Archives for posts with tag: criticism is no way to love

It’s been a wonderful weekend with much to celebrate and very little stress. 🙂 Life doesn’t always hand out such lovely weekends, uninterrupted by bullshit and drama, characterized by laughter and love; warmth and affection saturated each welcome moment. It was beautiful. I’m sipping my coffee and smiling, and taking time for gratitude. I can even pin-point what made this particular weekend so incredibly delightful; kind words.

It is not an exaggeration to observe that when most people talk about giving “feedback”, they are talking about negative feedback. Let’s be real about that; negative feedback can also, generally, be called “criticism”, and being criticized, especially if it is a regular thing, is not pleasant. It’s quite difficult to give negative feedback in an encouraging way that lifts someone up, and promotes improvement and positive change. It fairly commonly feels like a beat-down, discouraging, punishing, and devaluing. Yes, even when well-intentioned, and particularly if there is no balancing positive feedback or encouragement offered. Negative feedback is hard to do skillfully, and can be damaging.

You know what isn’t all that difficult? Positive feedback – encouragement. You know what is also fairly easy to do skillfully, and rarely causes damage? Kind words. Yep. Negative feedback isn’t nearly as effective, but it does provide a certain something for the giver-of-feedback (that isn’t at all needed by the person receiving it); the satisfaction of insisting on being heard. Many people avoid clearly understanding what the negative feedback experience feels like for the recipient – until they are, themselves, receiving it. It’s a shame, because positive feedback, encouragement, and kind words, given honestly, and from an authentic place, work in the most remarkable way to actually change behavior over time. Seriously.

(No one is talking about “white lies” here! Or lies at all.)

The key to both positive and negative feedback is the honesty and authenticity, but without kindness and encouragement, negative feedback is often just… mean. Whether we intend it that way or not. It’s just that no one likes being criticized. Feeling rejected actually causes an experience similar to physical pain. It does not matter in the least whether we are “right”; negative feedback stings a little every time, and if it comes as a barrage of nagging and complaints, all the positive intentions in the world won’t ensure the person we are speaking to thinks of it as “helpful” or “welcome” or will recognize that we are well-intentioned, at all. It’s often what comes to our attention most commonly, and most quickly, though – all those things we see as “could have been done better”. We notice that immediately. We are irritated by things that aren’t “right”. We speak up quickly to offer “feedback” – or feel like we’re not being “heard”.

Kindness does take a bit more effort; it’s important to actually notice real things that please, impress, or support us, or which we want to acknowledge and reinforce. That means actually actively paying attention to that person we care enough about to give feedback to. It also means understanding what is important to us, and being very aware of words and actions that support what we see as something that “matters”. Where negative feedback has it’s own notification system in place to let us know when something isn’t quite right, positive reinforcement doesn’t seem to do that, and puts the burden of awareness in our relationships where it belongs; it our here and now, a practice we practice. Can you even count the number of kind things, encouraging words, that you’ve said to your partner or a dear friend in the past 24 hours? If you’re like most people, that number is pretty low, most of the time, and the number of criticisms, “negative feedback”, and back-handed compliments are probably pretty high. It’s a pretty sad state of things considering that there is science to support the need for healthy relationships to have a high ration of positive to negative interactions. Just saying. Do better. Be kind. Be present. Be encouraging. 😉 Have pleasant weekends. 😀

…Now, having said that, it’s also a real thing that if we’re not playing the game of life by the same rules, within our relationships, it can get weird and unpleasant very quickly when we make a change in our behavior of this sort. If a person living in the context of a very negative, sarcastic, gas-lighting relationship starts trying to embrace positive feedback and kindness, it’s not going to “fix” the other person, or the relationship. It’s just not. (I’m not saying negative feedback and criticism are therefore the way to go; sometimes the way ahead isn’t easy, and a few small changes just aren’t adequate to put things right, generally.) What I am saying is that otherwise generally emotionally healthy people do well to treat each other truly well, placing more emphasis and priority on positive feedback, encouragement, and kind words, than on negative feedback.

This past weekend really proved that idea for me. The once or twice I was offered any sort of negative feedback in the moment completely fades from my recollection. I remember the points being made, and the suggestions, but not the negative words or moments. What I remember most about the weekend was the kindness, the compliments, the encouragement, the supportiveness, the listening, the connectedness, the shared humor… it was a wonderful weekend. I felt valued, appreciated, and loved. Words do matter. Assumptions do matter. How we approach each other as human beings does matter. All weekend long I’ve felt the heartbeat of this partnership in a warm, positive way, wrapped in love and held in high regard. So much kindness and tenderness. 🙂

There are subtleties to consider. The difference between “a helpful suggestion” and “unwelcome criticism” is in things like tone, context, and intention; it’s super hard to make useful “rules” about how to do that skillfully, that I could share and someone else could make use of. I am painfully aware of the complexities and required nuance – I’m learning as I go, myself. (Sorry for the extra “homework”!)

