Recently, I had a friend come to me with a serious crisis. She wasn't looking for advice. She was looking for rapport. She was looking for a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. She felt that when she spoke to others she was being judged. They tried offering her solutions. They suggested possible changes in her behavior, and therefore, seemed to imply the problems were all her fault. She felt alone and afraid. Mostly though, she felt judged. I had to bite my lip. I knew of a million things I wanted to say to her (and in hindsight should have said), but I didn't. I didn't think I could. I knew she wasn't ready. She wasn't ready to accept that there is a difference between judgment and wisdom.
And I knew that, because I was once where she was.
Getting Over My Bad Self: How I Stopped Confusing Wisdom and Criticism
Over the years, I too have gone to friends and family members with problems and have met with what I thought was judgment. You need to take care of yourself. You need to eat better. You need more sleep. You need to work less. You need to drink less, exercise more, stop shopping, start writing, and the list goes on and on.
"The hell with them! They don't know anything about me and what I need!" I'd storm off. Slam a door (or two). Take a long drive. Listen to some tunes that lent themselves to some serious pity-partying. Tori Amos anyone?
Several years ago, I was working out at a gym with my friend Ron and going on and on about how judgmental I thought certain people were being, and he turned and looked at me, and said, "You're being such a megadowner, right now. Maybe they're right? Did you ever think of that?"
Whoa! Hold on there, Big Guy? What just happened? What did you just say to me?
But before I could roll up my sleeves to put up my scrawny little dukes to fight him, I stopped and thought about it. Here he was--one of my best friends, who basically loved me and wanted the best for me, and he mustered the courage to call me on my own B.S. and tell me what he really thought. With those few words, he gently nudged me toward the realization, that perhaps, not all advice, contradictions, or even judgments were a bad thing. Maybe they could make me, dare I even think it, better?
Ron and I are both writers. Our entire life and work is actually dependent on criticism. Our writing is improved only when someone reads it and responds critically and makes notes for improvement. There isn't a writer in her right mind who would ever let her work go to print without an editor (or two or three) review every word carefully. Every writer relies on her readers as well to offer thoughts about how to improve narrative, characters, and even language. Is it believable? Can you connect with the story? Can you relate with the characters? Do the characters seem real to you? If not, we need to hear it. If we don't listen to this criticism, process it, internalize, and think of better approaches to the text, we can't get better.
Yes, criticism makes us better. It pushes us. In fact, how we handle the criticism is more important than the criticism itself. No editor or publisher wants to fight daily with a high-maintenance author to make even the smallest of changes. It's exhausting and time-consuming, and therefore, expensive--time is money after all. And at the end of the day, the reality is an editor reads hundreds of books a year and knows the industry and its whims far better than a singular writer, whose focus, worldview, and ideas are limited to his or her own book and experience. In other words: The critic (editor in this case) isn't being judgmental--she is being wise. She is speaking from experience. She is speaking with authority and expertise.
Our friends and family have valuable experience and expertise as well. In other words: They have wisdom. Readily available and freely given. Yes, it's sometimes a bitter pill to swallow--to hear that maybe you aren't as super, fantastic, and wonderful as you thought you were (or at least what all you Facebook and Instagram likes say that you are on a daily basis). As a parent it sometimes sucks to hear it from family members, teachers, friends, or parenting experts: Hey, you need to put your kids on a routine. They look exhausted and are out of sorts. Or, How about you put that phone down and stop taking pictures of your kids screaming and go comfort them or discipline them or whatever it is a parent should be doing when they don't have a phone fused to their hands. Or as a spouse it's tough to hear that You're not attentive. You're too distracted. I need you to be here when you're here.
Not one of us is perfect. I know, I know, not even me. As hard as this reality has been for me to accept during my thirty-plus years of life, it is the truth. And sometimes I need a swift kick in the pants. Sometimes, I need a Come-To-Jesus with my friends, my family, my kids, my spouse.
I need to hear it, because I want to be better. Not the best. Not perfect. Just better. Because I know I can be. And because I owe it to myself and my loved ones to try to be.
And I owe it to the people I love and know, to let them know that I love them. I love them enough to be gentle, careful, and wise while telling them the truth, or giving them my perspective. Even if it isn't what they want to hear. Even if it means they won't like me for a while, or will think I am being judgmental. I'll be okay with it, because I know it comes from a place of love, like it did when it came from Ron, my friends, my family, my husband, my kids.
And no I am not saying this is a directive to go and tell every single person exactly what you think, nor am I suggesting you insert your baseless opinions into someone else's life. I am not about to call my brother, a radiologist, and tell him how I think he should run his MRI machines. Know your limits, your expertise, your place of wisdom. Yes, I said your place of wisdom. We all have a little corner in the universe, a little domain we seem to know a lot about. Don't be ashamed of that. People will appreciate your expertise, and if they're smart, they'll be able to identify your wisdom for what it is.
We live in a world of memes. My Pinterest board is filled with pithy little sayings (like the one pictured above) and like this one: "Unless you're a pregnancy test, take your negativity elsewhere." No one wants be seen as negative, or hear negative thoughts. Yeah, it's a bummer. A megadowner, as Ron said. But, sometimes it's necessary. Sometimes, it's exactly what we need to hear, when we need to hear it. And no, we are not victims. We're not being persecuted. We simply aren't the damsel in distress we want to make ourselves out to be when we place ourselves in the ever-evolving story of "Who Thinks What About Me." We're in control. We can change the narrative. We can think differently. We can take a seemingly negative advice/person make ourselves better.
Will there be jerks out there who think they know everything and know how to run our lives? Sure. But, it's up to you to consider the source. If a mom of eight, who kept all of her kids alive, fed, and bathed and then was able to put them all through college, has some insights on parenting, ummm, yeah, I think she knows a thing or two. If a single mom has successfully juggled jobs, kids, and dating, and has some insights on time and money management, yeah--she knows a thing or two. Wisdom comes in all shapes and sizes. Don't be afraid of it. Don't mistake it for judgment.
It's up to us to listen. To be ready. To be open. To want to be better.
But, I am not judging...