Is your reaction to criticism alienating your partner?
“A failure to confront is a failure to love.” —Scott Peck
No one likes criticism or to be confronted, even in a nice way, for failing to keep an agreement. And many of us have come up with some very effective ways to discourage others from giving us feedback that we’d rather not hear. The problem with keeping the messenger from giving us the message is that we may be denying ourselves valuable information that could come in handy in the event that we might want to enhance the level of integrity, respect, and trust in our life and in our relationships. One of the most popular ways of discouraging others from giving unwanted feedback is to invalidate or deny the legitimacy of any responses to our words or behavior that another person is providing. Imagine someone saying, for example, “I was disappointed when you didn’t keep your agreement to follow up on the project that we’ve been working on” or “When you didn’t show when you said you would for our meeting, I became worried that something had happened to you and I thought that perhaps I had written the wrong time in my appointment book,” or “I’m noticing that I’m feeling less trust for you to keep your word since the last four times that you’ve promised me that you would do something, you haven’t done it.”
It’s hard to hear that someone, whose opinion of us matters, is feeling mistrust, disappointment, anger. or other negative emotions. We minimize or diminish the legitimacy of their feelings by rationalizing, justifying our behavior, or simply telling them that they are making a bigger deal of something than it is, and that they shouldn’t get so upset over nothing. Not only does such invalidation fail to convince most people that they are wrong in feeling what they do, but it further undermines the level of trust and respect in the relationship. The intention is to invalidate another’s feeling of, for example anger, disappointment, distrust, or anxiety, by trying to convince someone that they shouldn’t feel that way because a) “I had a good reason for doing what I did”; b) “You shouldn’t take things so personally”; c) “You’re making a mountain our of a molehill. You need to chill out. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. You were late for an appointment with me last week/month/year. Can’t you just get over it? Move on dude,” etc.
If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably been on both the receiving or giving end of dialogues like these from time to time in your life. And if so, you probably are aware that these responses generally are very ineffective strategies for getting the job done. The job, in most cases, being to discredit the other person’s feelings in order to avoid accepting responsibility for having broken an agreement (however small it may have been) and theguilt or distress that may ensue.
These attempts to silence our confronter or accuser when we are reminded of a transgression serve to defend us, or actually our public image, from being tarnished by an act that reveals our underlying humanness including it’s imperfections, deficiencies, and flaws. The bottom line is that we don’t want to look bad, to ourselves and/or others. And bad is how we think we will look if we’re caught in the act of being unreliable, insensitive, or overly self-centered. When our actions reveal unattractive aspects of our personalitythrough angry or disrespectful words, hurtful behaviors (either actively or passively expressed), or violations of trust it’s natural to want to explain or justify ourselves in order to avoid the discomfort of the shame or embarrassment that often accompanies exposure of such a situation.
“Shooting the messenger” isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with someone who is bringing news, however difficult to accept it may be, since such information may be worth listening to. After all, sometimes we may not be aware of our transgressions, and even if we are, we may not want to know how it has impacted the other person. When our defensive strategies succeed in screening out any feedback that we don’t want to hear, we deprive ourselves of the very information that we need in order to interrupt unskillful patterns and diminish the frequency of future occurrences.
Reacting defensively with anger, hostility, or judgment when confronted with someone’s feelings over having been on the receiving end of a broken agreement may intimidate that person into shutting up or retracting their words. Unfortunately, there is a problem with winning that game. These feelings don’t go away, they go underground, and they will, from time to time, arise in various subtle forms that directly or indirectly express themselves.
Consequently, couples often find themselves arguing over topics like money, sex, kids, and in-laws; these subjects tend to be cover-ups of the real issue. The actual issues have to do with things like power, control, respect, trust, freedom, and acceptance, although the are generally buried beneath layers of ignored, invalidated, and denied feelings that have been accumulating and neglected for quite a long time, sometimes as long as decades. When the build-up of unacknowledged feelings reaches a point at which it becomes intolerable to bear and there is no capacity left in our emotional holding tank, our emotional circuit breaker shuts off a power line when the circuit gets overloaded. However in this case, you can’t just reset the breaker. The system needs major repair, or worse, it may be beyond repair.
When it comes to dealing with broken agreements or with emotions that arise between people that need attention and understanding, there is no such thing as “no big deal.” Any disturbance that is unacknowledged or unattended is a big deal and it quickly becomes a bigger one if it is denied or invalidated.
Managing the emotions that arise in us when we really listen to another’s distress that our own actions have contributed to requires tolerance, restraint, intentionality, and vulnerability, as well as a range of other personal qualities. Few of us come into adulthood with these qualities fully developed. It is in the crucible of relationships that the motivationto strengthen these traits and the opportunity to practice their development occurs. When we embrace the challenge of using our relationship as a means of self-development, we open the possibility of shifting the trajectory not only of our relationship, but also of our life itself. And that is a big deal!