Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

I wrote the following article about what it’s like to be in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic for the Love & Life Toolbox (here’s the article). Sharing here as well!
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Being in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic

Have you heard the one about the confused man whose girlfriend of a year and a half suddenly got mad and left him? Just up and left. They’d never fought, not once. The relationship seemed perfectly fine. He’d introduced her to his friends and his whole family. They were engaged. They were going to get married. Then she split.

Haven’t heard that one? Well, I have. Time and again. Loving someone whose parents are alcoholics is challenging and often unpredictable territory.

How can anyone really know if their partner, potential husband or wife, came from an alcoholic household? It’s rarely clear. Sometimes it’s not known that someone’s parents are alcoholics — plenty of people have alcoholic parents without realizing it. Other times a person can have alcoholic parents and know it, but not understand the extent to which growing up in that environment affected them.

While the confused man stands shell shocked, we can examine his fiancee’s perspective. She met and fell for a wonderful man. He had his life together, treated her kindly, and wanted a future with her. It was love (it must be)! Everything seemed to be going well, and although she’d never had a healthy relationship modeled for her, this seemed good. She didn’t know that she was supposed to just be herself, be vulnerable, honest, and imperfect as well as expect to be loved for all that. One day after being and doing what she intuited her boyfriend expected of her, she finally broke. It was too much to continue faking a perfect self, being pleasing, affable, not having needs, or sour moods. The skills that had served her so well in childhood weren’t working. She felt imprisoned and false. She had to get out, to flee, to breathe.

For people who grow up with an alcoholic parent, getting into relationships is like getting on a fast ride with a one-way ticket. We commit to someone who’s interested in us because we’re the ever-loyal children of dysfunctional, rigid parents, and then we buckle up and enjoy (or something) the feeling of rushing along, fast, on a course to…wherever. The sensation of beginning relationships is much like being swallowed whole and re-wiring one’s self for a new identity — the identity of our new love, whatever he or she needs us to be. With that kind of beginning, it’s easier to understand the hallmark get close-pull away pattern that often gets established in relationships in which one partner grew up around addiction.

The Survivalist Approach to Childhood Works, Yet It Doesn’t Stop

Children of alcoholics are survivalists by nurture. We do quite well in crisis and seem most calm during chaos. We are not very at ease when things are calm and ordinary because in our world calm always meant a storm was around the bend. The ability to survive an emotionally and often times physically abusive childhood environment was essential. The ability to survive required a tough exterior or a polished one (we’re often called “well-wrapped”), our armor. It required a hyper-vigilant awareness of impending danger: bad moods, yelling, or violent outbursts, all of which could strike at any time. We came to expect the unexpected and predict the unpredictable behavior or our volatile parents.

Unfortunately, we continue to live in survival mode after we leave home and set up our own lives. There’s no national agency that visits the apartments and condos of newly sprung children of alcoholics to present them with a certificate of completion. If they did, it would read: This Certifies that You Survived Childhood and Must Now Learn to Thrive in Life. The fine print would read: It’s time for a paradigm shift, so surround yourself with uplifting people, stop trying to be what you’re not, tame your true inner self, and spend the rest of your life coaxing that person out into the open and experimenting with loving yourself unconditionally.

The Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Two important individuals in the awareness-raising of the issues adult children of alcoholics were Tony A, author of The Laundry List and founder of the original twelve-step group for adult children of alcoholics (now ACoA) and Janet Woititz, author and psychologist. Each developed a list of characteristics and common traits that children of alcoholics struggle with. Those include:

We judge ourselves mercilessly (we considered ourselves unlovable as children)
We don’t easily relax and have fun (chaos is more comfortable)
We feel somehow different from other people (sensing deep down that something is wrong)
We have a tendency to isolate (because we feel like freaks)
We have a tendency to be afraid of authority figures (because our original ones were volatile)
We seek approval (because our self-esteem is under-developed)
We feel guilty about our needs and shame about our true feelings (needs and feelings were unwelcome in childhood)
We get addicted to excitement (like a moth to the flame that is chaos)
We react to others rather than act from our desires (because being our own self was risky if not deadly)
We tend to be very serious (we’re not sure it’s okay to let our guard down)
There are more ACA traits and characteristics on Janet and Tony’s lists.

