated the negative sentiment towards him that existed in Washington and throughout the country.

    With brutal honesty, he told Lincoln many of the things that were said about him and his policies. As he spoke, Lincoln was completely silent, listening.

    Then Lincoln stopped, looked directly at the man and said:

    “I listened to you, but let me tell you another story. You know that all wolves have a habit of going out in the evening and howling at the moon. And they keep howling while the moon is visible in the sky. "

    Then he stopped talking and kept walking. Confused by Lincoln's response, the man asked him:

    “Mr. Lincoln, you have not finished your story. Tell me the rest! "

    Lincoln these:

    “There is nothing more to say. The moon continues to shine regardless of the howling of the wolves. "

    Lincoln meant that we must simply ignore unfair and malicious criticism that does nothing. Indeed, in a letter to Cuthbert Bullitt he wrote: "Sometimes some people may try to humiliate a man meanly, they will succeed only if he allows his mind to deviate from its true purpose to meditate on that attack."

    2. Don't respond impulsively, be self-disciplined

    Sometimes it is easier to say certain things than to put them into practice. The shield of rationality and objectivity that we can build is not impregnable. Sometimes there is tremendously unfair criticism that comes from people who are important to us that hurt us deeply and provoke an intense emotional reaction. Even Lincoln was not immune to them. But he had a solution: self-discipline.

    When he got angry with someone who criticized him, he wrote him a letter in which he expressed what he felt. But he never sent it. Those letters were discovered in a drawer of his desk. Lincoln knew the cathartic power of writing, and he was also aware that we can regret hasty decisions. For this reason, he preferred to let his emotions run wild in private and then, with a cool head, approach the issue in a more calm and balanced way.

    3. Know yourself

    The hardest part when we have to deal with criticism, even the unfair one, is the part that might be true. Being on the defensive in front of criticism means protecting yourself from something. And that something can be weakness or inner insecurity.

    Historian Gleaves Whitney wrote: “The most important trait of Lincoln's personality was self-awareness. This is what enabled him to rise from such depths, endure such trials and overcome all problems as a leader. He knew who he was. "

    If we are sure of ourselves and know ourselves, unfair criticism may cause us perplexity, but we will not need to defend ourselves. On the contrary, if we believe that it contains a part of the truth because it has touched one of our weak points, we will try to defend ourselves.

    If the criticism, even poorly expressed, contains something true or makes us aware of an insecurity, we must work on it. This means that we can transform an apparently destructive criticism into something constructive. And if the criticism is simply unfair, we can ignore it by using our inner strength. Lincoln reiterated: "Make sure you put your feet in the right place, then hold the position."

    4. Destroy your critics by turning them into friends

    “I don't like that man. I have to know him better ”was one of Lincoln's maxims. When someone is very critical of us it is often because they cannot understand our perspective. Instead of getting angry and blaming anyone who disagreed with his ideas, Lincoln listened to their arguments and then tried to explain his perspective to them. He did so with Frederick Douglass, the most eminent African American leader of the time and Lincoln's great critic.

    When they met, Douglass hoped the president would give him back the harsh criticism, instead, Lincoln said he had read his 1862 speech in which he criticized his "policy of delay and hesitation" with respect to the emancipation of blacks. He remembered the incident without any anger and, after hearing what Douglass had to say, he explained his reasons. Douglass disagreed with everything the president said, but he recognized Lincoln's honesty and they have maintained a cordial and respectful relationship ever since.

    Lincoln wondered, "Don't I destroy my enemies when I turn them into my friends?" He was convinced that sometimes kindness and respect are the best weapons to fend off criticism, even the most ferocious.


    Thurman, J. (2018) How to Handle Criticism – Abraham Lincoln. In: Thurman. 

    Galbraith, C. (2018) How to handle criticism, the Lincoln way – A message for our time. In: Galbraith. 

    Carlson, P. (2011) Abraham Lincoln Meets Frederick Douglass. In: American History Magazine.

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