Are you exhausted from criticism? Laid low by low-blows about your vast imperfections? Demoralized by being demeaned? Join the club.
It’s the human condition to criticize. For some it’s such a knee-jerk reaction to those around us that we don’t even see it. For whatever reason it’s just ever so much easier to point out flaws than to celebrate what we do well.
The problem with this is that we ourselves, having been roundly critiqued by our parents, loved ones, pastors, teachers and of course all our friends, have a supremely difficult time acknowledging what we do right. Our faults ( and oh my there are SO many of them) are so often pointed out to us that this drowns out confidence, diminishes effort and works to undermine our nascent feelings of value, especially when we’re young.
Of course, having been given this as a model this is how we treat others.
People euphemistically call it “constructive criticism” when there is absolutely nothing constructive about it whatsoever. We’re cascading our angst and self-criticism onto others, borne of our own inadequacies, which have of course been loudly pointed out to us from the start.
You’re stupid for voting a certain way. You’re too fat. Too thin. Too stupid. Too smart. You don’t dress fashionably enough. Your skirt’s too short. Your lips are too thin. Your teeth are crooked. You didn’t make straight A’s. You didn’t win the game. That color looks like shit on you. Your haircut looks ridiculous.
I’m just trying to help. Really? Screw you. No you aren’t. You’re simply passing along the same ugliness that you learned. And the buck stops with you, just as it does with me.
Not everyone does this, by any stretch. Those of us fortunate to have parents and friends around us who choose to bolster our confidence rather than rip it apart see differently. Those lessons teach us to value other people and find what’s good, admirable, likable. When we take the time to point these things out in others, remarkable things happen. We aren’t without our own feelings of insecurity- we all have them- but our reference points are different.
Some folks bat that kind of feedback away like a badminton shuttle. It’s so foreign that it feels fake, and they have a terrible time applying the information to themselves. At some level we’re so used to being told what’s wrong with us that receiving a genuine compliment is nearly impossible.
“That’s a gorgeous dress.”
“Oh, this old thing? Its awful. I got it at a thrift store.”
WHACK. You just slapped your complimenter in the face.
Words are Food for the Soul
What we say, and how we say it to those around us is food. Real food. Words are as much food to the heart and and soul is as edibles are to our cells. Language provides the fodder for the heart and mind. When we offer others meals of acknowledgement and praise, we satiate the innate hunger every single one of us has to be acceptable, likable, valued. When we withhold praise, we starve them. Perhaps we too have been starved, and for whatever reason we believe that it will build character.
Um, NO. It doesn’t. It tears the fabric of our relationships and by the same token, it damages us as well.
Here’s the piece: if I take the time to notice that you’ve done an excellent job designing a store window for our shop, let’s say I pull you aside.
“Theresa, you spent hours on this display. What I love about it is your creativity and the way that your design draws in the eye. I really appreciate how hard you worked on this. You do beautiful work. Thanks so much.”
As opposed to “Good job,” which is bland, broad and not very specific, here you’ve told Theresa precisely what you like so much about her creation.
Two things happen: Theresa feels like Queen for the Day. Not only that she’s highly motivated to do even better the next time.
Second, when you do this for others, it uplifts you, because when we compliment and honor people it honors us. This kind of WordFood (https://www.amazon.com/WordFood-How-Feed-Starve-Relationships-ebook/dp/B005VTNA5C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1532168969&sr=8-1&keywords=WordFood%3A+How+We+Feed+or+Starve+our+Relationships), offered with sincerity, transforms us right down to our DNA.
On the other hand, if you say,
“That lower right-hand corner is wasted space. You missed that entirely. It detracts from the whole window. You need to fix that before you can go home. You can do a lot better than that.”
You’ve just deflated Theresa, undermined her sense of accomplishment.
And conversely, when we attack others, critical words go through us like barbed wire. They tear us up, bring our energy down, and keep us focused on what’s wrong. Which is depressing. In other words, when we uplift, we uplift ourselves. When we do damage to others, we damage ourselves. That’s how it works. All you have to do is check your feelings after you’ve ripped into someone. May feel righteous for just a moment. Then you feel like the evil jerk that you just behaved like- and it hurts a lot, way down deep inside.
Lots of Things are Wrong, but then Lots of Things are Right
It’s easy to find what’s wrong — with the world, with politicians, our health care system, our bodies, and for whatever reason, most especially other humans. My god, there’s PLENTY wrong with them, right? Our kids, partners, spouses…there isn’t enough time in the day to go down the laundry list.
