Your Criticism Isn’t Helpful

Amanda and Janet are sisters and close friends. They spend much of their free time together and often attend events that they both enjoy. Tonight, they are going to a cocktail party thrown by an old friend and Amanda has purchased a new dress that she is excited to wear. When Janet arrives at Amanda’s house, she looks her over and says, “That dress makes you look like you’ve gained a few pounds.” Amanda is crestfallen. Her excitement about the dress and the party begins to fade away as she questions her appearance. Seeing the upset look on Amanda’s face, Janet says: “What? I’m just being helpful. You don’t want people to think you’ve gotten fat do you?”

The story of Amanda and Janet is something that happens millions of times a day between friends, relatives, lovers, and coworkers. There is one thing that these types of interactions have in common: one person is expressing a negative, unsolicited opinion to the other person. Sometimes, the person being critical truly believes that they are helping the other and other times they are intentionally setting out to damage the other person’s self-esteem, but in both cases damage is done. If you are someone who often offers advice to people and they seem to never react well to it, you should know: your criticism is not helpful. In some cases, whether you intend it to be or not, your criticism is actually emotionally abusive.

There are some relationships where constructive criticism is appropriate and expected. When you have a professor, a mentor, or a boss who offers you tangible suggestions on how to improve your performance, this is to be expected. Such criticism is instructional, it is meant to allow you to become better at whatever task the criticism is related to. Think back to a time in school when you received a paper back from an instructor. Most of the time, he or she would leave comments in the margin, some positive, some negative. Suggestions like, “your focus becomes loose in this paragraph, try editing unnecessary comments” are meant to improve your writing. Imagine if that paper instead said: “Wow, you’re not a great writer. You should try to work on being better at that.” How would you feel? Offended perhaps, or hurt, and you would have no direction in which to go, no idea of what was needed to become a “great writer” but the knowledge that you are not one.

In relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners, criticism is rarely constructive. For one thing, these relationships are not intrinsically instructive, they are mostly supportive. We look to our loved ones to provide us emotional comfort and warmth. Let’s go back to the comment that Janet made to Amanda. It is not constructive because there is nothing specific that Amanda is able to do about “looking like she gained a few pounds in that dress.” Tonight, before the party, she is not able to assess her fitness and eating to determine if she has, in fact, gained weight. You might say, “she could change her dress though, so that comment was constructive.” Unfortunately, it is not. While Janet’s comment does say “dress” the implication is that Amanda has probably gained weight. Whether or not Janet intended this, Amanda now feels self conscious about herself and her body. Simply changing into another dress won’t change Amanda’s insecurity that she does not look good enough to attend the party. Amanda will not enjoy the party as much as she would have if Janet had simply smiled and they had gone to the party. What would have happened if Janet had kept her opinion to herself?

There’s no way to know. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a few people at the party would think that Amanda had gained a few pounds since the last time they had seen her. It’s doubtful that any of them would have expressed it to her. Likely Amanda would be none the wiser and remain unhurt. Janet’s “helpful” comment served only to hurt Amanda. If Janet was seriously concerned about Amanda’s health, she could have chosen a more appropriate time to discuss it with her. Some of you might protest at this point and say something like, “Janet just wanted to spare Amanda embarrassment!” But where would embarrassment come from if no one expressed any criticism of Amanda? People are going to judge and to have opinions, but the vast majority of the time they do not express them to the person they are judging.

The one exception to this, is when one is asked for their opinion. The story would be very different if Amanda had put on the dress, felt uncomfortable, and asked Janet, “How do you think this dress looks?” Then, Janet is free to give her opinion on Amanda’s dress because Amanda solicited it.

If you notice that you are a frequent opinion-giver; if you are protesting as you read this saying that Janet was trying to be helpful, ask yourself the last time your unsolicited opinion was met with thanks. Think back over all of these “helpful” criticisms you have shared. Did the person react positively? Were they happy once you shared it? Did it strengthen your relationship? I suspect that the answer to those questions is “no.” Whether you are a frequent critic or not, the next time you feel the need to criticize something someone you care about is saying, wearing, or doing, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said right now?
  3. Does this need to be said by me?

I have seen this simple yet effective test attributed to spiritual leaders and writers such as Don Miguel Ruiz, author of “The Four Agreements” and Eckhart Tolle, but it was actually said by late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson. If you find yourself being criticized by a loved one on a regular basis, talk to them about it. How they respond will tell you a lot about whether or not your relationship is healthy and sustainable.


Star Wars, the Dark Side, and Anger

b6b60673bc5aecef8610fce23150f321If you are like millions of Americans, you went to see the new Star Wars film “Rogue One” this holiday season. Star Wars has made billions of dollars over the years and one of the most iconic and favorite characters of the sci-fi series is Yoda. A small, green, ancient creature, Yoda teaches Luke Skywalker about the force. Yoda tells Luke: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” 

Anger, oddly enough, is one of my favorite topics to cover in group therapy. I enjoy telling group members “anger is one of my favorite subjects!” Because that usually gets a laugh. Laughter is an important part of therapy, just like it’s an important part of all things we do in life. Most people don’t realize that a lot of the philosophies of Star Wars and the force are similar to Buddhist principles. One of the most famous quotes about anger actually comes from the teachings of the Buddha! Perhaps you have heard “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”? This is an interpretation of the Buddha’s statement: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Buddha knew that of all of the gamut of emotions that human beings experience, anger has the ability to damage us in deep and unique ways. Anger is an active emotion, but when we hold onto anger, when we take care of it, when we tuck it away so that it glows inside of us like that hot coal, it turns into something else: resentment. So, similar to what Yoda told Luke, Anger it seems, is the path to deep, enduring pain.

