Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I knew a man who was once stuck. (AKA how criticism traps)

I knew a man who was once stuck in a relationship devoid of affection and riddled with criticism.

He apologized for himself constantly when I visited him and his spouse.

"How are you?" I'd ask, and he'd look humbly at her, smile sheepishly and say, "Not bad! But my wife is a little impatient with my _____" [insert: broken leg, insomnia, job, family, etc.] -- whatever wranglings a typical person deals with in a typical life.

Their roles were well-established. He postured self-effacingly and she rolled her eyes. When she added her share, her voice was prickly, tinged with snappish tales of the difficulties of living with someone so inept.

Over time, her irritation grew and she didn't hide it.

Soon he became a castaway in his own life, his lost soul visible to any who glimpsed inside the blue ocean of his eyes, witnessing the man within adrift. A dark cloud of negative feedback hung over him, tantalizing with the promise of lifting. Of course she would stop nagging. As soon as he stopped [whatever]. You know, when sleep returned, monetary pressure lifted, vacation started, kid obligations were released, Uranus opposed Saturn, the house was fixed, etc. The magic elixir was always seemingly in sight but somehow remained unobtainable and the murk lingered.

I saw this man recently. Years had passed. He'd divorced and found someone new. Someone who loved him unconditionally. And I was astounded by the change in his demeanor. He still juggled the vagaries of life but he looked happy and strong now, like a robust plant sprouting in the sun of his new wife's loving gaze.

I always knew criticism could still ardor, but had never quite noticed the effects in myself the way I had this man. But having experienced much negativity in life, I knew what it felt like internally.

Sometimes people start off lightly offering opinions. Maybe in the guise of help.

There is a saying:  

"If it can be fixed in a few minutes, mention it. Otherwise, refrain, unless specifically asked." 

So, yes, tell someone when there's a stray koala on their face but not that they're fat.

But what if the judgments grow? What if they turn into impossible standards which you still try to meet? You'll both know you fall short.

Soon your self-esteem will suffer.

If you're healthy, you'll address this when you first recognize it happening. Either you will leave or go to counseling together or demand better treatment. But if you've been put down before, you may miss early cues. Maybe you'll even feel inexplicably comfortable with the dynamic and settle into a situation that can damage your sense of self or turn into verbal abuse.

Here are all the things that can happen if you been living under a smog of criticism:
  • You become conflict-avoidant. You may either quickly compromise or pre-empt conflict (which is also a compromise).
  • You will feel you are not good enough and this may spur a hunger for external validation.
  • You will think it's your fault because they tell you so. If they blame you instead of taking partial responsibility or presenting the issue in a neutral light, you may be quick to seek faults in yourself and accept this blame even when you're not completely at fault.
  • It is extremely draining to disappoint someone constantly; this can sap you of the energy for creative, nurturing pursuits.
  • You may become too understanding of poor excuses and situations.
  • You may start to lose trust in people because you may unconsciously think they'll hurt you.
  • You may avoid getting close to others, fearing being exposed will lead to an assault of your vulnerabilities. 
  • You may put others on pedestals because you don't regard yourself well.
  • You may not recognize when your boundaries are being crossed or you may allow people to cross them easily because you don't have a sense where healthy lines should exist.
  • You may feel as though you don't have permission to express your feelings because the other person will react negatively.
  • If the other party is moody, manipulative, controlling, depressed, or emotionally high-strung, you may lose the ability to gauge your own worth because their view of you swings to extremes (e.g.: from pride to disappointment, etc.) and is not consistent.
  • You may learn to be ashamed of yourself, your feelings, your background, your taste, your looks or anything else that is criticised.
  • You may hyper focus on your own shortcomings and fail to give the good stuff as prominent a place.
  • You may seek relationships where other people have more control, believing yourself to be less capable than they or by reenacting old roles from childhood.
  • You may think you are not worthy of pure love.
  • You'll find it easy not to be a priority.
  • You will try to seek approval by "doing the right things," becoming extremely motivated by approval.
  • You may choose people who are broken or wounded because you were trained to gravitate towards relationships full of drama -- maybe you are unconsciously seeking to right past wrongs or maybe are just used to the dynamic.
  • Your craving for appreciation may make you take up with people who require you to jump through hoops to win their approval.
  • You may expect unconditional love from an unlikely source or try to get love from someone who cannot meet your needs.
  • You may end up with a skewed idea of what a relationship should be and choose poorly because your self-esteem is off, and these poor choices further erode your ability to trust your own judgment.
  • If you don't believe you're good enough or loveable, you will act like you're not good enough or loveable and participate in situations that reflect this.

Any of this ring true? If so, think carefully about how you feel in any given person's company. Do you give them too much power? Do you hang on their judgment? Do you feel like you need to prove yourself or win them over? Do you feel valued? Your body will know if you can't tell. Listen to it.

By the way, it's not good enough to feel good sometimes, you need to consistently feel appreciated. Cherished, even. Everyone is deserving of unconditional love. I'm not saying there won't be conflict, but the quality of communication is key. Change your environment and you may change yourself, like he did, above.
"Give love and unconditional acceptance to those you encounter, and notice what happens." Wayne Dyer
Give that same love and unconditional acceptance to YOU too. (I'll start today if you do!)


  1. Great list and advice!
    I'd say that everyone should read this, so that people that begin to behave in a manipulative way see those signs in themselves too.

  2. This was a really great post. I'm bookmarking it. Very enlightening. Thank you.

  3. There is hope of a 'better' and for happiness. Strange that I was reading an article on Battered Spouse Syndrome and its parallels with the behavior of the villages terrorized by the Taliban. They seem resigned to the dysfunctional relationship and manipulation of a very small group almost as if out of habit. They cannot see standing up (in their much larger numbers) It's just not what they do. (much longer story...)

    We cannot always change when it is obvious to those around us that we might need to; we are creatures of habit and superstition, and that is not always a good thing. I hope your list, a little overwhelming to read in one go [for me] as I wanted to memorize them, I kinda suck at that. Yet, I get the jist, and hope to use the ideas for the benefit of myself and others (maybe some day).