Beware the Cocklebur of Criticism

“There they go boys!  Don’t stop now!”  I hear the raspy, tenor voice of my great-uncle George coming from the edge of the corn field.

I specifically say “hear” because I sure can’t see him.  My cousin, Anthony, and I are in the thickest cane break and patch of brambles that ever grew along the banks of the Cumberland River.

We are sixteen years old and quail hunting with our “Uncle George” – a thrill and a privilege for us both.  Growing up I was mesmerized when he would spin one of his hunting tales to the family.  To actually have him take us hunting – wow!

The caveat about Uncle George that I forget to factor into our hunting trip with him is that he is a huge practical joker.  Don’t bat your eye or he’ll pull one over on you – friend or family!

I had started out this Christmas Day hunt with layers of warm clothes.  But after a couple of hours hunting, I’m hot and sweaty.  I start stripping off layers and stuffing them into my hunting vest’s game pouch.  I’m down to a t-shirt and pull-over sweater I’d received earlier in the day as a Christmas gift..

Time after time Uncle George’s hunting dog points a covey of quail around the edges of the grain fields.  Each time the birds are flushed they fly like F-16’s toward the next available patch of thick cover.  When the dog points on the edge of the brambles, guess who gets sent in to flush the birds?  Me and Anthony!

Now I’m out of breath.  The Cumberland River is somewhere on my left.  Uncle George is on my right, on the other side of the high riverbank, walking the edge of the field.  Even if I saw a quail, the brush is so thick I wouldn’t be able to lift my gun to shoot!  I am not Bre’r Fox and  I was not born and raised in a briar patch.

I hear Anthony muttering under his breath as he fights his way toward me.  The report of snapping twigs and crushed brush ring out as he bulls his way through.  Suddenly his dark hair and reddened face appear a few feet from me.

Gasping for breath, he asks, “Have you seen anything?”

“Are you kidding?” I reply.  “I can’t see five feet in front of me!”

“Then let’s get out of here!” Anthony says.

Just then Uncle George calls, “The dog is pointed just ahead of you boys.  Ya’ll just keep heading in the same direction.  You’re nearly there.”

A shot of adrenalin shoots through mine and Anthony’s veins and we plunge ahead through the heavy brush.

Later, as the sun began easing toward the western horizon, Anthony and I join Uncle George at his pickup truck.  I see the dog’s tongue hanging low out of his mouth as he catches his breath and unconsciously touch my mouth to be sure my tongue isn’t dragging the ground.

Showing no fatigue, Uncle George grins broadly.  “You boys did good today.  You just couldn’t get a good open shot at those birds.”

Pointing at my sweater, he says, “But you got a good load of cockleburs and beggar lice.”

So intent have I been on keeping up with Uncle George and the dog, I haven’t even paid attention to myself.  I look down at my Christmas sweater and see it is completely covered with cockleburs and beggar lice.

Uncle George finally laughs out loud.  “If we’d been hunting cockleburs, I think you’d have caught more than the limit!”

I’m too tired to care at this point.  I give a tired smile and put my gun in the truck.

When we get back to the big house in Vernon where all the families are gathered, I have to experience the humiliation of walking into the crowded living room wearing my newly decorated sweater.  Laughter and catcalls ring out and I begin to see that I’ve been on the bad end of one of Uncle George’s practical jokes.  More than likely there never were any quail.  He just kept me and Anthony thinking there were and plunging us into the thickest places he could find.

However, my mother made it clear that this brand new Christmas sweater was going to be restored to its original beauty and that I was going to be the one to accomplish the task.

We carry the sweater with us back home to Tennessee and I spend the next several nights trying to convince the cockleburs and beggar lice to relinquish their hold.  The tips of my fingers are raw and sore by the time I finish.

Eventually I fill a pretty good size box with all of them and mailed them back to Uncle George, with a note of apology that I took such fine seeds away from him.  (He had a good laugh out of that.)

Have you ever gotten a cocklebur or beggar lice stuck in your head?  I’m talking about those negative comments and criticisms that are thrown at us by spouses, children, parents, coworkers, supervisors, teachers, friends (and the list goes on).

I read somewhere that it takes thirteen compliments to overcome the effects of one criticism.  For me, the ratio is more like 130 to 1, instead of 13 to 1.

Criticisms stick in our brain like cockleburs and beggar lice.  They latch on and won’t let go!  We obsess over them, lose sleep over them, cry over them, worry about them, become depressed with them, develop anxiety over them, get angry about them, become filled with self-doubt because of them (and that list goes on, too).

Recently I received some criticism in an area of my life that I actually feel pretty competent.  I decided to pay close attention to how I managed the criticism, to see if there was something to learn.

One thing I noticed was that I felt the criticism in my stomach – literally.  A little nausea and uneasiness.

I also noticed that it made me feel nervous and a little insecure.

But the main thing I noticed was that I obsessed about the criticism.  It was the foremost thought in my mind nearly all the time.  It was like my mind was drawn to it like the proverbial moth to the flame.

So how do we get the cocklebur and beggar lice of criticism to loosen its hold of our mind?

First of all, sit with the criticism for a few minutes to see it there is any element of truth in it.  Is there something that you can learn that will make you a better person?  Can it prompt you to make some necessary change?  If so, be thankful for the criticism and get busy.  If not, try the following simple steps.

Find a context for the comment.  What was going on with the person who made the criticism?  What does it say about them that they found this particular fault with you?  Are they an unhappy, fault-finding person?  If so, you shouldn’t be surprised they criticized you.

Take several slow, diaphragmatic breaths.  This will help ease your stomach and reduce your nervousness.

As soon as you hear that criticism echoing in your head, smile.  (I know that sounds silly, but give it a try.)  What we do with our body has a profound impact on how we feel and think.

Immediately tell yourself five things you do well (and smile bigger).  This is not about being conceited.  It’s about being honest with yourself and realizing you do have value and talent.

There’s no way to avoid criticism.  But there is a way to limit its power over our happiness.

2 thoughts on “Beware the Cocklebur of Criticism

  1. I enjoyed reading this story aloud to Mother. Picturing you and Anthony distracted her from her pain for a minute. And the application is very useful also.
    Keep writing.

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