A family friend lost his father suddenly this week, and as it turns out, his father built the home (along with its two additions) that we live in right now. When my husband told me the news, I was of course shocked and sad for the family, but after a few minutes, I tried some humor to lighten things.
“Does this mean I can’t criticize your parents’ house anymore?”
He laughed because he knew I had a long list of “why would someone…?” for aspects of the home we’re living in, but I’ve let go of most of it. I thought about that question as I watered my garden later.
Why does someone have to die in order to escape my criticism?
Even if my critiques occur only in my mind, my thoughts fuel my emotions, which lead to my actions, and since I don’t play pretend very well, I can never truly keep my thoughts to myself. So why would I want to behave critically toward the people I spend the most time with?
I developed a habit rather early in life of criticizing others and their work. By the age of 11, and known only to my peers, I could criticize like a pro. I always wanted adults to like me, so when a friend’s mom three years later told me I was judgmental, I took it as a criticism and my critical brain thought, “Well, you’re judgmental.” If someone had told me I was too critical, I’m sure I would have licked my wounds with “Well, you’re too critical.”
The truth is, I began feeling criticized, or at least vulnerable to criticism, as I entered my awkward years at the tender age of 9. I had the whole unwieldy package: buck teeth, budding before other girls my age, high achiever (nerd), and I was so tall. Oh, and add an identical twin, so it was hard to avoid attention.
I didn’t particularly mind positive attention, but I cried easily when kids treated me with cruelty of any kind, and since an abundance of praise from adult figures sometimes inspired a few outliers to knock me down a notch or two, I didn’t feel as safe as I once had. The humiliation of letting tears show–and having a red face for everyone to see–only added to the fear of another’s cruelty.
Brains do weird things sometimes. Instead of reassuring me and giving me messages like this Kristina Kuzmic anti-bullying video gives, my brain went into safety mode. Not only did it scan constantly for signs of potential criticism from others, it generated its own criticisms of me as a sort of “testing the fence” method. (Click the link and watch this two-minute trip into dinosaur terror–it isn’t visually graphic, nor does it contain curse words).
As you watch the Jurassic Park clip, consider the response shown by Dr. Grant: he clearly feels stressed by the terrifying velociraptors, and he can’t even see them. He simply recognizes their vicious methods and prefers to not get eaten alive. It’s kind of like being afraid of getting teased.
Velociraptors are the criticisms we aim at ourselves.
Our brains do the same thing, except that the threat isn’t about to tear us up for lunch. The threat is just some words strung together that we think might prove we ought to be thinned from the herd. And what better way to steel yourself against that vulnerability than by checking for weakness constantly? Won’t the pain we inflict on ourselves ultimately keep us safe? Aren’t the velociraptors of our mind there to protect us?
Not so, says the cow in the clip. We mangle and destroy our true, open selves and feel even more unsafe because, guess what? We keep waking up to the same monsters, and they come at us from every side and know how to enter our every place of retreat. And the monsters take on the voices and faces of anyone we have ever tried to impress, to please, or at least whose (perceived) criticisms we want to avoid. No one is safe.
Soon we might begin to believe that criticizing others is doing them a favor: “Look, I don’t want you to get teased on the playground, so let me prevent your downfall by tearing you apart in the comfort of your own home.”
(In a church class a few years back, the teacher said her mother had seen it as her duty to critique her children head to foot before they left the house so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves. I really want to criticize that mother.)
But then I recall that as a pre-teen, I saw it as my duty to take down the “cool” kids a couple notches so they wouldn’t act so high and mighty. I remember even doing this at ages 15 and 25, actually. Clearly, I remember so well because I saw this tendency to criticize as a weakness, for which I criticized myself and began a series of attacks and counterattacks on myself. How exhausting.
The net result of self-criticism isn’t a stronger creature but a bloodthirsty reptile looking for someone else to tear down.
