Many years ago the comedian, Tommy Smothers, performed a skit about the impact of negative and toxic messages. In the first scene, he is seen holding a grocery bag while playing. From the side of the room, he hears statements about what he is doing. Each time he hears a message, he puts it into his personal grocery bag. One of the messages he hears is, "How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?" (Translated: you must really be stupid because I have to tell you so many times). As children do, Tommy internalizes the statements and believes they describe him. In the next scene, Tommy is older and when he hears a positive message, he rejects it by bringing out a contradicting message from his bag. He rejects any message that doesn't agree with the ones in his bag.
The skit illustrates that there is something in us that keeps a certain self-image alive by doing the things that reaffirm the beliefs we have about ourselves and/or by discounting the messages that don't agree with the ones in the bag. One of the problems with this process is that some people believe and act as though they have a permanent personality. They excuse themselves from change by saying, "This is just the way I am."
I'm sure Tommy's parents did not intend for him to feel bad about himself. They would be surprised to know how he translated and internalized their messages. Perhaps they believed they were motivating him. It may feel more like criticism, manipulation or bullying than empowering or encouraging. Other controlling approaches are nagging, whining, complaining or using the words "should" and "must."
A young girl of 12 was asked, "Why can't you do anything right? You are so clumsy." When asked what she heard, she replied, "I'm a screwed up person." Perhaps the mother was trying to motivate her to be more careful, but that is not what she internalized. "You are so sloppy," is somehow supposed to motivate the person to be neater. Then we wonder why the other person did not respond the way we desired.
It hurts when the criticism agrees with what we already feel bad about. Criticism can be especially painful where there is already a lot of self-criticism, denial and avoidance. We feel angry when someone criticizes us where we feel vulnerable and insecure. We strike back to protect ourselves. Our anger is really ignited when the criticism is presented as the only interpretation, as fact rather than opinion.
Behind criticism is a desire. We would have a better chance of meeting our needs if we change the criticism into a request. Instead of, "You never have time for me," say, "It would mean a lot to me, if we spent some time together tonight."
Rather than criticizing, make a clear request of what you want.
Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through www.amazon.com.
Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700