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How To Not Get Upset at Misunderstandings and Criticisms

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Recently, I was catching up with a friend, and she talked about how she hates being misunderstood, and as a result, she ends up being a people pleaser. Sometimes, she wanted to tell her partner things that he did wrong, but she wouldn't because she was afraid he'd think badly of her. Then she'd accumulate these emotions, and they might burst out in the future. She even stayed in past relationships that she didn't want to stay in just because she wanted to clear up misunderstandings, which then prolonged her suffering.

I can certainly relate. I also get upset when others accuse me of having negative intentions when I had positive or neutral intentions. I would complain "Why don't you try to understand me first instead of criticizing me right away?" Or I'd explain my reasoning for doing something, but then the more I explain myself, the more they argue with me (probably because they are upset that I'm not trying to understand them).

All of this reminds me of a quote by Confucius:

"To not be upset when others don't understand me, is this not the mark of a Cultivated Person?"

(Original Text: 人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?)

(Translation Note: The Chinese term Junzi (君子) has many translations, such as Superior Person, Gentleman, and Nobleman. The meaning and connotation of words change over time, and in this case, I've chosen the word "Cultivated Person" to convey that Junzi are people who have actively cultivate their virtues and have attained a certain level of cultivation, whereas common folk do not cultivate their virtues or have not reaped much results yet.)

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3

I'm still a common person, so I get upset when others misunderstand me, but I'm working towards being a Cultivated Person. As part of this journey, I've been contemplating this question: Why are Cultivated People (Junzi) able to remain calm and unbothered when others misunderstand them? Below are some reasons I found.

1: Contemplate deeply about why we should not get upset

A lot of us know it's bad to get angry or upset, but few of us really take the time to contemplate deeply about the harms of anger, the benefits of not getting angry, and how to prevent anger. As a result, every time we get upset, we don't improve from it, and we just repeat the same mistakes over and over again. In that case, we need to spend the time to reflect deeper and more frequently. The more accurate and deeper we understand our reason for getting upset, the better we can correct it.

I was very impressed by Liao Fan's reflection on anger in his book, Liao Fan's Four Lessons:

"We all have shortcomings, and I should be empathetic towards others' shortcomings. If others accuse me without good reason, then it is their problem, and that has nothing to do with me. There's nothing to be angry about. Moreover, there isn't a right-minded person who thinks he is always right, nor are there any wise teachings that teach us to blame others.

When things do not go the way I wish, it's because my virtues are not cultivated enough to influence others. If I can always reflect on myself, then adversity and slander to me becomes analogous to carving and polishing for a jewel, and I would be happy to accept it.

Additionally, if I refuse to get angry, then even if their slander is like a burning fire, it would be like a torch burning itself out in space. If I instead try to defend myself, then no matter how skillful my words are, I would be like a silkworm trapping myself in my own cocoon. Therefore, anger not only doesn't help me, it actually harms me."

From his reflection, I could see that he really contemplated deeply about the problem of anger and how to prevent it, especially when faced with slander and unfair criticism. Since he put in the time and effort to do this reflection, he really internalized these ideas, so he is much more able to practice them when someone unfairly criticizes him or misunderstands him.

I've also reflected that every time I feel the urge to argue or explain myself in the face of what I feel is unfair criticism, it has never made the situation better. Why? Because everyone thinks they are right. Everyone is stubborn that they are right.

If I keep arguing that I am right, their ego will be hurt, and they will argue back that they are right. Eventually, they get so frustrated and feel like we don't care about them, then the relationship is ruined. Thus the saying,

If I can just swallow my ego and keep silent, or even better, say my fault, then the situation gets better immediately. My experiences confirmed the Chinese saying that goes,

(Original Text: 贤人争罪。愚人争理。)

Below are more reasons for why we should not get upset and how to cultivate.

2: Focus on cultivating myself rather than on demanding others. Be strict with myself and lenient towards others.

Confucius said:

"If I correct myself rather than demand others to be different, then I will have no resentment."

(Original Quote: 正己而不求于人则无怨。)

The Great Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is a great role model. He said:

"What if someone despises me? Let them see to it. But I will see to it that I won't be found doing or saying anything contemptible. What if someone hates me? Let them see to that. But I will see to it that I'm kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where the went wrong. Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully."

In my study of ancient philosophers, I've noticed that all the wise sages of the past teach us to focus on what we can control (ourselves) and let go of everything we cannot control (other people and circumstances). Based on this idea, we should be strict with ourselves (because we can control ourselves) but lenient towards others (because we cannot control them, and demanding them to be different will make everyone unhappy).

My suffering comes from my strong desire for the other person to not unfairly criticize me, to understand me first, and to be more reasonable. However, I cannot control the other person, so I feel emotional suffering when they do not fulfill my desire. If I instead turn my energy and attention inwards, and I only make demands for myself to be stronger rather than asking for the outside challenge to be easier, then I will feel a sense of control over my life, and my mind will be at peace.

