By Israel “Izzy” Kalman
We are so concerned with relieving the misery of our children. It can be easy to overlook the fact that we, as adults, have the same types of problems they do. When we think of children’s bullying, we are usually referring to persistent verbal attacks – generally insults – against a child. The child is greatly upset by the attacks, yet the other kids continue attacking him/her. The simple truth is that the attacks continue because the child is getting upset. The solution is for the child to stop getting upset.
The same process happens among adults, even among couples. We adults are supposed to be models for our children. If we get easily upset by verbal attacks, we are teaching our kids to do the same. Furthermore, very little hurts children more than seeing their parents not getting along.
Bad relationships can be very difficult to save, but most start out good. The couple are both fine, intelligent people and get along nicely. At some point, though, they find themselves angry and fighting much of the time, and it’s almost always over some kind of criticism. They don’t understand what went wrong. They are both the same people they used to be. Nothing catastrophic has happened to stand in the way of their relationship. But they can’t fathom why their partner continues to give them unwanted criticism. Fortunately, such couples can be easy to help.
Admittedly, there are many things that can hurt a relationship. This article is not a comprehensive manual on relationship problems. It will deal with the one factor that is probably the most frequent source of strife between a couple: criticism.
My own experience
Most people who know my wife, Miriam, and I well consider us to have an ideal relationship. And they are not far from the truth. But it wasn’t always that way. We suffered terribly during our first six or seven years together and even contemplated divorce, a thought that was especially painful because we had children.
We went for counseling a couple of times. We got along better as long as the counseling lasted. After it ended, it didn’t take long and we were right back to the way we used to be.
Meanwhile, in my work as a psychologist in schools, I discovered that the most common complaint of kids is that their schoolmates are picking on them, insulting them and making fun of them. Thankfully, I developed a quick and fun method of teaching kids how to quickly stop being picked on.
After several years of great success teaching this to children I thought, “Maybe I should be taking my own advice. Here I am, teaching kids that if they stop getting upset, they stop getting picked on.” So, I decided one day to try it. I told myself that for the next week I am going to refuse to get upset no matter what my wife says. I just won’t give her this power.
The great news is that it worked like a miracle. And it was effortless. I just let Miriam say whatever she wanted about me and didn’t try to stop her. I simply treated her like my best friend, which is what she was in reality. In a matter of days the relationship was better and has continued to improve.
Of course, the relationship hasn’t only been smiles. But we get upset with each other very rarely, and when we do, we work the problem out immediately. We can’t stand staying upset with each other.
As I became involved in giving seminars and writing articles and books, my thinking about the dynamics of relationship problems and how to solve them deepened. It occurred to me that there are ways by which we treat people like enemies but aren’t aware of it because we aren’t taught to think of interpersonal dynamics in terms of “friends and enemies.” Then they treat us, in return, like enemies and we don’t understand how they can be so mean. I defined a set of rules for treating people like friends rather than enemies, and use role-playing to demonstrate how the system works. One of these rules is to treat criticism as the words of a good friend.
Appreciating criticism is against our nature
Without proper training, people find it difficult to welcome criticism because it is against our nature. We hate being criticized. We like to think that we’re perfect, and to have people treat us like we’re perfect.
One of the most basic human responses is to defend ourselves from attack, and this includes criticism. That’s because we are biologically programmed for life in nature, where we have real enemies that might injure or kill us. If we don’t defend ourselves when attacked, we may end up dead.
However, today we live in civilization. We are not allowed to injure or kill each other, so we don’t have to be as afraid of each other as in nature. Today, we can all cooperate and be friends. So it’s usually a mistake to give in to our biological programming by defending ourselves and counterattacking when we’re criticized or insulted. Rather than stopping the verbal attacks, these strategies cause them to escalate and become perpetual. Rather than winning, we lose. And if the person we’re defending ourselves from is someone close to us, we both lose.
