I’ve always been a person to believe that you can tell a lot about someone’s character when times are tough. It’s easy to be kind and positive when things are going well in life. To maintain that energy, however, when things are stormy is a whole other question. It’s easy and more gratifying to fly off the handle, project problems onto someone else, or run away to something “fun.” It’s that last urge, in particular, that I’ve been noticing a lot even rise within myself lately that I’d like to explore.
Up until this year, I had always thought of myself as steadfast and committed – and I am, but I made the mistake of believing that I was immune from wanting to escape at times. In the past, if someone exhibited an unhealthy behaviour at work or in my personal life, I was always willing to “tough it out” and give them the “benefit of the doubt.” Giving up on a person, job, or interest hasn’t exactly been my style. If anything, I stay too invested in things far longer than I should and that’s been a pain point for me. More recently, I finally noticed within myself a trigger for wanting to bounce: criticism.
Before you think I’m petty, I should clarify that it’s not so much the criticism itself that makes me want to run away, it’s the underlying shame. I can handle someone telling me that I can do something better or that I haven’t been doing something well — for the most part. However, as my own worst critic, sometimes when a nerve gets hit, my mind will start to race. I take the criticism to be affirmation of a problem I knew existed that was already overwhelming me. It feels like I’m losing a battle that I’ll never be able to come back from. And if the criticism is about something I didn’t recognize as a problem, then my mind plays a whole different set of tricks on me: “were you stupid enough to think you did that well?”
Making matters worse, if the feedback is coming from someone I love, fear sets in. I begin to wonder if they’ll leave me. I tell myself that it makes sense if they don’t love me more; how could they? I remind myself that I was foolish for thinking we were closer when evidently, we’re not because if we were, they surely would have a higher opinion of me.
Taking a step back, I can recognize it’s at this point where doing the exact opposite by choosing to stay is the most important and loving thing you can do for yourself and the relationship at hand. Of course, hearing constructive criticism from someone you care about is hard. That doesn’t mean it’s “bad” though. And contrary to what the reel inside your head is showing, the ending of the story doesn’t always have to result in abandonment. For those of us who felt immense pressure growing up to be perfect, or who have had people walk away when we didn’t do exactly what they wanted, it’s certainly natural to have those fears, but they aren’t always founded.
I’ve been trying to re-wire my whole perception of criticism. Rather than feel ashamed that someone has observed my imperfections, I’m trying to be thankful that they cared enough to tell me. In all actuality, it is often an act of love – not disdain – to tell someone that you see something in them that you think they could do better. And in the context of a relationship, if you’re able to sit with the feedback you receive, consider it, and explore whether or not any change on your part is actually warranted, then the relationship could actually grow instead of dissolve. Likewise, if you have anything that’s been festering about your partner, friend, or family member, sharing it could help you eliminate future resentment and lead you both down a path of transformation together.
So many of us are walking around with relational traumas. We expect people to leave us because they have before and “getting them before they get us” can definitely sound appealing. Why prolong ripping that band-aid off? But, when we can acknowledge that those patterns of past hurt don’t necessarily have to repeat themselves, we may be able to experience a whole new way of being and loving. So, when you hear something that’s hard and you question where it’s going, maybe the first step is to simply acknowledge that you’ll never know where it’s going. All you can do is deal with the moment, what you received, and choose if you want to open up or run away from there.