The Cost Of Criticism

tumblr_mei9y4IsYJ1r90iovMost of us are acutely aware of the effect of criticism. I ask people all the time, “If ten people tell you that you are beautiful and one person tells you that you are ugly, which do you remember?” We all know the answer.

Why is that? Is it because, on some level, we are more apt to believe a criticism than we are a compliment? Does that criticism subconsciously confirm something about ourselves that we already know? Does it simply reinforce our negative self-image?

There is also another side to that coin. I don’t know about you but I was raised by a culture that strongly asserted that self-promotion was vanity. Being ‘humble’ meant never complimenting ourselves. People who bragged were assumed to be arrogant. Then one day I stepped into a Christian church and heard the saying, “God gets all the glory”. I learned that anything good about myself was God, anything bad is me. Once again I learned that I suck, that in and of myself I had little to brag about… not that I was allowed to anyway.

I have written before about the legacy my grandmother gave me. She was a firm believer in the axiom, “children should be seen and not heard”. I cannot remember one compliment from her mouth given to anyone, especially me. Then I grew up and had a relationship with someone who used contempt and disappointment as a means of control and discipline. You probably know people like this.

It is no real surprise when people come to counseling and admit to me that they struggle with self-esteem issues. Poor self-image is such a common mental health issue that I don’t know if I know anyone who doesn’t struggle with it. We are a culture plagued by emotional pain, largely as a result of criticism, contempt, and condemnation.

Enough with the criticism already. Most of us struggle everyday with feeling like we are losers, that we don’t measure up and we never will. I really don’t need you to point out my faults, I am intimately familiar with them. We know we have failed. We are cognizant of our glaring ugliness.

Many people feel that they are trying to help when they are critical. After all, how will you ever learn if I don’t help you? Granted, there are times when I have appreciated the cutting honesty of a friend, but this is only effective when I trust that person and believe they have my best interests at heart. Tearing people a new one simply because you are righteously indignant usually only scars and forces that person into a defensive posture. Real friends love you in spite of how you are, not because of who you are. Real friends love you enough to shut up.

They say you can get more flies with honey than with vinegar. You can also get more flies with shit than with honey. It’s a great deal more helpful to love someone back to health than it is to shoot the wounded.

It’s time for a love revolution.

Chasing Tornadoes

i_believe_in_chasing_tornadoes_round_stickers-p217161373895334849en7l1_216One day, while living in Denver, Colorado, we heard that there was a tornado brewing in our area. This may seem like a big deal to you if you live somewhere else, but in Colorado tornadoes are a fact of life. I witnessed dozens of funnel clouds every year and often they would touch down, usually in a trailer park. God hates trailer parks. It’s not bad enough that you live in a home that can burn to ashes in four minutes. For some reason God has this habit of skipping houses with minivans and spanking the trailer folk.

Back to the true story. My wife is listening to the radio and she hears about this tornado heading right towards our neighborhood and she starts to get nervous, especially since my dad and I had gone for milk almost an hour ago and hadn’t gotten back. She started putting two and two together and started to shake her head and think to herself…. “they wouldn’t!”

Ok so my dad and I are cruising home from the Quickie Mart and we turn on the radio and we hear about this tornado heading right towards our neighborhood. We start to get excited. We had never seen a tornado from like, real close, and thought it would be cool to go looking for it. Actually it was my dad’s idea so that explains a lot about the kind of upbringing I had.

So here are two stupid Canadians in a Dodge Colt driving towards the tornado. We’re passing vans and cars and your basic fleeing mob going the other way. It was awesome, there was no traffic in our lane.

How close can you get to a tornado? It turns out you can get very close indeed. Fifty feet if you are stupid enough, or so I’ve heard. I blame my father. What kind of parent would let someone like me chase tornadoes?

The moral of the story is, Canadians are idiots. No, wait, that’s not it. The moral of the story is – it seemed like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, although it was still very cool, we were flirting with disaster.

At the time we believed we knew what we were doing.
At the time we thought we knew the score.
At the time.

When I was struggling with dark depression, at the time I felt I was making the best decisions for my future. At the time.

When I was lonely and horny and had no one to hold, at the time I thought I was making the right decisions for my life. At the time.

When you are struggling with mental health issues and chronic pain and fatigue and loneliness and stress and financial problems it is tempting to make decisions that feel right… at the time. Unfortunately few decisions that are made when we are at our worst turn out for our best. At these times most of us have lost our objectivity and the pain has sapped us of our motivation to do what is difficult. Very often what seems “like a good idea at the time” is in fact very detrimental to our future lives and we are unable to see it. In these moments we need to be very willing to accept the advice of those who love us and can see things more objectively. I have failed to take such at advice on occasion and have usually come to regret it.

