Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Taking the Sting Out of Criticism

Image Credit: Live Science
Being criticized is hard. It’s hard for everyone. We’ve all experienced those so-called “helpful reminders” and types of harsh criticism that withers our soul-- all implying we’re defective, that we've done something wrong or not lived up to expectations. It doesn’t feel good to sense you’re lacking in character or that you've let someone down. Criticism often tends to disempower us rather than motivate us to change.   
We each have our own unique collection of critical encounters, and they certainly leave a sting. I remember not knowing an answer in Algebra class and with each subsequent question I was asked, being less able to answer. It was humiliating and made me feel thoroughly stupid. It still rankles. Or at home, stating my opinion only to be told I was being sassy, when I thought I had an equally valid point of view. We all have bruises from being criticized in the past; we are primed to be wary when we hear them in the present.
These prior experiences are tucked away in our memory bank and remembered by our fear center, and that fear center goes on alert when it hears negative comments coming our way. These comments are read as potential threats, so our natural protectiveness takes over. The problem is that these aren’t always threats and our strong responses are often an overreaction. This is especially true in personal relationships where there is a mutual caring. 
How do we calm this fear center in our brain, so we can listen respectfully to someone’s legitimate complaint about us?    
The dilemma of staying calm in the face of criticism is something I’ve been struggling with both in my own relationships and in finding ways to talk about it with the couples I see. Criticism can be so explosive that some couples avoid it all together. They have functional, but superficial relationships, without real intimacy.   Aside from this extreme avoidance, I’ve noticed three general reactions to criticism:
  1. Counter attack - Before the other person even finishes, there is an aggressive counter response with blaming and resultant arguing. Or, there might be intellectual questioning which is less aggressive, but still an attack on the validity of the criticism.
  2. Withdrawal - In this style, there is disengagement and no discussion. There is a despairing belief that no solution is possible, and the response is either an activation of despondence or internal rage.
  3. Self- blame - This response prompts a quick withdraw of the original criticism and a sense of self advocacy is lost. It is replaced by negative self-statements or self-doubt. The point of view of the other dominates.  

No matter which pattern emerges, they arise from our early adaptations to perceived threat. When we are in this reactive space, we are unable to be truly present and available for dialogue. Therefore, no true resolution or understanding can take place. We are stuck protecting ourselves and not being open to hearing how someone else has been hurt. 
How do we disrupt these patterns and become open and willing to listen?   
What I have come to realize is that first you have recognized your unique pattern and then pause to disrupt your automatic behavior. So, if you tend to react quickly you have to slow things down, and check the tendency to argue. If you withdraw, you have to stay put, and know that you have the strength to manage disagreements. Or if you agree too quickly, you have to resist that urge, and honor your own perceptions and needs. In each of these situations, you first have to halt the habitual behavior, calm your body and hold your heart. Extend self- compassion in the moment when you feel the twinge of hurt from the criticism. It might go like this:
  • I can feel the hurt of that comment, and my desire to act, but I don’t have to agree or defend myself. I can take some deep breaths and let my body calm.
  • I can remind myself that 'this is not about me'. S/he is describing his/her experience. His/her unique way of seeing the world based on her experiences, her needs and desires.
  • I can remember that I know myself to be a thoughtful person.
  • Right now, I can help the situation by listening to his/her hurt. I can be curious about their reality, which is not necessarily my reality.
  • I can say:  I’m so sorry__________,   I care about you and don’t want you to suffer. Or: I see you’re mad. It’s hard for me when you’re mad, but I want to be respectful and hear what you have to say.  
  • I can know that there will be a time for me to share my own opinion when s/he feels thoroughly understood. Waiting is an act of generosity and commitment to the relationship.
  • I can help repair this situation by asking for suggestions about how we might do it differently in the future.