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Your Partner's Self-Criticism

Hearing your partner speak self-critically is difficult.  You may feel sad because you care for his or her well-being.  You may feel anxious because you want connection and know that the more self-critical your partner becomes the more difficult it is to connect.  You might also feel disappointed because you are looking for fun and play.

Common responses to another's self-criticism tend to take the form of directives or information like; "Don't be so hard on yourself.", "Be kind to yourself.", "It's normal to make that mistake.", "It's no big deal."  This can be helpful when the self-criticism doesn't go very deep.

At other times, you can offer your own honest expression and make a request.  For example, "Hearing you say that about yourself, I feel sad because I care about you.  Would you be willing to say the feelings and needs that are behind those judgments?"  or  "Hearing you say that about yourself, I feel anxious, because I want to connect.  Would you be willing to name three things you did well in that situation?"

You can also offer empathy.  Remembering that all judgments are an expression of feelings and needs, you can make a guess about the feelings and needs behind the self-criticism.  For example, your partner says something like, "I should have known better.  How could I have been so blind?!"  You might offer in response, "Yea, you really value being clear about this kind of thing and feel disappointed that you couldn't get that clarity.  Is that it?"

In my experience, most people can come out of self-criticism for the moment with a few empathy guesses.  But sometimes the pattern of self-criticism is so strong that the guesses seem to bounce off an invisible wall.  If you notice this happening you can return to honest expression and address this directly.  For example, "I'm feeling frustrated because I want to connect.  Can you pause for a minute and notice if any of the guesses I have made really match your experience?"

If your partner is then able to name a feeling and need that resonate, you can help the process continue by asking how he or she wants to meet that need.  For example, "Okay, I am hearing you really need clarity in situations like these and it can be hard to access.  What would you like to do differently that you think would help you get clarity in a future similar situation?"

Another intervention that can help break the pattern of self-criticism is to make space for grief.  Often self-criticism is a strategy for avoiding the feeling of grief. When you are connected with your heart and the flow of met and unmet needs, you will find that grief and sadness are a natural and frequent part of daily life. 

Using the example above you might make space for grief for your partner by saying something like, "Because you didn't have the clarity you needed in that situation, I'm guessing you feel grief over the loss of all kinds of needs that might have been met like friendship, fun, and support.  Is that right?"

The best thing your partner can do is express self-criticism out loud so that it can be transformed.  When self-criticism is internal and unconscious, it creates disconnect, depression, and irritability.  You can support your partner and your relationship by welcoming self-critical voices out into the open where they can serve as a doorway to the heart.

This week, practice meeting self-criticism as an opportunity to connect with feelings and needs, by offering empathy or honest expression.

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2 Responses

  1. Nov 18, 2011
    David Sky

    Sending appreciations for all your blogs... but, this one in particular. The piece about the invisible wall really spoke to my experience. When I hit the invisible wall, it sort of felt like 3 strikes (empathy guesses that didn't seem to fit) and I was out. I thought if only I could make better guesses. I didn't even realize there was any other option! But, of course there is: self-expression.
    It was an aha moment for me, reinforcing the notion that we always have choice in every situation. Thank you!

  2. Nov 20, 2011

    Your welcome David, very glad to hear this :)

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