Watch out for the Trespasser Known as Transference

If your partner hasn’t yet done the work to distinguish between their past and their present, they may be subconsciously reacting to you as if you are their parent or as if current struggles are actually past struggles. This can be very confusing for both of you.

How might you know if your partner is transferring feelings from childhood onto a present-day situation, or onto you? Their reaction may be much bigger than the situation calls for, but not only that — their reaction will also have a feeling of intense or deep emotion and they won’t quickly recover from the upset. You might sense that something else is going on, something deeper or complex, given the level of hurt your partner is showing. You may feel that a great misdeed is being attributed to you, and that despite your apology and explanation, noting seems to lessen the hurt for your partner. They are stuck in the hurt.

When someone reacts to you, or your actions, based from their feelings about another person from the past, that’s known as transference. This happens when a person transfers their thoughts or feelings about one person onto another. (Transference is different from projection, which is when another person accuses you of embodying their own thoughts, feelings, or traits.) Because children of alcoholics grow up with so much unprocessed emotional trauma, it’s easy to understand why they would transfer their hurt feelings onto someone who resembles the original source of upset — they are yearning to have the reaction and process that was never allowed and was tamped down for years.

A transference dynamic can be wearing on a relationship; it puts one partner in the position of role-playing the childhood of the other partner with no knowledge of what’s going on. It means that one partner is having the other’s feelings and possibly accusations directed at them from another time and place, not based in the present situation. This makes it hard to learn the other person’s emotional landscape. Part of getting to know a partner involves coming to understand what they like and don’t, what pushes their buttons, and what brings them joy or causes them sadness. It’s hard to get an accurate reading on a partner’s emotional landscape if they are living in the past, still wrestling with old wounds.

And from the perspective of the person who grew up with emotional trauma, it’s confusing to be unable to differentiate the amount of hurt that comes from past wounds and what amount of hurt is coming from a present scenario. By relating to a partner as if they’re the ghost of our past, like a hitching post for us to tie our hurts to, we’re unsuccessfully resolving past issues as well as distorting what’s occurring in the present. This can bring anguish when what we most desire is to be truly present and participate in the relationship in an authentic and productive way.

Seeking to Understand, Resisting Fix-It Solutions

It can feel like walking on eggshells at times with someone sensitive, who has been emotionally traumatized, and who seeks approval. Tiptoe-living is an exhausting life. If your partner had childhood trauma, they have some self-healing work to do. It’s important for you to internalize the distinction between what “understanding” looks like for you and what “fixing” looks like. As a partner, you show love through listening (especially active listening) and by learning about and understanding the person you love, where they come from. That’s all. In terms of helping, fixing, and changing your partner and their resolution of a difficult past — that is not your terrain to adventure through. If your partner is ready and willing to do the work of helping and healing themselves, they’ll do it. It cannot be rushed and you cannot do that work for them.

Be sure that you understand where the line is between understanding and fixing, and remember the simple truth that to love is to listen and to understand. (The fix-it work is the work for a therapist and your loved one.) What does that leave you with? That leaves you with the responsibility of loving your partner as he or she is, for who he or she is, rather than who they will become or what you can shape them into.

When a partner has emotional work to do, it’s easy to make a habit of focusing on their issues. It’s incredibly common — many of the emails I receive from readers of my blog include exasperated pleas for helping their boyfriend or girlfriend get un-damaged. I can only tell them that when their partner is ready to do the work, they’ll do the work. It’s fine to share a book or forward a link to someone and let them know you think they’d be well-served by reading it, but the work cannot be forced and it cannot be done by proxy.

Turning your focus to your own personal work crowds-out the habitual wondering and worrying you’ve been doing about your partner’s problems.

What might you do with the newfound time you no longer spend attempting to fix your partner’s problems? Why, taking a look at yourself of course! It’s worth considering whether there is something about this person’s history that drew you in, that clicked-into some issues or emotional habits of your own that need to be understood. If you’ve been focused on your partner’s shortcomings, create a new habit around looking into your part in the relationship dynamics. Indulge in a self-inquiry and see what you might uncover about the assumptions, expectations, and perceptions you bring to the partnership.