Anger leads to resentment. Resentment leads to bitterness. Bitterness eats us alive, tainting all of our experiences, even those that have little or nothing to do with whatever caused our anger in the first place. It’s a gradual process. For example, someone might say “all men are liars.” This kind of generalization is not accurate, it’s related to a personal experience that has seethed inside that person and turned into bitterness. The situation that caused this was likely a person being lied to by a man that was close to and important to that person – perhaps they were habitually lied to. Still, that doesn’t mean that all men are liars, but the person who was hurt hangs onto that hot coal of anger. Soon, it becomes resentment. Resentment is less fresh and active than anger – resentment is the creek that runs underneath the foundation of the house, washing the concrete away so slowly that we do not realize that it is a problem until it has damaged the home beyond repair.

In anger, I might yell at you, cry “how could you do this to me?” but in resentment I am passive. I might make passive aggressive comments to you, or try to hurt you in small ways to get revenge for the way that you hurt me. The coal of anger remains, and resentment can morph into bitterness. Bitterness is what makes a person say “all men are liars” instead of “that important person lied to me.” Bitterness takes the resentment that you feel for that one lying man and transfers the responsibility to all men. Bitterness is what would make us distrust someone we barely know, or predetermine an outcome we cannot possibly predict. The wonderful thing about this is that this is not the only possible outcome! We actually get to choose what we do with our anger.

When I do a therapy group on anger, I typically start by asking “is anger bad?” I like to do this because people usually disagree with one another. Some will say “no” a few will say “yes.” The answer is it’s neither – anger is a normal, human emotion. We will all experience anger because that is part of who we are. It is what we decide to do with (or about) our anger that causes us problems. A mentor of mine used to tell a humorous story about anger, she would say:

If my husband tells me that he is working late, and I decide to go down to the Red Lobster with my girlfriends, and I walk in and see that he’s in there with another woman, having dinner, I am going to be angry. It’s ok to be angry. I should be angry! Now, if I go outside, and I find his car, and I take my keys and I scraaaaaatch down the side of his car, that’s not ok. 

Ultimately, we get to decide how we will handle our anger. Will we allow it to control us? To effect our relationships and become a part of our daily lives, will we be tormented by our resentment? Will we allow it to turn into bitterness? Or will we take our power back and express our anger in a healthy way and move on? The choice is ours. Resentment, bitterness, they are the path to the dark side, as Yoda might say. If we let go of the coal, that’s the only way that we “win.” Because the sad truth is that the people we are resenting move on. They may not even know that we resent them! They likely do not care that we resent them so hard that we have become bitter – it doesn’t hurt THEM it hurts us. If your anger, resentment, or bitterness seem impossible to let go of; if they are related to pain so deep that you can’t remember a time when it didn’t hurt, I urge you to seek out a mental health professional. We are not made to hurt, and with resentment and bitterness we hurt no one but ourselves.


Love and control

Some things in life are mutually exclusive; control and love are two of those things. Love is surrendering to faith in the unknowable and belief in the good that resides within us all. We fool ourselves into thinking that when we have the upper hand we have security. You can control yourself, but try to control another person or a situation and you will find that you have nothing. Love is not the absence of fear, but the knowledge that there is something greater that can be found in trust.


© 2010 Stacey E. Aldridge

What is Love Addiction

What is love addiction?

Very simply, love addiction is an addiction to the feeling of being “in love”. I think that in one sense, this cheapens the word “love” and often when talking about it I put the word love in parentheses. The feeling associated with “in love” is often just the high of a new infatuation. An article in the Huffington Post, is most accurately titled “Falling in Love Affects Brain Much Like Addiction, Scientists Say”. I think it should be the opposite really, drugs affect the brain much like love. The article says: “Intense passionate love uses the same system in the brain that gets activated when a person is addicted to drugs,” said study co-author Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.”

What this means for the love addict is often a pattern of short, intense relationships; because he or she (for ease of reading I will use “she” throughout this post) does not realize that what is felt in the beginning of a relationship is a high and not actually “in love.” It can create a pattern unique to love addicts: finding “the one” and falling “in love”, being consumed with thoughts of them so that she can barely eat or sleep, having an inappropriately quick and intense courtship, moving in with them full of plans of being together forever, and eventually walking up in bed next to a virtual stranger whom she often does not love or even particularly like. I call it, “chasing the high.”
At that point, red flags ignored during the “in love” portion of the relationship become clear. Things like a partner’s drug or alcohol addiction; anger problems; inability to process emotions; trouble with intimacy; and huge age, political, religious, geographic and/or lifestyle differences; etc.) Once identified, these problems are then rationalized away by deciding that they were not “the one” as previously thought. The love addict promptly “falls in love” with someone else, usually before extricating herself from the current relationship.

This can all be even further complicated by codependency. If you think you may be codependent or a “love” addict, the first and most important thing to remember is that there is hope. Recovery is possible. It may not be easy, or quick, or fun, and sometimes it may actually feel worse than before you started trying to get better, but once you make the decision to change – change is possible.


© 2012 Stacey E. Aldridge