The Abe Lincoln Method of Handling Criticism

Have you ever been stung by unjust criticism? It can really get under your skin.

Worse, if you can’t let it go, it eats away at you over time, for months or years in some cases. A single, unfortunate event can turn into an ongoing source of pain.

Letting go is the only solution. But how?

Read these four tips from the master of overcoming unjust criticism, President Abraham Lincoln.

Historian Donald Phillips wrote, “Abraham Lincoln was slandered, libeled, and hated perhaps more intensely than any other man to ever run for the nation’s highest office….”

Lincoln was publicly called just about every name imaginable by the press of the day, including grotesque baboon, a third-rate country lawyer who once split rails and now splits the Union, a coarse vulgar joker, a dictator, an ape, a buffoon, and others.”

As his presidency went on, the criticism against him increased. Yet several historians confirm that he accepted most insults with dignity. How is this possible?

Here are four qualities, attributed to Lincoln, which allowed him to navigate a sea of criticism and remain at peace within himself.

His purpose was larger than himself

Only when he deemed it important enough to make a difference, did he engage the attack and offer a rebuttal and defend himself. Otherwise, Lincoln allowed the largeness of his life purpose to keep him focused on what really mattered.

In a letter to Cuthbert Bullitt he wrote, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malice dealing.”

He also said, “There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down, and they will succeed, too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury.”

Takeaway: If your purpose is genuinely important to you, no small-minded criticism will get in the way.

He turned to humor

Have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of ‘gas’ from newspaper establishments? ~Abraham Lincoln

While his personality is associated more with melancholy than humor, Lincoln was well known in his time for cracking jokes and telling funny stories. Nothing puts things in perspective like laughter. Nothing takes pressure off; nothing heals like humor.

What do you need to be laughing at right now?

He knew himself

The most important personality trait Lincoln possessed was self-awareness. This is what allowed him to rise from such depths, endure such trials and overcome so much as a leader. He knew who he was. ~Presidential Historian Gleaves Whitney

The hardest part of taking any criticism – even unjust criticism – is the part that happens to be true. If you get defensive, you are protecting something. That thing you are protecting is the heart of the issue for you.

The question is, do you have the self-awareness and the strength of character to see it? Do you know yourself? This may be the entire key to handling criticism.

If I am lean and toned and know it, and you call me a fatso, what happens? I may be perplexed. I may be concerned for you. I may even be curious, but I don’t need to defend myself. I have nothing to hide, nothing to protect.

On the other hand, if I were a bit soft around the middle, I could get hooked by a rude comment. I react: I know I am not obese. Actually, I’m pretty close to my ideal weight, so why would some yahoo go popping off about my weight? Hooked!

If I am genuinely self-aware, I can see the truth even though it was delivered poorly, or rudely. Then, I extract the truth and learn from it.

Are you willing to look at yourself  – to learn something about yourself and grow – even though the overall criticism may be unfair or harsh? If not, you are missing out on a wealth of valuable feedback. After all, how much criticism is delivered constructively? Not much.

It takes a great deal of maturity to do this, but every time you do, you give yourself an incredible gift. You avoid stress and resentment and learn something new – every single time.

He was mature, therefore compassionate

Historian William Lee Miller noted that through “development of a conscious, mature discipline, Lincoln came to be unusually respectful in his personal conduct of the dignity and independence of the human beings with whom he dealt.”

A wise man once defined maturity as “knowing other people are real.” When you are mature, you see people differently than immature people do. You could also say it like this: When you see others as people like yourself, you are mature. Take your pick!

The point is, to the mature, others are simply people. Not monsters. Not gods. Just imperfect people, each with his or her own struggles in life.

So, when other people screw up, you are more likely to treat them how you’d want to be treated. The golden rule is not for the immature. The psychological benefits of having compassion escape immature people. One of those benefits involves letting go of resentment toward them for doing things you have probably done many times yourself.

The bottom line

Any leader will be criticized. How you handle it will determine whether you succeed or fail.
~Abraham Lincoln

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