Do you want to squirt lemon juice in the eyes of anyone who DARES to criticize you? To pound their desk with your fist and shout, Who do you think you are?! You don’t KNOW me, what I’ve seen, or where I come from! Do suggestions, tips, and advice feel like hostile criticisms to you? Are you hyper-aware — do you scan the crowd, worrying, suspecting, or knowing that you’re being evaluated, rated, and sized-up by any stranger who glances your way?
What do authority figure issues have to do with a person’s difficulty with handling criticism, and what does difficulty with criticism have to do with self-esteem?
This post is dedicated to a reader who recently emailed me about authority figure issues (after reading my post, Don’t Tell Me about Authority Figure Issues!). The question was, how do we stop over-reacting to criticism? How do we stop being shut-down by perceived criticism? How can we navigate criticism like emotionally resilient versions of ourselves — how do we keep our minds, and hearts, open?
YOUR CHILDHOOD IS OVER
Clearly, your childhood is over. Your age indicates that. Your living situation probably indicates that. We’re on our own now. We pay our own bills. And lots of them. Yet do we truly understand the implications of being out of childhood in every cell of your body and brain? Does your emotional self know that, really know that? Did you take some time before starting your first adult job to replace all your old habits and assumptions with brand new adult ones? (No. No one does.) Or are you just like the rest of us, acting out the role you perfected from childhood?
Most of us are reacting to others, during emotional moments especially, as if they were another person, a father or mother, from childhood. When your girlfriend or boyfriend has to end a phone call quickly and you feel the pinch of abandonment, is that a new feeling, or a very old one, from childhood? When you tell your partner you’re feeling ignored, which indeed you may, is it 45% present-day emotion and 55% unresolved childhood hurt that you’re presenting to your partner, dropping in their lap, and expecting your partner to soothe? Do you want others to soothe not just today’s hurt but all of yesterday’s hurts, too? For a long time I operated that way. When my feelings were hurt, they were hurt ten times the size. I had no idea, none whatsoever, that present-day hurts were activating old, deep ones. It was completely unconscious.
What does carrying forward childhood wounds have to do with not handling criticism well? A lot. Maybe everything. If we are still mad, traumatized, and providing safe harbor to unresolved pain from the original authority figures in our life, how can we expect ourselves to hear what our present-day authority figures have to say? Our original authority figures were inconsistent, perfectionistic, and distracted by their addictions — which is to say, we’re not naturally trusting of authority figures. How can we hear suggestions, advice, and criticism and get anything productive from others if we’re still looking for targets to release our somewhat-related anger at? If we relate to authority figures in our present life as if they are the authority figures of our early life, we’re acting out of sync with reality — we’re acting out a role that doesn’t correspond to what’s in front of us, we’re not really here, present, in this reality. All of that is to say that each of us must recognize how we’re living in reaction to early wounds in our present lives, and take responsibility for healing that, so that we can participate in today.
Within this realm, I define “authority figures” as anyone who my inner child could perceive as an “authority.” So, that includes my bosses, clearly. But “authority figure” could also be a boyfriend, if my inner child is at the forefront and I’m feeling small. It could include someone behind a counter – a car rental clerk, police officer, or parking attendant. Basically, an “authority figure” can be anyone our inner child may perceive as having more control than we do in a given situation. Add criticism to the mix — and you have a recipe for emotional detonation.
Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking (which I wrote about in this post, On Authority Figure Issues) kills our chances of being open to the benefits of hearing criticism — as does perfectionism. If we equate one mistake with total failure, we’re not going to be open to hearing about mistakes. Through a long and roundabout and continuous process of coming to value myself and believe in my thoughts, wishes, dreams, wants, etc. as right (for me) — and making mistakes — I discovered that when I include my flaws and inconsistencies as part of my global concept of who I am, I’m open to criticism. When I began to react to mistakes as mistakes — just mistakes a cool but flawed person can make — and not supernatural “signs” that I’m a deeply flawed person destined to fail miserably and die lonely in a cold cave (oh, the mind’s powers!), I could then make room for criticism. Criticism wasn’t going to send me off the cliff; I wasn’t fragile with denial about my perfection anymore.
Again – it was a long and winding journey. I didn’t have a roadmap, and this is the best one I can sketch out for future travelers.
Just know this: you are the one responsible for affirming yourself, cultivating your sense of worth, and knowing that you are both flawed and perfect – perfectly flawed - as is everyone else. Don’t wait for all of the many apologies that you feel you’re due to start living in today.
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(Next week: Act 2 – KNOWING GOOD CRITICISM FROM BAD)