One good article which gets to the heart of how criticism devalues, and how we develop the habit, is https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201404/whats-wrong-criticism. Fundamentally, we learn to criticize because that’s how we grew up. Very small children can’t differentiate between a bad behavior (using crayons on the living room wall) and being an intrinsically bad person. Over time he experiences himself as just flawed and bad, and begins to identify with the criticizer. Ultimately, he does the same. Ugly behaviors cascade through the generations like so much verbal sewage.
In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes that “We do not have the right to express our own suffering if we know it will bring suffering to others.” If what we say, to use Hanh’s terminology, waters the seeds of anguish in others, then we’ve done damage. This isn’t Right Speech, according to Buddhist principles.
If you would prefer the Bible, Proverbs 15:4 “Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”
Makes no difference your choice of source. Language is food. All too often it’s toxic. All anyone has to do is read a few current memes on Facebook to get a thorough daily dose of viciousness.
It Begins in the House of the Self
If we would heal ourselves, then first our job is to find what’s right within. If you’re like me, when I was obese, I’d greet myself in the morning with something like;
“You FAT UGLY PIG.”
Well then. That’s a right positive way to begin the day. Having sent this message to my body and soul, I guarantee you that I will treat others with the same scathing disregard all day long. I’m full of self-loathing, self-hatred, and I’m guaranteed to take that out on others.
If however I choose to see what’s right:
“I’m proud of you. You’re doing your best. You’re going to do a great job today. You’re beautiful.” Then smile at my image- with or without fat, makes no difference, I have transformed both my feelings and my intent for the day. And I treat others with the same respect all day long.
I was obese. I did treat myself this way. I struggled with eating disorders for four decades. How I spoke to myself had a great deal to do with how long it took for me to solve this problem. It begins with me.
Here’s another verse: Proverbs 18:4 “A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook.”
It begins with me. If I choose to honor what I powerfully believe is the Kingdom of Heaven within, then I also honor that sacredness in others. I’m not going to tell you this is easy. I will tell you that changing the conversation transforms your life, your day, and your relationships with others.
The Power of Right Speech
As part of what is called “Right Speech” in Buddhism, Hanh discusses the great personage Kwan Yin. Kwan Yin means the one who can listen and understand the sounds of the world, the cries of suffering. When we listen to understand, and respond with compassion, we transform those around us as well as ourselves. We heal when we listen, and we most particularly heal others and ourselves when we listen with compassion and respect. All too often we get into a game of one-upmanship about who has it worse. This is demeaning, and does nothing to heal the wounds that person is feeling.
In my front living room I have the images of Buddha and Kuan Yin to remind me that I have a job to do. I get angry, resentful, frustrated, and my emotions get manipulated on social media just like everyone else. The caustic viciousness that constitutes the verbal flailing on Facebook and Twitter acts like a cancer, and is just as dangerous to our well being as swallowing battery acid.
It’s hard work to refrain from responding in kind. To me, this is what Christ meant when He said “turn the other cheek.” That takes terrific moral courage. But when we do, we heal ourselves and others, even if they don’t know it.
Finding the Sacred in the Everyday
Proverbs 18:20 “Words satisfy the soul as food satisfies the stomach; the right words on a person’s lips bring satisfaction.” I would add that far more than satisfaction, they bring relief, a sense of connectedness to that which is holy and sacred in the every day. It’s one of the true ways we can find whatever we believe to be God in the mundane day-to-day aspects of our lives. When we witness how kind words, compliments and acknowledgment transform those around us, we understand our true power: not to destroy or diminish, but to uplift. Every single one of us has that power to transform others. It’s not limited to a pastor or priest or monk. You and I possess that ability. That’s what’s so remarkable about our humanity.
That’s true power. It begins with how we greet ourselves in the morning mirror every single day.
There is plenty that’s right and good about you. Finding it, and acknowledging it, makes it grow like putting water and sunshine on a seed. When we water the seeds of kindness, they grow.
Let me begin with “the house of myself.” What is in it? What can I find worth valuing and loving? For when I start here, I see those same valuable things in others. Complimenting others compliments me. Valuing others values me.
Find what’s right today. Water the seeds of kindness. In the garden of your soul, they will grow. And your world will change along with them.