Upholding Responsibility and Accountability in a Partnership

Each of us wants and deserves a partner who is responsible and respectful to himself, to us, and to the relationship. Regardless of what one’s background of emotional struggles are, meeting one another at the point of shared self-respect is how relationships maintain balance and thrive.

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Another post I wrote on the topic of loving an adult child is this one, “If You Love Someone with Alcoholic Parents…”  Enjoy!

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Visit and read more about relationship skills at Lisa Kift’s Love & Life Toolbox.

Sneak Peek Video of my Upcoming Book, “The Kind Self-Healing Book”

I have news of my book, The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion. The launch date for the book is coming very soon, May 2015! I wanted to give readers an update as well as a sneak peek of the insides.

I have dedicated the book to you, the readers of guesswhatnormalis.com.

Book Sneak Peek Video:

Pages from inside the book:

big list of feelingsglossary first proofa pledge to your healingflaws first proof page

And here are some creative ideas I’ve been playing around with (book marks, bags, etc.) now that I have a big ‘The Kind Self-Healing Book’ stamp.

testing the stamp

I spent the weekend inputting corrections from the first proof:

corrections to first proof

There’s more:

You can keep track of the book and related happenings on the Facebook page for The Kind Self-Healing Book.

You can pre-order the book here, on the pre-order and book info page.

- be kind to yourself

Food Cleanse as Mystical Experience: Less Food, Greater Intuition

avocado

avocado

My 21 Day Cleanse

Week before last I ended a twenty-one day gentle food cleanse. The experience was transformative, and I wanted to write about it. And while I want to share my experience and reflect on it through writing, what I don’t want to do is suggest that you should do a cleanse. If the timing is right for you, great. Just know that this isn’t a pro-cleanse, go-cleanse post. But it is very much a report on what my cleanse experience was like. (Results may vary!)

An Unplanned Cleanse

I had been battling some deep fatigue for about a week, and mentioned it to my acupuncturist. We had been talking about the fact that my book is going to be coming out in a couple months, and that I’m going to want to be wholly ready to focus much spirit and energy on that. She wants me to be feeling great — and energetic — by May. My deep fatigue was the opposite of where I want to be. “Have you ever considered a cleanse?” she asked. My first thought was “I can’t pull that off,” and I felt dread and fear; I recalled a friend who was on a cleanse and how difficult I imagined it was for her to fend off cravings. I was doubtful. My acupuncturist then pulled down a can of pea-protein based vitamin and mineral powder, a pack of fermented cod oil capsules, and a pack of probiotic powder pills, and presented them to me. There was also a packet of info, the guidelines.

I flipped to the page with the list of what I had to cut out for twenty-one days (listed here in the order of how horrifying it would be to give up):

caffeine

sugar

gluten (I omitted most grain, with the exception of some rice and quinoa)

dairy

soy

meat (weeks two and three)

shellfish

peanuts

I looked at the cleanse calendar, and slowly sensed–to my surprise–that I was up for it. Truth was, two months prior I had hurt my back and had made a decision to follow various healing paths wherever they may lead, and would be willing to try what might work. This healer was suggesting a cleanse. So I said, “Let’s do it.”

If I had given it thought, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have agreed to it. If I had said, “I’ll think about it,” I wouldn’t have done it. The fact that I hadn’t eaten much yet that day, that it was early in the day, and I could count that very day as Day 1, helped me feel that the cleanse had already begun. I felt like I could do it.

In my acupuncturist, I would have a guide, a witness. That lent me confidence, too.

The First Three Days are Tough

Not only are the first three days rough, but my acupuncturist told me that not everyone gets past that initial hurdle. My guess is that because I was generally seeking a spiritual experience, rather than weight-loss, that helped me stay on the ride. Or I’m just remarkably stubborn. I wanted to “observe” the experience, I wanted to have and explore the experience of…detoxing. For detoxing is what the first three days are. And detox is painful and confusing and frustrating.

Feelings on Days 1, 2 and 3

The first days are a real test. They are difficult days. I wondered if my body would shut down from the shock of it all, if the sudden dietary change would cause a heart attack, stroke, or worst of all:  a psychotic episode. I felt such fear. I felt the fear that I wouldn’t get enough food, that I’d become depleted. I feared nameless fears about being vulnerable, fundamentally vulnerable. I feared exposure — the feeling of fundamental exposure to nameless, faceless dangers. More concretely, I experienced a new kind of headache that I’d not felt before (center of my forehead and top of my head), I felt disoriented and cranky, too.

fear - cleanse day 2

That all passed. Those feelings returned here and there–wafted through–but were uncommon occurrences and became way more manageable.

