Handle With Care
How are you at receiving criticism? Do you prefer that others treat you with kid gloves, or go for brutal honesty?
How am I at receiving criticism? Not great, but first: I don’t think there’s a good enough reason for “brutal” anything, even brutal honesty.
Just thinking about the people I’ve known who seem to believe in brutal honesty, that telling it how they see it is about the most worthy thing a person can do, I’m bothered. They’ve never seem as interested in whether what they’re saying is truly useful, or in how it might affect others, as they are in presenting a certain image and perhaps answering what they believe to be their special calling: mighty purveyor of tough truths — especially about other people’s shortcomings. My experience has shown me that most of these people turn out to be asses, terrified asses. Once I really listen to them, look at their lives, what I hear/see is: “I’m an ass, a terrified ass,” again and again and again.
Also, recipients of the brute’s “wisdom” may appear grateful in the moment (“Thanks for letting me know, dude. I know that had to be tough.” The brutally honest person [BruHo*] may reply: “Well, yeah, but you know I’m just trying to help. Sorry if it came off as overly harsh, but I gotta tell it like I see it.”) Maybe the recipient is ultimately truly grateful — in some weird way — if the harsh words happen, likely by virtue of the recipient’s own strengths, to lead to something positive (“That was a tough pill to swallow, but I see now how much better off I am. I have BruHo to thank.”), but they will have been brutalized nonetheless; deep down, they’ll know it. And depending on how well they esteem themselves, they will either: (A) avoid the BruHo from then on, or (B) sign up for more BruHo, feeling that they deserve such treatment. I have no doubt that most of those under a BruHo’s wing (they love offering someone they’ve just pummeled a wing to crawl under) secretly fear or even hate him/her.
You might think I’m making too much of the word “brutal” in this context, but I think we’ve all seen brutally honest criticism given before (or done so ourselves) and felt it to be cruel, destructive, maybe even barbaric — more about dominating than in any way helping the other person.
In the past, when I perceived someone as being a BruHo, toward me or someone else, I often responded in kind, squared (which I know is not a good idea). This doesn’t happen often anymore, but when it does, I understand my reaction is coming firstly from a place of anger and retaliation … and only secondly, if at all, from a sense of justice or some other noble ideal. The adrenaline generated from the exchange of BruHo blows (I’m talking verbal blows here, just to be clear) seems to numb me, at least for while, to the truth or implications of what’s happened. That person has behaved badly. I’ve behaved badly. Probably, nothing good will come of what we’ve done. And quite possibly, things will be even worse as a result.
I am still haunted by the time I was brutally honest to a woman, a stranger, for shaming her very young daughter. The girl was crying at the edge of the pool instead of jumping in and swimming to her mother, who was standing about 10 feet away, in three feet of water, barking out orders and clapping her hands together now and then for emphasis. “I thought you were brave,” she called out, “like [so-and-so]. I thought you trusted mommy! But I guess I was wrong.” The girl crumbles, is now crouching at the edge. “Oh look at you! You’re being a scaredy cat, plain and simple. Don’t give me that pathetic look: I’m just telling it like it is.” The little girl cries even harder at this.
It was horrible! I was horrified, as others nearby seemed to be also. I don’t remember exactly what I said to the woman after the “swim lesson” was over, but it included the statement “You’re the one who ought to be ashamed!” and I’m pretty sure the words “big bully.” And I was loud enough that everyone within 50 feet or so, including her daughter, heard me. The woman just glared at me a moment, averted her eyes, said nothing. (And I’d like to add, “ripped open a bag of Cheetos,” but I’m trying to stay out of fiction mode here.)
Looking at her not looking at me, I felt I’d won. I thought, “Good. You ought to keep that nasty mouth shut for a while, think about what you’ve done.”