Empty compliments are hollow, and don’t work as positive feedback. Content, authenticity, honesty, these things matter. The moment matters. The choice of words matters. Tone of voice matters. Sincerity matters (we can all hear a passive-aggressive “tone”, or sarcasm.) It does take some practice, particularly if we’ve tended to be very negative in our life (possibly framing our choice to be so as “taking care of myself” “expressing my needs” or “setting boundaries”). If you find yourself reading these words thinking “well, except for so-and-so, because I literally have nothing good to say to them”, well, now you’re in “if you can’t say something nice…” territory. Seems unlikely that any one individual could be someone with literally no redeeming qualities of any kind worth reinforcing or encouraging… certainly seems unlikely you’d have chosen to marry such a person, or build a life with them, or develop a deep friendship with someone like that, right? So, start where that positive feedback and those encouraging kind words will make the most profound difference; at home. This holiday season, don’t be a dick. 🙂 Tell the people who matter to you that they do matter. Say nice things more often than you criticize or “correct” them. Trust me; it’s painless to be nice. 😉

…And if you just have to offer up a “correction” or “criticism”, definitely try to at least soften your tone! Sounding angry or irritable is real communication of emotions. It’s helpful to be at least aware that the emotional experience we’re having is our own, and to acknowledge that honestly and not try to put it on the person we’re talking to in some kind of blame-laying way. 🙂

Are you afraid of fucking this up? Are you worried about “being wrong” or “taken the wrong way”? I get it. Change – however necessary, or desirable, can be hard. Fortunately, there are a ton of opportunities to begin again. Go ahead – take a chance on being kind to people you care about. Hell, it’s the holiday season, be kind to everyone, as though each person you meet is human, and really matters. (They are, and do.) If you don’t like who you become, the new year is here, soon enough, and you can begin again, again. 😀

Global superpowers have weapons of such indescribable destructive power they are referred to as weapons of mass destruction, or ‘WMD’. Very few people approve of the use of such weapons. WMDs are indiscriminate killers, laying waste to large populations at the point of impact, and involving sometimes a tremendously large area – and a lot of people. These are weapons so deadly that there are numerous treaties and rules by which people have agreed to play nicely, in order not to use WMDs. Very scary.

"Oil Fires" oil on stretched silk, 24" x 65" 1992

“Oil Fires” oil on stretched silk, 24″ x 65″ 1992

I find that in relationships there are also WMDs…but they’re different. They’re ‘weapons of mass distraction’ – behaviors, and language that undermine relationships with no positive outcome, not used for any constructive purpose, that hurt the person they are launched at without any other likely outcome being possible – and highly likely to hurt anyone in the immediate vicinity, too, through the sudden escalation of ‘OPD’ (Other People’s Drama), resulting symptoms ranging from discomfort, to emotional trauma. Make no mistake; weapons of mass distraction serve no obvious positive purpose, and in my own experience appear to be chosen for maximum damage (whether people who practice such damaging behaviors are doing so willfully, or with any real understanding of the damage they do, is a very different question, and I have no answers there). Human beings are capable of causing each other real harm – we’re very fancy primates, and we’re by far the most violent of the primate species.

I’ve been in relationships that would be easy to call ‘abusive’, one of which was quite dangerously physically violent, and I’m lucky to have gotten out alive. One was peculiarly emotionally painful, and did me lasting and nuanced damage over years of manipulation, gas-lighting, and financial abuse. I can’t honestly say at this point that one was truly worse than the other, in some respects; they both left scars, and they both affected the way I understand my fellow-man. Being treated badly by someone who says they ‘love’ you is one of the most horrifically sucking unpleasant experiences, ever. Along the way I discovered that I could choose to be changed, becoming what hurt me so badly, lashing out at the world with similar behavior, and hostility – or I could allow myself the greater challenge of learning, growing, and continuing to become the woman I most want to be, taking care to heal my heart over time, and making better choices, myself. It hasn’t always been easy.