By day five, a kind of balance and sense of euphoria arrived. I went from feeling afraid without food as armor and comfort to feeling strong, centered, and with greater sight. I’ll try to explain that last one, sight. One way to explain it is that I felt less self-conscious and anxious, so nicely balanced energy-wise, that when I was around people I was looking at and into them, seeing and hearing them, and not distracted by my own nerves. That blew me away. Another way to explain the increased sight was that I somehow felt that my perception, or intuition, was heightened when I wasn’t filled with food.

With my recent lower back issues, I’ve been getting therapeutic massages. I went for one during the midpoint of my cleanse. It was a day when I had eaten very little (even for a cleanse!) During the massage, I had a waking dream, or vision. I saw a man standing on the edge of a plateau. He was standing at an angle, with mostly his back to me. He was looking out at the expanse below him. I sensed that he was sad, proud, and weary from battle — he was wearing what was left of his buckskin pants, no feathers, though he was native american — while he surveyed…the battlefield? It was hard to know what he was looking at. But the vision was truly extraordinary.

I mentioned all this to another massage therapist I know, who is very intuitive and generous about sharing what she knows about different types of healing. I said, “For some reason I feel more intuitive and able to “see” when I don’t have a lot of food in my system.” She said, “Oh, yeah. That’s a thing. A teacher once told me that keeping food to a minimum is a method for connecting with intuition.” What a remarkable insight, and lesson.

What I Ate

Now for the practical bits. I want to have a record of this, for next time.

I ate a lot of the same things. At first I thought, “Same things all the time? Boring.” But then I realized that everyone eats pretty much the same things most days of the week. Think about it. Don’t you? Most days I ate:  hummus, an apple, an avocado, trail mix (theirs), and a mango-red quinoa salad that I bought weekly from Whole Foods. I ate that mango-quinoa salad with garbanzo beans, black beans, cashews, and avocado, depending on the day. I drank a lot of tea, organic herbal tea.

Foods to eat.

Foods to eat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At one point, I realized that the food I was making was rather beautiful. Colorful. Apples and berries are vibrant reds, purples, and pinks. Carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, squash are vibrant greens, oranges, and reds. Each salad I made, mushroom and carrot soup I simmered, or coconut curry I stirred were gorgeous to look at.

What I ate on day eleven.

What I ate on day eleven.

 

 

 

 

 

What I ate on day fifteen.

What I ate on day fifteen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The key was to eat just enough, but not more than that.

Snacks

Some of my new favorite snacks are chia seed pudding, apple slices with sun or almond butter and cinnamon, hummus with carrots, cucumber, or radishes, and a sweet treat is majool dates stuffed with almond butter.

Pink lady slices dredged in sunbutter spiced with cinnamon is delicious.

Pink lady slices dredged in sunbutter spiced with cinnamon is delicious.

 

Chia pudding:  chia seeds soaked overnight in almond milk and coconut milk with vanilla.

Chia pudding: chia seeds soaked overnight in almond milk and coconut milk with vanilla.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was it Worth It?

Yes. The spiritual, or mystical, aspect wasn’t my only reward during the cleanse. The other was that I got to observe my food cravings and how I use food. Yes, use. I was able to notice that when faced with a task I wasn’t excited about, paying bills or writing a difficult email, that the thought “EAT” would flash across my brain like a banner ad. I noticed that I wanted a “reward” when the day was particularly skewed towards work that was void of personal connections or meaning; after a day like that, I’d crave a sweet reward that would help turn-off my brain. All of that was very interesting to observe, and breathe through. I was committed to the cleanse, so I had only the option to breathe (or growl at strangers) as a coping mechanism. That was not easy. Apparently I hold my breath a lot.

Why I’m Still Eating in A Cleanse-Like Way  

I feel so, so good. Simple as that.

Thank you, Erin Wilkins, L.Ac.!

-be kind to yourself.

