My last article discussed how to be cautious when pointing out subtleties and patterns in other people. This time, I’d like to reflect on what to do when being on the receiving end of those sometimes painful observations.
When I was a kid, my father chose select moments to remind me not to be an asshole. He selected those moments for good reason, but I wasn’t curious at the time. I didn’t believe I was an asshole, so his words were wasted on me. And he never recommended a replacement behavior or identity, so I just found loopholes and made slight adjustments as the list of “what not to do” grew. I never considered any gem of truth in his words. I soon responded to criticism as part “that’s his problem” and part “water flowing off a duck’s back.”
Was my father offering social-skills training, or was he bullying me? Well, it’s complicated.
So now, in my 30s, I’ve begun to take a more humble look at the wisdom of others, even when it presents as criticism. Imagine what would’ve happened if I had stopped and reflected on his observations instead of dismissing them. Or imagine if I had found a powerful insight, rather than internalizing negative feedback.
Let’s start with the example of the gifted child. Nearly all gifted children were likely identified as different than their age-mates… by their age-mates. And those age-mates may have responded with criticism, mocking, or exclusion. Age-mate bullying is unskillful and unkind responses to two things: what they observe, and what they think it means about them. At the same time as the response was uninvited and painful, the initial observation may have been accurate. Difference is noticed. We can still disagree (strongly!) with the response to difference.
Of course, childhood isn’t the only time when we hear potentially cruel or difficult criticism. I’ve also heard friends and adult clients talk about romantic breakups. I’m sure many of us can remember that first hurtful name we were called in the earliest fight we can remember with our beloved. Or with those with whom we’ve parted ways, we can remember with pain in our hearts the reason stated for the breakup. In addition to my own experience with this, I’ve seen clients heal as they take a fifth or sixth look at prior criticism from romantic partners.
I’m aware that this may sound like I’m saying to listen to your childhood bullies, verbally aggressive fathers, and angry partners, but there’s still something more powerful than ignoring or refuting the people in your life when they have some challenging (and even potentially cruel) feedback.
Of course, I appreciate the work for self-acceptance, and I certainly don’t want to advocate that children or adults beat themselves up when criticized. What I’m proposing is an even more solid self-acceptance that’s rooted in accurate and unflappable self-understanding. If I am to be called a name, I want to trust my self-understanding enough to be curious about their motivation for pointing something out.
Ask yourself: Is it news to me? If this trait has always been there, why are they pointing it out at this moment? Have many people been trying to deliver this message throughout my life, and I am newly open to taking in some challenging feedback?
And then talk to them. Acknowledge their observation. “I can see why you think that, are you noticing how I _______?” And perhaps ask them: “How has this impacted you?” Be psychologically savvy without being responsible for their process.
We want those who experience criticism to be solid and self-accepting without neuroticism and self-defensiveness. The neurotic takes criticism as “What does this say about me?”, and the defensive would simply label it as projection and not take another look.
I’d rather look at what it means about everybody involved and our impacts on each other. Even the ill-intended have powers of observation; totally unfounded criticism hurts less. Let’s remain solid as we ask for and receive feedback; all feedback is about all involved, both the giver and receiver of criticism.
The truth is… my father had a gem of wisdom. The break up talk has a gem of wisdom. Even a bully has a gem of wisdom to be gleaned, or at least an observation that can be used for insight. Find it and use it.