Why we should value criticism
But it feels bad to be criticized. Why should we value criticism?
It’s because no one is perfect. In order to improve ourselves, we first need to know where to improve. It is easier to see when other people are in the wrong because our eyes and ears point outwards. It’s much harder to know what’s wrong with ourselves.
It is unhealthy to think that we’re perfect. That makes us narcissistic and vulnerable to insult. It’s no fun being, or being with, such a person.
So, the smart thing is to realize that when people criticize and insult us, it can keep us humble and encourage us to improve ourselves. Even if the critic happens to be wrong, and even if they have no intention of helping us, we should be grateful to them for taking the time and effort to tell us what they think is wrong with us.
Demonstrating how it works
We may imagine that it is extremely difficult to be grateful for criticisms and insults. Fortunately, it is easier than we might think. In reality, it’s the natural responses of defensiveness and retaliation that are hard work because they cause the situation to intensify and persist, so we end up expending much more effort.
Simply explaining the theory about how to handle a situation is not particularly effective. I like to demonstrate through role-play. Then the problem and solution become obvious. I will present a common problem that can cause great strife between parents: criticism over childrearing. It is not only the couple that suffers; children hate seeing their parents fight over them.
The following is what might happen when the subject of the criticism reacts “naturally,” treating the critic like an enemy, with defensiveness and counterattack:
Mom: Why do you always yell at Mikey? You’re destroying his self-esteem!
Dad: I’m not destroying his self-esteem! His esteem is so high that he shows no respect to his own father!
Mom: It’s because you’re always yelling at him! That’s why he doesn’t respect you!
Dad: He doesn’t respect me because you’re always taking his side against me!
Mom: Well, what do you expect? You’re a grown man! You have no right to use your superior power against a defenseless young boy!
Dad: What are you talking about, defenseless? He has you to defend him! The only time he ever listens to me is if I resort to force!
Mom: Don’t try to justify abusing our child!
Dad: I’m not abusing him! He’s the one abusing me! And your overprotection is encouraging him!
Mom: He doesn’t need any encouragement from me! You’re doing a pretty good job on your own by screaming at him all the time! Why shouldn’t he be defiant when you’re so mean to him? Why should he respect you when you act like a tyrant?
Dad: How dare you talk to me like that? I don’t act like a tyrant! He doesn’t respect me because you show me no respect! He learns it from you!
Now, let’s see how the “friend” way might work:
Mom: Why do you always yell at Mikey? You’re destroying his self-esteem!
Dad: Do I really yell at him all the time?
Mom: Just about.
Dad: You know what? I get so frustrated by him. I don’t know what to do anymore. He never listens to me. Does he listen to you?
Mom: Yeah. At least he does before you come home. Then he doesn’t listen to anyone.
Dad: Now that you mention it, he seems to disobey me mainly when we’re both home. When I’m alone with him, he shows me respect.
Mom: He does?
Dad: Yeah, it’s really strange. You know what? Maybe Mikey is playing us against each other. Maybe he’s discovered that when we’re both home, he can defy us and then we start fighting with each other.
Mom: Let’s check it out. Next time he’s rude to you, I’ll just tell him he has to show you respect because you’re his father.
Dad: I’d really appreciate that. And you know what? I’ll try not yelling at him. Maybe he’ll respect me more if I talk to him calmly.
Mom: Yeah, I think that would be terrific.
Dad: Thanks for being so supportive.
Mom: Well, maybe I shouldn’t have been protecting him from you. It just scares me to see you yelling at him.
Dad: Yeah, I guess it must be scary. But you have nothing to worry about. I would never want to hurt him.
Mom: I know. I’m just worried about his feelings. Maybe I shouldn’t be. If he were really that afraid of you, he wouldn’t be so defiant.
I hope you get the idea. Remember to value criticism. It will make you a better person.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman, MS, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an internationally recognized expert on bullying prevention and is lead author of the Be Strong Resilience Program.