Here are a few examples to leave you with:
listen1. When you are infatuated with your new romantic interest you probably do not see the whole picture; understand that you are not qualified to make long-term decisions at that moment.
2. When you are in love and people are screaming at you that your lover has big problems you need to listen to them because you are not being objective.
3. When you are depressed you will not make good decisions. Yes I mean you.
4. If you are at a vulnerable, hurting, or damaged place in your life if it feels good than chances are you shouldn’t do it.
5. Good advice rarely sounds good when you are in pain.
6. When you are struggling, depressed, or hurting, your inner voice will tell you to do things that are selfish, destructive, and short-sighted. Don’t listen to that voice.
7. If you think no one understands what you are going through you are probably right. Talk to someone.
8. Real change takes a ton of time and effort. Get-fixed-quick schemes don’t work in the long run. Ever.
9. Most of your friends are not qualified to give you advice. Remember that.
10. Get off the couch. Get out of bed. Open the curtains.
11. You will fail. Failure is an important part of getting better.
12. Ninety percent of success is just showing up, even when you don’t feel like it.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Simplistic Solutions

Just pray about it.

I did pray about it, hundreds of times, but my wife still had breast cancer. I’m not making that up. Maybe God was mad at me. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith.

Maybe it was more complicated than that.

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life. Most of them I cannot remember. Some of them I’ve tried to forget. Many of us have been in churches and heard messages on stress, relationships and spirituality that offered solutions to our deepest pains. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we have to admit that most of the proposed wonder-cures never worked. Other people looked so happy and whole and we were left wondering if God hated us, or we were too sinful to be helped. Did everyone else get over their abuse and shame and horrendous childhood so quickly?

What is wrong with me?

I recently had an argument with a minister about sermons. Most of the ones I have heard don’t seem to play out in the real world. It seems easy on Saturday night to prepare three points on ‘how to fix your marriage or ‘how to quit sinning’. On Sunday he delivered the message, felt good about it, was complimented for it… but did it really change anything?

Really?

Many of us are discovering is that there are fewer easy solutions than we once imagined. People on stages, not just religious stages, love to offer half-baked solutions to hurting people who are suffering on a level that most of those hired guns cannot imagine. How many of us were sexually abused, molested, neglected, tainted, or damaged too deep for a quick cure? How often have we sat in church or tuned into Oprah or Phil only to be left feeling worse because we cannot get on board in less than an hour?

I remember watching the Cosby Show years ago. Every problem was wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. I vividly remember one episode where one of the perfect children decided to start drinking. Seven minutes later, hugging Bill on the couch, they promised they would stop. To this day I hate sweaters.

Then Roseanne came out. Now there was a family I could relate to. Life in that household was messy. Why did it feel so much more real?

The solutions to the problems we face are harder than we usually wish to acknowledge. Your issues can rarely be wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. Trite sermons and superstar speakers only reinforce the fact that most of us will only commit to half measures both in prescribing the cure and dealing with it. Foundational transformation takes years of pain and work. Yes work. You probably need to go deeper and darker than most of us are willing to go. You probably need to confess things that few of us are willing to confess. You need to open up a big can of worms.

Think I’m being dramatic? I interviewed a pastor once who said this, “I tell people that God forgives them and they need to forgive themselves, but how the hell do you do that? It’s not as easy as you think. What, should I pretend their shit never happened? I preach every week that change is easy and I pretend. I’m tired of glib answers.”

Talking about religion is usually not a great idea. The list of people who are going to tune me in about my lack of faith or understanding about their religious dynamic is probably long and heated. So let me tell you straight out – I’m not talking about your pastor or priest, or your church or healing center. I’m talking about someone else’s. Your pastor is a great counselor, it’s just the other ones that have 4-7 years of divinity school and two classes on counseling (neither of which is based on evidence-based practices). I know many religious leaders are amazing. I know I am speaking in generalities, I usually do.

Many of us who do this professionally have been shocked and saddened by clients who have been told to “just pray about it” when they told their religious practitioner that they had been raped or molested or (insert issue here). I have also been told, more times than I care to remember, that my client was unsure about seeing me because they wanted to see a ‘Christian counselor’ and were worried that I would undermine their beliefs. I am a person of faith, but because I do not work for a Christian counseling service and choose not to declare my personal beliefs, apparently some people think I will be tempted to drag them over to the dark side. The simple fact is that many counsellors/psychologists/psychiatrists are persons of faith, and those who are not have absolutely no interest in changing someone’s religious belief system unless they are fond of sacrificing chickens in my office.

I am not against Christian counsellors or even ministers helping people in need. I have a problem with anyone setting up vulnerable and fragile people for failure. I take issue with those who would, usually out of ignorance or prejudice, flippantly throw out half-baked solutions that leave wounded people feeling useless or worthless.

Not every issue can be solved in one session or with one act of faith. If you believe God can heal you I have absolutely no issue with that.

If God chooses not to, however, that’s where I come in.