As I walked out, a few people expressed approval for what I’d done. I was shaking. Years later, I ran into a friend of a friend who had been there; she recounted the whole thing in more (glowing) detail than I could possibly recall. “That was f_cking awesome!,” she said, reminding me of a really-into-it sports fan. But I had never felt quite right about it.
A friend who I’d told the whole story at some point suggested that the little girl might have had it even worse after I so harshly, publicly criticized her mother, who clearly must have had some pretty serious problems. “What if she took her humiliation out on the child later?” the friend asked. Oh God, I hoped not. I hope not. What I could have done, the friend suggested, is asked the mom if I could talk to her privately. At least, then, she said “I would not have not sunken to her level.” What was this? I didn’t care one bit about sinking to her level. But I did/do care that I might have made a bad situation worse. I’m not sure what I would have said to the woman if I’d pulled her aside, and it was just the two of of us, one-on-one. It would have been more decent of me — even if not constructive, at least much less potentially harmful. She could have ignored everything I said, thought about it later, whatever, with her skin intact. As it was, SHAME — via brutal honesty — triumphed that day.
Now, the question: How am I at receiving criticism?
Not great, but I am so familiar with certain obvious flaws/weaknesses in myself that when people allude to them, criticize them, jokingly or even a bit more judgmentally, I can sometimes roll with it … on a good day. For example: I am invited to dinner and arrive only 10 minutes later than everyone else. I am satisfied (knowing it could be so, so much worse — I am chronically late) until someone lets slip that I was given a “special Lourdes time” for arrival, “so that you would be only 10 minutes late rather than one hour and 10 minutes late.” Everyone laughs, including me, though inside I am bristling a bit. The thing is I’ve already beaten myself up over my pet set of problems for so long that I’m kind of numb to such “garden variety” criticism — not that numb is good. (Numbness is really only a good thing, I think, during particular situations, such as undergoing surgery or having your foot stuck in a bear trap, waiting for help to arrive… .)
On bad days, similar criticisms may: (A) really upset me (we’re talking despondency here — “I’m not fit for X,” “I don’t deserve Y,” “I’m a complete piece of shit,” “What the f_ck is wrong with me?” etc.); (B) lead me to launch into, I’m sure, a truly tiresome dissertation on how/why [the thing being criticized] has come to pass, couldn’t be helped exactly, etc.; or (C) more numbness.
If ever someone’s honesty about me/my behavior has seemed particularly “brutal,” which has happened only rarely, I have on occasion, as I’ve said, lashed out or gone on the attack. I won’t go into too much detail about my methods (illustrated in part above), but they’ve been described as “going for the jugular” or “lopping [one] off at the knees.” I am not proud of this kind of behavior and believe there’s no rightful place for it in the world. Simply, being brutal, whatever you attach it to, is much more likely to hurt than help. AND it makes you a brute.
But the only thing I think I hate more than being dealt “brutal honesty” is being handled with kid gloves. Oh, that breaks my heart and truly freaks me out. Yes, when the kid gloves come out, you KNOW it’s bad. The jig is up. Suddenly you feel as doomed as Blanche Debois. Ugh.
In the end, the most significant factor in how I receive criticism, I’ve noticed, is how aware I am of the supposed issue/potential problem. The less aware I am, the more taken by surprise, the more likely I am to be stunned into just listening, perhaps even ask a few questions and finally retreat to consider the matter more deeply — alone or maybe with a close, trusted friend. Is what the person said valid? If so, is it an actual problem? If so, what should/can I do about it? And so on. And I think this might well be the most decent way, or at least a very decent way, to respond to any kind of criticism, about any kind of problem, on any kind of day: the no-response response: “[message received, will be taken into consideration, but we are done here, at least for now.]” Giving these things times is always a good idea.
Anyway, this realization, that I don’t need to respond in any way to the person criticizing me (especially a BruHo), not at that moment and maybe not ever, has been truly freeing.
* Sorry for the acronym, but I decided I really liked it. 😉 Don’t be a BruHo!!!