Self-judgment: I definitely feel it almost every time I sit down to work on this blog now. Loud, brash, mean, and spiteful. I realize it’s been months and I realize I’ve let it slide and isn’t that just like me to go half-assed on something and what do I think I’m doing with my time and blah blah blah. Then I feel angry at myself and generally depressed and touchy and if my husband gently asks whether I’ve remembered to pick up hand soap (and I haven’t), I freak out and get defensive and wonder why I’m being so fucking over-sensitive and beat myself up for that instead, and the whole thing starts again but with a different theme.
But I realized something the other day.
Imagine a strange woman coming up and telling you, in a loud, critical, angry voice, “You’re purple! You’re so purple!” Would you be offended? Hurt? Or simply confused as hell? You know you’re not purple. You can see that you’re not purple. No one else is calling you purple. So this woman’s assertion that you are purple is incredibly easy to see for exactly what it is: purely a reflection of something about HER and the way she sees the world.
Now “purple” isn’t an inherently good or bad quality, and strangers’ opinions are fairly easy to discount since you know that they don’t even know you. Easier to shrug off. Let’s try something closer to home.
Imagine a friend with whom you get quite along well. Suddenly, one day, he stops you with an aggressive, angrily shouted statement: “You’re an awful parent.” Btw, in this scenario, you don’t have kids.
In light of the disconnect between what you know to be true (you’re not a parent) and what your friend has just attacked you for (you’re a bad parent), although you’d probably feel at least a little defensive/attacked at the tone, it’s unlikely his shouts would fill you with fiery emotions. On the contrary, you’d be more inclined to treat the criticism with unemotional curiosity, a genuine desire to understand what’s going on in your friendship at that moment: “What does that mean?” you might say. “I’m not a parent—how can I be a bad one?” Or “I guess you’re unhappy with me but clearly, you’re not telling me the real reason why.”
Maybe you see where I’m going with this.
Criticism only really stings if you (at least partially) agree with it.
Interestingly, my “wise mind” illustrated this entire point to me in less than a single second. That’s how long it takes to internalise core truths: they don’t even require language, or the time it takes to think of the words to describe them.
I’m thinking of a friend of mine who is driven into blind rage by her mother’s continued assertions that she is “selfish” for not having kids. My friend could not be a less selfish person: she gives generously to charities with her time and money, she is utterly devoted to her family members and bases her life choices on making them happy, and she is a wonderful friend and person. But part of her dynamic with her mom has always been this way: her mother planting seeds of guilt and self-doubt about her alleged “selfishness,” which my friend has now internalised to the point that it drives her crazy to hear this belief spoken out loud, because she’s hearing it subconsciously (from herself) all the time.
To my mind, you have two options to protect yourself and your emotional well-being when faced with extremely hurtful criticism:
- If it’s at all true, acknowledge and agree. “I can definitely be forgetful. It’s something I’ll continue to work on.” My husband taught me this one (without realising it) and WOW, is it effective. Nothing takes the wind out of my sails quicker than adopting this attitude. Combined with an apology (only if necessary of course), this is lethally effective at neutralising angry criticism. It empowers the person saying it because they’ve just turned their unsuspecting attacker into an ally AND a bully! I find myself immediately realising that we’re on the same team, and I apologize for being so critical.
- If it’s not even slightly true, firmly disagree with as little emotional energy as possible, and drop it: “Mom, I know that I’m not selfish and if you keep calling me that, I’m going to end the conversation.” Then move on. Despite all attempts by the other person to perpetuate the cycle of abuse they love to watch you struggle in—MOVE ON. Do so by physically leaving the conversation if necessary. As you stand up for yourself outwardly, bolster yourself inwardly as well; reassure yourself that you are NOT what this person’s saying and it has everything to do with them, not you. Trust me, unfortunately, I know from experience: there is nothing more frustrating than someone who flat out refuses to take your poison daggers to heart. This technique effectively bares the attacker to him/herself; without the other person engaging, the attacker is nothing but a twisted, unhappy troll venting spleen at nothing. [Note: Pushing this feeling on some attackers may actually be dangerous, as it forces them to experience the horrible emotions that they’re trying to thrust on you. Leave/get help immediately if you sense the situation is escalating or the person is becoming dangerously emotionally disregulated as a result.]
We all worry and take certain judgments to heart because we convince ourselves that we don’t know “the truth.” We wonder if we really are selfish, fat, cruel, deceitful, annoying, clingy, stupid, boring, etc. etc. We fear we are those things, and that’s why they hurt to hear them. If we didn’t partially believe them, they couldn’t hurt.
Reassure yourself. You know the truth. You’re not selfish or deceitful or stupid. You’re human. You’re not perfect. You probably have been selfish or deceitful or stupid at least once in your life (I know I have). But you ARE none of those things… what you are is so much more than any one of those behaviours or coping mechanisms or mistakes or whatever you want to think of them as. Imagine if you took the massive amount of emotional energy that goes into consciously judging yourself, unconsciously judging yourself, reacting when someone else judges you, attacking someone else who you feel has attacked you, etc. etc. etc.
and just put it towards one single thing: doing better.
That’s my current objective though some days it feels so utterly impossible, I might as well be aiming for the moon….