Recently, my mentor told me,

"Use 'accept unfairness' to be strict with yourself, and use 'no wonder' to be lenient towards others."

I thought this was really applicable to me. I'm very strict with myself in terms of being reasonable and fair, but as a result, I hate it when others are unreasonable or unfair (I'm strict towards others too). But if I truly want to be strict with myself, then I should get used to accepting unfairness because everyone will encounter unfair treatment. It's just a normal part of life. To demand everything in life to be fair is quite unreasonable.

Additionally, I don't spend enough effort to truly understand others. If I did, then I would say, "Ah, no wonder!" and their behavior would seem reasonable.

For example, most people simply aren't taught how to be a good person, how to communicate effectively, or how to have harmonious relationships. Therefore, it's quite normal and common for them to jump to conclusions or make biased criticisms. However, I have learned these good teachings, and I want to practice them to reap the benefits of a good life, so I should be strict with myself and lenient towards others.

What makes me even more annoyed is when people have learned these virtuous teachings for a while, but they didn't practice them, and then they use these teachings to judge other people. It is quite hypocritical. One time in a discussion class, my mentor said to us younger people,

"So you are upset at your parents for learning these virtuous teachings but not walking their talk. Who do you think has an easier time practicing these teachings, you or your parents? Who learned these teachings at a younger age, you or your parents? Who has had a longer time reinforcing bad habits, you or your parents? If people can be good, who would choose to be bad?"

This helped me have more empathy towards many elders who have learned these teachings for a while but weren't practicing them. They aren't trying to be hypocrites. They truly want to be good, but they have bad habits just as I do. I don't want to get upset at misunderstandings, but I habitually still do. They don't want to jump to conclusions and unfairly criticize, but they still do. We're all trying our best, so we should all try to be kind to each other rather than oppose each other.

3: Remember karma

Mencius (a Confucian sage second to Confucius) said,

"One who loves others will constantly be loved by others. One who respects others will constantly be respected by others."

(Original Text: 爱人者人恒爱之,敬人者人恒敬之。)

We all want to be loved and respected by others, so we should treat others with love and respect first. I remember when I first heard this quote, I thought, "But when I try to be patient and understanding to that person, they don't return the kindness!"

Later, I realized that relationships are like a bank balance. If I meet a stranger, our relationship bank balance is 0, so if I treat them nice, they will treat me nice back. But for someone that I have had conflict with for a long time, we have a negative relationship bank balance. Apologizing or saying nice words once or twice is not suddenly going to bring the relationship balance back to positive. We have to accumulate over time by apologizing for our past mistakes and doing kind deeds. After enough accumulation, the relationship bank balance will be positive again.

If I have a misunderstanding with someone and I argue with them, that hurts our relationship balance. If I can at least stay silent, then that prevents harm to the relationship. If I can be respectful and humble, that a misunderstanding can actually be a good thing that adds to our relationship balance! The key deciding factor is in my own cultivation and attitude.

4: Value love and respect

Whether we know it or not, we all have values that we live by, such as kindness, respect, family, beauty, wealth, power, etc. We should all consciously choose our values, and to help with that, we can ask ourselves:

"After I die, how do I want to be remembered? What do I hope people would say about me?"

Remember that quote from Mencius above? That's actually not the full quote. Here is the full quote:

"The difference between Cultivated People and common folk lies in their intentions. Cultivated people hold the intentions of benevolence and courtesy. A benevolent person loves others, and a courteous person respects others. One who loves others will constantly be loved by others. One who respects others will constantly be respected by others."

(Original Text: 君子所以异于人者,以其存心也。君子以仁存心,以礼存心。仁者爱人,有礼者敬人。爱人者,人恒爱之;敬人者,人恒敬之。)

In other words, Cultivated People value love and respect, thus they always try to treat others with love and respect. Why? Well, there is no one right answer, but Mencius implies that one reason is because they understand karma. Another reason I thought of is that they value love and respect, and they want to be remembered as loving and respectful people.

Besides, why wouldn't we want to have love, respect, appreciation, and gratitude in our hearts? It's certainly a much better and happier way to live than harboring resentment, anger, and grudges.

Now you might be wondering, "How can we accumulate love and respect in our mind?" Well, just like any habit, it takes persistent practice. Reflect on all the things you did and all the words you said in a day. How many of them came from a loving and respectful heart? At the beginning of our cultivation, probably very little. As we practice more, our loving and respectful intentions will grow in frequency and intensity.

To give some examples, in the past, I cooked according to my flavor preferences. Later, I cooked according to my family members' preferences. In the past, I messaged people late at night. Later, I withheld these messages because I didn't want to keep them at late at night. In the past, I talked a lot and often interrupted people. Later, I practiced talking less and resisting the urge to interrupt others. Through all these small daily acts, we accumulate love and respect in our mind slowly but surely.

If our mind is already full of love and respect, then even if someone criticizes us unfairly, we have plenty of positive energy to negate their negative energy, and we can maintain our love and respect without much effort and without the help of logical reasoning. This is a higher level of cultivation that can be implemented concurrently with the use of logical contemplation.