I find that it can be tough to be certain that an emotionally abusive relationship is actually what it is – I never want to recognize that I have chosen so poorly for myself. I have learned to accept that some behavior just isn’t part of the set of Behaviors Common to Love, and I now accept them as clear warning signs of potential abuse. You likely have a few of your own, learned over time. I find that there are 3 behaviors that come up frequently in abusive relationships I’ve been in, that rarely show themselves in good relationships at all: contempt, a practice of continuous criticism, and controlling behavior.

Contempt hasn’t got anything whatever to do with love. There’s not a moment of contempt that ever whispered ‘I love you’ to someone being treated that way, and the damage of being treated with contempt lingers. It’s hard to find more to say about this one; relationships with a lot of it definitely aren’t loving. It’s a nasty way to treat someone under the guise of love, and the damage done lingers.

Controlling behaviors are commonplace in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. Feeling controlled is definitely a hallmark of abuse in my own experience, and the resulting frustration and feeling of helplessness, and diminishment in personal worth can easily result in reactive acting-out, in a spirally see-saw of love-killing behaviors in which ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ becomes very unclear. Vulnerability, genuineness, and intimacy are critical to love – and not possible in a controlling relationship. Controlling relationships often outlast love, long before they are finally over. I wonder what point there really is for very controlling people to be in romantic relationships at all; from my perspective it often appears they’d be happiest without the complications of the free will of others, or the requirement to treat them well, and respect and consider their humanity.

Criticism is another thing I find common to abusive relationships. I don’t mean constructive feedback about best practices, or supportive dialogue about personal growth. I am talking about the constant negativity, constant complaining, and chronic assumptions of errors in action or judgment that only a person well-practiced in the hostile art of criticism truly understands. I am specifically pointing to ‘blame statements’ based on unvalidated assumptions, and commonly any attempt to refute the underlying assumption is met with further criticism – generally that I am being ‘defensive’. Personally, I find that in principle it’s acceptable to defend myself when attacked – and there’s the thing; in a loving conversation why would we attack each other in the first place? “ABBAB” (Always Be Belittling and Berating) has no place in love. It can be a balancing act; taking care of me certainly requires that I speak up when something unpleasant becomes a household practice I don’t care for… right? Well, but here’s the thing – can’t it be communicated without an attack? Without tearing someone down or hurting their feelings? Without resulting in disrespect, hostility, or questioning the worth of the other person as a human being? Yes, it sure can. (I highly recommend it, however it requires considerable practice for some of us, and a lifetime commitment to being kind.)

Love doesn’t thrive in relationships built on a foundation of contempt, control, and criticism, and it won’t be particularly relevant how long it ‘lasts’ – that shit’s not love.

"You Always Have My Heart" 8" x 10" acrylic on canvas with glow.

“You Always Have My Heart” 8″ x 10″ acrylic on canvas with glow.

It seems unkind to point all this out and then not say something positive… so, here’s something amazing, and simple, and lovely that I recently read, that seems the simplest possible rulebook for building love.  Maybe you think there’s more to it? Well, okay, I recently read this, too, and it is very practical worthy advice. Considering the wealth of information on how to build love, how to make love last, how to invest well in love and loving… what excuse does any person have to continue to treat people poorly, especially those they claim to love? Hell, two strangers can meet, talk, and fall in love in hours – tell me how it is acceptable for a moment to treat someone you love with contempt, or to criticize or control them? None of us need that. It sure isn’t love.

Try love sometime; it’s quite wonderful.

Are you finding yourself in disagreement with what I’m saying about love? Are you defending yourself in the moment? Already setting up the argument in your head, and not really hearing what I’m saying? Could be a nice place to start for some handy self-exploration; a character quality of ‘being disagreeable’ is another way to kill love, and generally unproductive and unpleasant to live or work around…although not really a ‘WMD’.  “Agreeableness” is an extraordinary character quality in a human being – and one of my most favorites to cultivate, myself, and to seek out in others. “The nicest person in the room” is nearly always someone who has a character quality of being very agreeable, and it isn’t at all about whether or not they agree with some one opinion, or whether they do or don’t dispute factual errors. It’s more about being cooperative, sympathetic, kind, considerate – being ‘a good sort’, basically. Agreeable people are marvelous to be around, warm and supportive in times of difficulty, and agreeable people know intimacy on a whole different level. Seriously. Try it out sometime.

Your results may vary. There are verbs involved.

Today is a good day for love, and a good day to be the nicest person in the room. Today is a good day to build someone up, instead of tearing them down. Today is a good day to respect boundaries, and be compassionate about limitations. Today is a good day to recognize that saying ‘I love you’ doesn’t say I love you half as well as loving will. Today is a good day to change the world.