“What’s Wrong with You?” Criticism, Part Two.
Dateline: In the air over New Mexico, American Airlines Flight 78. It’s crowded up here in the clouds because New Mexicans levitate with the ease that you and I eat breakfast.
I almost talked myself out of writing this element of “Conquering Criticism in Three Parts.” When I started to work on the words, I realized that our use of criticizing is way too prevalent and important to our survival to be ‘conquered’. Also, the internet is gorged with superficial ‘tips’ or easy ways to change behavior that don’t make any lasting difference and are only provided so that your eyes will pass over the commercials on the page—oops, there I go ridding myself of anxiety by criticizing the world again. See “Conquering Criticism: Criticizing the World.”
Also, I hesitated in writing about criticizing other people because I didn’t want to lecture about a self-defeating behavior that I’ve had little success in reducing in my own life.
The Rubber Band Technique of Behavior Change
For an entry course in behavioral medicine, one assignment was to pick a behavior of our own that we wanted to change and design a program to change that behavior. Of course, being perfect, I had a hard time finding anything that needed changing. Lucky for me my special person (as well as my siblings) didn’t have a hard time pointing out several habits that could use some work.
My special person suggested I reduce the frequency with which I complained about how busy I was and how I had so much to do. He hinted that all 40,000 students on campus knew that ‘poor me’ had had a job since I was fourteen. The first thing I did, of course, was deny that I complained an unreasonable amount. Then I developed my project: I put a thick rubber band on my wrist and determined that I would pop myself hard every time I heard myself complain.
The awareness and pain did slow my complaints. Maybe all we can hope for in changing our habit of criticizing others to reduce our own anxiety is awareness.
The habit of criticizing others to calm ourselves down is in use by every person I’ve encountered including the one in the mirror. In fact I’m quite excellent at identifying the short suits of others—famous, infamous, and next door.
It occurs to me that criticizing others is like continuously auditioning for our position with other people. “Look at me compared to ‘them’.” As if we must continuously point out what’s wrong with other people so that our listeners are impressed with our skills or so that our listeners are continuously reminded of how lucky they are to be our family, friends, and partners.
I can only believe criticizing others was once needed for survival. Sort of like the ability to smell smoke and thus not die from fire. We now keep thinking we smell smoke and must protect ourselves–when the fire, the danger from others, only exists in our fearful and imaginary worlds.
We use criticizing others as if our lives depended on it when there’s no smoke and no fire. Just try and stop someone who is pointing out your shortcomings or the dumb actions of other people. Try to stop yourself. Again, the goal here is not nearly so lofty as to suggest any of us can or should give up the practice. If we all stopped critiquing each other at once it just might cause a black emptiness and suck the planet out a worm hole.
“I don’t mean to criticize, but–” goes in the same bucket as, “It’s not about the money, but–”
The goal here is merely awareness. A stinging pop of the rubber band.
We don’t want to convert our criticizing of others into Self Torture, the next topic in “Conquering . . .”
First lesson of behavioral medicine: Behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated and behavior that is punished is less likely to be repeated. Criticism is punishing even when part of the package. Like in a writing class. When we are not asking for ‘guidance’, it’s rarely appreciated.
Critique if you choose, but don’t be surprised that the person you ‘helped’ isn’t as open with you as she used to be. Behavior that is punished is . . .
One fellow described his mother-in-law as the poster child criticizer, at least where he was concerned.
I asked: “How so?”
He said: “If I handed my mother-in-law a suitcase filled with a million dollars, she would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? How dare you expect me to figure out what to do with all this money? What’s wrong with you boy?’”