 

 

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Did you know that my book is coming out in May? Whooo! You can find our more right here: about The Kind Self-Healing Book. You can even pre-order it!

Please consider liking the Facebook page for The Kind Self Healing Book:  Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion.

 

Act Three: Making Peace with Criticism

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Act Three:  MAKING PEACE WITH CRITICISM

You now know about the ninja-level tool of breathing to slow down and try to be present in the face of criticism (that was Part II Knowing Good Criticism from Bad) as well as how to evaluate whether the criticism is real or an apparition from childhood (that was Part I How Well Do You Handle Criticism?).

It’s now time to look beyond criticism, to get big and powerful in spirit, and a bit abstract:  imagine yourself in a place in which you’re not intimidated or affected by criticism — where you can be with it peacefully in a room, without fearing it. For example — imagine how you might notice a book sitting on a table in a hotel lobby and see that the book is labeled “criticism.” Just notice it, notice the criticism hanging in the air like a balloon with its string dangling before you. The balloon is there. You’re there. It’s not “attacking” you and it’s not after you. And the person who has blown up the balloon and tried to hand it to you — the person “criticizing” you — is there, too, but not at war with you. They’re standing there, too.

Once you can get to a place where those entities (you, the criticism, and the other person) are separate, but present, and you’re breathing in and out while solid with your worth, flaws, and self (all!), then you can take the next step.

That next step is truly a leap. Think about what will be there in the room between you and the other person once the criticism departs – the balloon goes out the window. Just you and that person in a room. You are there, vulnerable. The other person is there, having expressed something clumsily – also vulnerable. What remains? I will tell you:  intimacy.

Intimacy and vulnerability are at the core of human existence. And just like distractions and addictions, criticism works as a barrier to intimacy — when we misunderstand its message.

Say that I’m sitting on the couch with a lover, who is trying to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation about art and literature. My first thought is, “I don’t give him that. I lack something.” And I react from that assumption, that vulnerability and fear. I might say to him, “I could say the same about you — where’s the discussion of philosophy, Kant, Nitetzsche, etc.?” And we’d be distanced from one another by our swords and shields. However, instead imagine that once he began to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation and I imagined it as the balloon hanging there — him, me, and his comment (the balloon) in a room — and I said, “What does that mean for you, intellectual conversation?” A conversation can then begin; I can listen rather be deaf with fear, and I can focus on understanding another person. The focus shifts to Love/Listening away from criticism and fear.

CRITICISM IS A DISTRACTION FROM INTIMACY

I have failed in that kind of situation — the lover, the couch, the opportunity for verbal intimacy — and yet learned big lessons through getting it painfully wrong. In the moment that we can disengage from criticism, we can apply the lesson of breathing and disengaging from the specter of criticism. We learn step one, then step two, and then we can learn to lean into Intimacy. It takes time, and the time is well worth taking.

In a moment in which you might recoil from your partner in defensiveness, rather, you take a step closer to your partner in vulnerability, in curiosity, and love.

Consider this:

Can you think of an instance in which you got derailed by reacting to criticism and might have missed an opportunity for deeper understanding, vulnerability, and intimacy? Could you have shared your innermost self then, but threw up your shield instead? Could you have shown compassion for someone attempting to express himself who got it clumsily wrong? Could benefit of the doubt have played a greater role?

-be kind to yourself.

 
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Act 1: How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

Act 2: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

Act: 3 Making Peace with Criticism
 

Act Two: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

ninja breath

Act Two

KNOW GOOD CRITICISM FROM BAD

Do you trust yourself to differentiate between good criticism and bad criticism, what’s okay and what’s not?

Does All Criticism Seem Like An Attack?

Do you react to criticism as if your village is under attack? I sure used to. When I had some of my worst experiences around criticism, when I had meltdowns, panic, when I quit jobs…my reaction, my upset and anger, soared from 0 to 100 in a split second. The hilarious part is, as I walked out, I’d feel that I’d won the battle.

Additionally, I tended to smell criticism from 100 feet; I would think that just about anything that wasn’t a compliment was, in fact, a criticism. (Compliments, oh! Those would go through their own x-ray in my brain, in which I’d try to detect shades of earnestness and try to decide whether the person really, truly meant the compliment or was, rather, trying to prime me for some kind of later favor they’d ask.)