I realized after a while here at this house that by moving into someone else’s space, by not having a clear timeline, and because I felt like we had thrown off a lot of people’s groove by being here that I kicked my critical ways into high gear. I criticized myself. And everyone around me. And the house and the entire premises, really. It took about ten minutes of living here for this cascade to begin.
And because I thought everyone was criticizing me or my kids (if not aloud, then in their own minds, which honestly, is none of my business), I felt defensive, always ready to provide an explanation for why I did what I did and I’m sorry if it’s not good enough for you!
A family member feeling taken aback: “Uhhhh…I only asked if we still keep the tape in this bin because I thought maybe you knew where the packaging tape disappeared to??”
Oh. I thought you were reminding me that my delightful daughter took it again without asking and used the entire roll to make hospital windows for the cardboard building where her injured and dying stuffed animals lay.
So instead of protecting me from monsters, self-criticism can turn me into a monster and set others to wondering if they ought to sharpen up their inner monster for the next time I attack. Which I didn’t, because I was only defending myself against their attack. Which I manufactured in my own mind.
Ah, the tangled web we weave when first we hide blame up our sleeve.
I’m reading a book that helps me understand better where that critical inner voice stems from, but I forgot what the book says about how to end this cycle. I’ll bet it touched on self-compassion, self-awareness, curiosity, and replacing that critical voice with a kind one. I’ll go with that.
Becoming aware of these thought patterns opened up lines of questioning that I return to over and over again. When I feel tempted to tear myself down for mistakes I’ve made as a parent or for the curse word I was never going to use again as a sort of hyphenated first name for a certain child, I start asking fair questions.
“You seem stressed, Elissa. What’s going on?”
“Do you feel like your every move is under scrutiny? That would make most people feel stressed out.”
“I noticed you’re having a lot of critical thoughts about so-and-so; is it possible you are feeling that way toward yourself?”
And especially, “Who are you defending yourself against? Have you noticed that you’re alone? These criticisms are coming from you. That means they’re optional.”
If you are looking for relief from constant criticism, it is there the moment you choose it. It’s like waking yourself up from that nightmare where velociraptors have learned about doorknobs. Safe again in your own space, and you can hit the escape button any time you notice the velociraptors returning.
So if you would like to stop criticizing a person or their work before they die and become “off limits,” I recommend the exact same formula. Let’s take advantage of the living years as a time for compassion, kindness, and curiosity.
[Added with revision] The formula I suggest for stopping your inner critic:
1-Notice how you experience the critical voice (my experience includes these floating faces in my mind of people whose opinion of me matters)
2-Get curious, not condemning, in regards to the voice(s).
3-Ask yourself simple, kind questions; and plan them out ahead of time.
4-The criticisms reveal what you believe, or at least fear, about yourself.
5-Process through those beliefs. Speak to yourself the way you would a friend or a child who just needs somewhere soft to land after getting hurt.
6-When you uncover the hurt or what you fear will happen again, take the power away from that moment and give it back to yourself.
For example, “That was really hard when I was doing my best, and so-and-so just breezed in and laughed scornfully at my efforts. Of course that would hurt at first. Just feel that hurt for a bit, and then thank it for teaching you what unkindness can do. Now it has done its work and you can let it go.”
Past hurts stop hurting when we let them live out their purpose. If left to their own devices, the hurts settle in and look for a new purpose. They bounce around and become the blame that we use to live the pain of criticism over and over again while thinking someone in the past caused it.
If you have read this far, first, well done! Take a moment to praise yourself. Second, if you feel inclined to chide yourself for not having learned all this decades ago, offer yourself this thought: “As always, I am doing the best I can with what I have to work with.” Just as my in-laws’ builder did when he built this home on a wisely limited budget.
[The accompanying Mike and the Mechanics song clearly advises, “Say it loud; Say it clear,” but many of the lyrics remained a mystery to me until I read them on Google. I highly doubt our friend had this sort of relationship with his father, the exact opposite I would expect. I have never heard our friend criticize anyone, so perhaps he escaped that sort of culture altogether.]