When shutting up isn’t enough

I’ve never taken criticism very well. It’s something I want to work on because I know that constructive criticism can be valuable. Not easy to hear, perhaps, but valuable.

General criticism, on the other hand, is never valuable. Assuming we have any real understanding of others lives and how they should be lived is, in my mind, somewhat arrogant and doling out our opinions on lives we aren’t living isn’t necessarily helpful. It’s also a waste of our mental mojo.

Self-criticism is, perhaps, the worst of all. As we all know, criticizing yourself is a fruitless endeavor, and – according to those who ascribe to philosophies such as the “law of attraction” and the like – self criticism actually programs your brain to believe you aren’t worthy of “good” or “wealth” or “love”. Just by the sheer power of repetition and suggestion, you begin to believe less of yourself, believe yourself to be wrong, bad, fat, thin, mean… whatever. Running around our lives and telling ourselves we aren’t good enough only feeds that truth in our reality. And – horror of horrors – we often do it without even realizing it.

When I was a young girl, I was sure I was overweight, I really was quite pimply faced, and thought myself utterly unattractive. I was blonde, though, which felt like a cruel irony when I was told that my hair color should have practically punched my “likeable” ticket. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t smart, I wasn’t talented, I wasn’t athletic… but those were not the words I told myself.

What I DID tell myself was how much better everyone else was. My friends – the few I had – were all so much prettier, so much more athletic, so much more talented, so much smarter, so much more fun, so much more appreciated… So while I was only occasionally focusing on my own shortcomings, I was PERPETUALLY focusing on how great everyone else was – which might sound somehow honorable – but it left me painfully aware of how pitifully I ‘stacked up’ against them.

I finally became aware of it in my mid-twenties and made a concerted effort to change my mental self-talk. It helped tremendously. Beating back our own criticism of ourselves is both a constant practice (at least at first), and absolutely essential in my mind. The thing I hadn’t expected was criticism of others. We all have our opinions about the lives of others. These, in my mind, are best kept to ourselves and I strive to do just that – keep my mouth shut. It’s hard sometimes. Like, tape-my-mouth-shut hard. And sometimes I word-vomit my personal judgement – and then immediately apologize. I try to keep my opinions to myself unless asked, and this struggle in and of itself is a challenge, though it does get easier with practice, in my experience. The other day, though, I had an alarming and self-awakening thought about the possible repercussions of even silent criticism.

Driving down the road behind an older vehicle with what appeared to be a very short, very wrinkly old man in the driver’s seat, I became aware of frustration bubbling up inside me. It had been several blocks since the traffic light, and he was still going UNDER the speed limit. And I was on my motorcycle, hovering at that awkward speed between gears where I’m going to slow to shift up, but the engine is revving rather high because I’m really going too fast for the gear I’m in. I can’t pass him because there is a line of traffic on one side and I can’t seem to make him hear my silent urges to just step on it! And I have to be somewhere! And I’m already running late because I snoozed one too many times. And does he have no regard for the other people in his periphery?? I hear myself begin to mentally spew some slew of criticism… I have no idea what it was now, but as soon as I realized what was happening I felt awful. How was I to know what this person’s experience was? Perhaps he’d been in a car accident yesterday and was feeling particularly unsafe. Perhaps he was coming from the vet where he’d just had to put his dog down and was so overcome with emotion he wasn’t really noticing where he was or how fast he was going. Perhaps he had a vase of flowers for his sickly wife in his passenger’s seat and was driving really carefully so as not to spill them.

It occurred to me in that moment that even when we don’t verbally criticize others, we’re still putting out that energy of judgement, negativity, and anger. Which, of course – in this case at least – is likely hurting me and my energy or power WAY more than it’s hurting the old man. But more than that even… when we allow ourselves to be critical of others – even silently, even mentally – we are normalizing criticism in general and making it that much easier for our brain to go to that “default” setting when we’re unhappy – which just perpetuates the problem and makes criticizing – in general – a habit. One that tears us down on all kinds of levels.

So perhaps it isn’t enough to just keep it to ourselves. Perhaps we have to work harder at feeling compassion instead of frustration, empathy instead of anger, and patience instead of criticism.

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