I had no ability — no tools — for dealing with criticism. No utterance was valid, all were attacks. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t being professional, I was under attack; load guns! shoot! No, wait – aim! See, I had grown up in a household in which criticism was rampant, criticism of others and of self. And the criticism was total — that is, there wasn’t a clear differentiation between the person and their actions. So when I was criticized (or, rather, my actions were), I didn’t know the difference. And the differentiation is essential!

Good Person/Bad Deed

People are all born good; however, their actions or deeds can be poorly executed, clumsy, and terrible. Children are good beings, but can make mistakes and do bad things. (If you are struggling with the concept of people being born good, start with yourself — do you believe that you are fundamentally good?) I have a friend who uses this language with her child, “I love you, honey, but your actions aren’t okay — that was a bad action.”  It’s helpful to use language to differentiate the person from their actions. We might say to someone, “You’re a great employee, but snapping at customers is unacceptable behavior.”

Perceived Criticism

Perceived criticism is the wide and mighty gray area in which we tend to make mountains of molehills, get into arguments, storm out of rooms, fling retorts, etc. Someone might be talking about how they did something, and you start to wonder if they’re suggesting that you, too, should have done things that way. (Are they trying to tell you something? No! They are talking about themselves – ask them more about themselves, and you’ll see.)

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Navigating perceived criticism can be tricky for the self-centered aspects of our personalities, our anima and animus, to listen to others talk about themselves without thinking about our own experience. Getting practice at listening to, learning from, and hearing others express themselves will help ease your self-centeredness as well as temper any tendency to assume there’s a hidden criticism or message for you in everything people say.

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Facing perceived criticism? Ask clarifying questions!

Valid Criticism

Valid Criticism is criticism that is clean and clear. It’s hard to come by, but not impossible. Valid criticism is specific to a particular instance, a particular behavior, and is very simply stated: “Your report had mistakes in it,” “That email was unprofessional,” “You’re talking mean,” “You were late,” “This paragraph is confusing,” “I asked you to start the laundry but you didn’t,” “You’re driving really close to the car in front of us.”

It falls within the family of Constructive Criticism, which is feedback that can be fairly formal in that it includes positive and negative statements — you did this part well, and this part you didn’t do well — and is well thought-out and often part of a planned meeting. If only all workplace criticism could be constructive! Alas, managers are rarely trained in the art of constructive criticism.

With that in mind, when giving feedback, think of the “sandwich” approach, by having the filling of the sandwich consist of careful criticism, surrounded by slices of bread that are positive, affirming statements. The whole is then more easily digested. “This is wonderful, these two things are problematic, and this other thing is wonderful, too.” I have been in situations in which I asked for a couple of positive statements in the midst of criticism, in effect making that sandwich myself — so that I could digest the criticism without starting to believe I was “all” bad as I had a tendency to do.

You might bring a cake you picked up to a party, and hear someone say, “I don’t like this cake,” and feel criticized. The truth is, while that person may want to spread toxicity around, they aren’t technically criticizing you.

Translating Lousy Feedback into Useful Material

To get the best out of a lousy manager who’s trying to give valid feedback, you can run their words through an inner translator:

Boss says:     “You’ve got a short fuse.”

You inner translation:     “I’m okay. There are times I overreact.”

That’s doing you both a favor. When you translate for yourself, you can stay composed, professional, and even create a more productive conversation. You could ask, “Sounds like you’re saying I’ve overreacted at times, can you give me an example?”

Also – did you catch my phrasing of ‘lousy manager’? So, rather than that, I could say, “Manager with poor feedback skills.” See?

Note:  body language and tone of voice are major factors in how we perceive and experience criticism. Pay attention to that. If you’re confused about the body language or tone, or notice a discrepancy – say so. Ask about it. “You’re saying it was fine that I was late, but you brought it up – and you look frustrated,” what’s the story? Be open – that changes everything. You might also add, “I was late, I’m sorry for that.” (No need to over-apologize, but do take responsibility.)

Co-Dependency and Perceived Criticism

Growing up in households steeped in co-dependent dynamics, we tend to be confused about the cause-and-effect between what someone else feels and our actions. We were trained to think that we “cause” other people’s feelings in a way that we don’t. “If you don’t go to your brother’s game, he’ll feel bad,” was one I heard aplenty growing up — someone telling me how someone else would feel about my fictional actions.

