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Meeting Self-Criticism in Others

You see your partner, parent, child, sister, or close friend suffering and your heart aches. You hear him or her making self-critical remarks and you want to correct this false perception.  You want to do whatever you can to relieve their suffering.  You might also offer solutions, advice, new perspective, information, and reassurance. Some of these things work some of the time. Other times you find yourself more disconnected from your loved one. And, what's worse the self-criticism continues unabated.  One Gem reader, let's call him Bill, offered this example with his partner.

Sue and I ran into a NVC challenge this morning. She's frustrated that, 3-4 months after graduating with her degree in landscape architecture, she hasn't found a job yet. She's concerned about the impact her unemployment will have on the family, and she's blaming herself: "I should have found a job by now."

I was trying to boost her spirits, and said something like,

"I know you thought finding a job was going to be simple, but I always thought it was going to be difficult."

My intention was to communicate that I don't blame her for still being unemployed, and that perhaps her self-expectations were too high -- that perhaps it really IS hard to find that first job, and so she shouldn't blame herself for that reality. I wanted her to see that her self-criticism might be misplaced

However, my comment sounded to her like a statement of superiority: "You thought it would be easy, but I knew better because I'm smarter than you."

The first thing to notice in this example is that Sue is expressing pain. Her self-blame is an expression of unmet needs. This is your cue that empathy is most likely the first need that wants to be met.

The second thing to notice is your own reaction to the pain of your beloved and your own response to that. Noticing this, you might hear yourself saying: "I feel sad seeing her in pain. I want her to be okay. And, I want to remind myself that it's okay for her to be in pain and the best thing I can do is meet her where she is at. I don't want to pull or push her out of where she is right now because that doesn't create connection or healing."

You can see from the example above that Sue's husband, Bill, wanted to help her and thought giving his perspective would be helpful. In short, he decided to argue with her internal critical voices.

When you argue with an inner critic you are adding another layer of reactivity to the situation.

It is key to remember that critic voices are important signals about life giving needs that want to be met. Critic voices are doing their best to sound an alarm and get attention to needs. So, the most helpful thing is to listen closely to the critic and befriend it. Meeting Sue's inner critic with empathy might have sounded like this:

Bill: Hearing you say, "I should have found a job by now", I am guessing you're feeling worried because you want to contribute to the family. Is that right?

Sue: Yes, we are using up our savings. We need a second income.

Bill: Yea, you want security regarding our resources.

Sue: Yea, and I don't just want to waste all the time and energy I put into getting this degree because I can't find a job.

Bill: Sure, you want that sense that the work you have done to get your degree has meaning and purpose, is that it?

Sue: Yea, why did I work so hard getting this degree if I can't find a job. (Sue begins crying).

In this example, Sue's husband has offered empathy and in doing so created a space for Sue to mourn the unmet needs. The ability to mourn signifies a connection to needs. This connection to needs is what dissolves the inner critic.

From this place of connection, my guess is that Sue would experience some clarity regarding her situation and would see a broader perspective without her partner's suggestion.

Then Sue might be ready to hear Bill's honest expression: "Sue, I want you to know that when I think about this situation, I feel at ease, because I have a sense of faith in getting through this and because I am really happy to offer support regardless of how this evolves for you."

Is there someone in your life, who you have recently heard or regularly hear expressing self-criticism? Take a moment now to guess the feelings and needs that be behind their expression of self-criticism.

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4 Responses

  1. Nov 09, 2013

    Hi LaShelle

    I am inspired to send you a quick note to say hello and let you know how much I value the gems that you write. I find myself inspired when I read them and if I get a chance in the morning to do so, even better, as it sets a positive tone as I head out the door and into the world. For some reason I need constant reminders so that I do not fall into the ruts ( think dry car ruts on a muddy road).

    It has been almost a year now that you came to Costa Rica and I am having fond memories of your trip and the beautiful training under the palm trees you offered and our adventure with the turtle people. Hope all is well with you!


  2. Nov 09, 2013

    Great to hear from you Brenda. I am glad the gems can support you in staying on the smooth part of the road ;)

    It seems like a magical dream now when I think back to leading a NVC training on the beach in Costa Rica with the sound of the waves soothing us and the brightly colored iguanas catching my eye.

  3. Nov 09, 2013
    Tami O'Kinsella

    Hi, LaShelle. I found this gem very helpful as I often hear people express self criticism. It disturbs me, leaves me feeling unsettled, a tugging at my heart for a response but confused as how to proceed. It just happened to me before reading this and I was not satisfied with my response. Now I realize what I offered was my perspective, an argument with the self critical voice, rather than giving the empathy that was the need behind this critical voice. It is significant to realize that giving empathy can create a space to mourn unmet needs. It is like joining hands with the person and holding with them the weight of their sadness. The ability to mourn signifies a connection to needs. This connection to needs is what dissolves the inner critic.
    Thanks for taking the time to make this more clear. Tami

  4. Nov 10, 2013

    " It is like joining hands with the person and holding with them the weight of their sadness."

    Beautifully put, thank you Tami.

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