5: Value humility

In modern western culture, people like to show off their greatness, wealth, possessions, reputation, power, good looks, etc. As a result, their sense of self-worth and self-confidence is reliant on others thinking good of them.

I reflected that for me, I am attached to my reputation, or how others view me. Specifically, if someone thinks I am illogical or mean, then my ego is hurt. "What! I try so hard to be logical and kind, how could you accuse me of being illogical and mean!" That's why I get upset.

My ego wants to be seen as logical and kind by others, and having a big ego makes me upset when others misunderstand me. Hence, I need to cultivate the virtue of humility to counteract arrogance.

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3

Humble people feel like they are not good enough (not in a self-depreciating way, but rather in a motivating way), that they should be better and achieving more of their own potential. Moreover, humble people see others good points and as better than them (again, not in a self-depreciating way, but in a respectful way). Hence, humble people always focus on improving themselves and learning from every person and experience. They feel they don't have the credentials to judge others to criticize others when they themselves still have so much they need to improve.

Although humility can be quite difficult to cultivate due to how strong our habit of arrogance is, it's definitely worth the effort. After all, no one likes an arrogant people who think they are always right, and everyone likes a humble person who is always yielding and respectful. People will attack and bring down the arrogant while help and support the humble. So even if humility is a hard habit to cultivate, we must do it if we want a better future.

A great role model is Emperor Tang Taizong, who was one of the greatest emperors in China's history. One time, someone unfairly criticized him, but Emperor Tang calmly accepted it. When the criticizer left, a minister couldn't help but ask, "Emperor Tang, I don't understand. That person's criticism is just wrong. Why didn't you correct him?"

Emperor Tang replied:

"If I make people feel bad for trying to criticize me, then people would be scared to advise me in the future."

What I really admire about Emperor Tang is that he was not born a super humble person. He has many stories of angry outbursts in his earlier years, but he cultivated his humility over the years. I am still in my early years of cultivation, so I must persevere, then I can be like him too.

When I feel the urge to tell the other person why they are wrong, I should first remind myself, "If I make them feel bad for trying to criticize me, then they won't advise me in the future, and I've just chosen arrogance over humility yet again. Better to just accept it. If later, when both of us are calm, I feel that clearing up this misunderstanding is important for our relationship, then I can calmly communicate with them."

6: Focus on the Greater Good

Confucius said,

"Cultivated People are harmonious but do not conform. Common folk conform but are not harmonious."

(Original Text: 君子和而不同,小人同而不和。)

Common folk often follow the herd. They conform with what everyone else say and do because they want to avoid trouble for themselves. They are people pleasers, so even if they conform, they may not actually happy about it.

Cultivated People, on the other hand, are not afraid to stand up for what's right, even if it means going against the herd. However, they do so with a harmonious and caring attitude, not one of arrogance or anger.

But what's the standard for right and wrong? People pleasers will think avoiding conflict and trouble is right. But this is type of thinking is flawed and can lead to negative consequences. Liao Fan's Four Lessons gives a much wiser standard for right and wrong:

"Do not just consider the present action, but also consider its side effects. Do not just consider immediate effects, but also consider the long-term effects. Do not just consider the effects on one person, but also consider the effects on the greater whole."

If everyone is doing something immoral, then following the herd may help us to avoid conflict in the short-term, but it leads to negative consequences and side effects in the long run. In such a case, a Cultivated Person would definitely speak up, but in a respectful and caring way. Even if others misunderstand him, he would not be upset because he knows he is doing the right thing.

For example, I teach grade 12 business courses, and some students complain that my class is harder and more work than other classes. But I went to business school in university, and I know that the amount of work and difficulty level I give is a fair stepping stone to university, and I communicate this to my students in a calm and respectful way. I'd much rather they work harder in my class and feel well-prepared in university than have an easier time in my class but get shocked and even fail in university. Hence, I can calmly endure the complaints and misunderstandings of some students who only focus on the short-term. Indeed, many students have come to me later and told me that my class prepared them well for their university business classes.

Another example is when we have to give critical feedback or bad news to others. We might try to avoid the situation because we are afraid that they will think badly of us or criticize us. But Cultivated people will hone their intentions first. When we are clear that our intention is for the long-term good of the person and the whole group, then we will have a sense of confidence, solidity, and kindness when we deliver our message. If they misunderstand us or criticize us because they are still at the level of short-term and individualistic thinking, then we wouldn't feel upset by their criticism.


Getting angry and upset when others misunderstand us or unfairly criticize us is such a painful way to live. If we always try to avoid misunderstandings and criticism, then we might become people pleasers, and that's also a very tiring way to live. If we can work towards not being upset at misunderstandings, then we create a lot more happiness for ourselves and the people around us. It's not an easy habit to change, but the rewards are highly worth the effort! If you try out any of the methods of this article, or have any other methods, I'd love to hear about them.


Weekly Wisdom #247

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