If your mother cries that you don’t “know” her or “love” her because you got the chocolate cake rather than the vanilla with raspberry filling that is her favorite, you’re being baited. (She had an unexpressed expectation.) If she didn’t tell you to order chocolate, is it fair to expect you to intuit that was the one to get? (No.) Could you have asked? (Sure.) Did you try to get it right? (Yep.) Can a cake flavor be equated with love? (Am I really asking that question?)

With practice, you’ll be able to differentiate between what feels like criticism and what is someone stating their opinion or throwing toxic snowballs your way.

If you’re facing valid criticism, tune in.

Destructive Criticism

Destructive, or negative, criticism is toxic and unproductive.

Destructive criticism has some hallmarks:  it doesn’t contain a suggestion, solution, and doesn’t improve a situation. Destructive criticism can be abusive; if it’s criticism that sums up a whole person, such as, “You’re no smarter than me,” “You’re dumb,” “You’re lazy,” “You’re a bully,” or “You never shut up,” it’s abusive. It’s abusive if it’s used to manipulate a person — like knocking a person down a notch in order to strengthen your own position. Destructive criticism can involve the terms “always,” “never,” talking about a number of instances as a “pattern,” or passive or rhetorical statements like, “How is it that you’re the messiest person I’ve ever known when your parents are such neat-freaks?”

If you’re facing destructive criticism, you can get space, you can walk away.

If you are in a relationship in which you, yourself, are using destructive language, be willing to see that.

Ask yourself why you feel the need to resort to threatening language. Is there a power struggle? Are you holding onto unexpressed anger? What’s going on? Talk to a counselor and work on learning new language. And, similarly, if your partner is using destructive language, be courageous enough to talk to a counselor, therapist, or browse some books on anger, abuse — and self-esteem.

Take responsibility.

“You Should. . .” 

The phrase, “You should” is tricky because it involves that trigger terminology of being told what to do as well as containing, possibly, a veiled criticism.  An emotionally intelligent-sensitive person won’t say “you should” if they want to share their idea — instead, they’ll say, “If you wanted to do it another way, you could…” in those instances. If you’re irritated that another person says “you should,” the best way to do that is to model it, to adapt it to your own language.

There are times in which the person who says ‘you should’ is not intending to be critical. They may very well accept the validity of the way you did something, yet because they seeing things from their perspective, they may want to share that with you. If you’re feeling criticized in those instances, you can say:  “Interesting. Why do you suggest that for me?”

Interesting! Why do you suggest that for me?

Note the “…for me.” That part of the question can be effective in achieving a number of things:  it says you heard them, it validates their suggestion, and it re-points the idea back to your situation, to you. Say you’re talking about a hiking trip you’re planning, and you’re talking about the logistics — and that’s when the other person says, “You shouldn’t go then, you should go in the summer.” And then you say, “Interesting, why do you suggest that for me?” That gives them a chance to say, “Well, you might like fall weather, but you might get rain so I wouldn’t go any other time but summer.” Then it becomes more of a conversation, and less of a lecture. You can say, “I don’t do heat. I don’t love rain, you’ve got a point there. But I’ll take rain over hot days.”

If you value yourself and love your flawed, imperfect, and wonderful self, as well as value others, you won’t feel the need to be like them or please them.

If you’re hearing, “You should,” ask questions, and listen. Get more information. Breathe. 

Mistakes Count as Practice

This taking-criticism-well business takes time, it takes the development of your instincts. It also takes mistakes, and apology, too. We don’t always get it right, whether we’re giving criticism or the receiver of it.

Breathe

If you were to skip this entire post and still get the most hidden, useful, and shiny gem, it would be to breathe.

B R E A T H E

Seriously, that’s a ninja-level tool.

Even if you can’t translate what you’re hearing, ask question, etc., that’s OK. You can breathe. Anyone can do that. Here’s how:  take in a long, slow, slow, slow breath into your nose (mouth shut) and then, once you’re full to bursting — let it out through your mouth with pursed lips, slowly, and exhale completely.

I officially dare you to do it right now.

 

Act 1: How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

Act 2: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

Act: 3 Making Peace with Criticism