Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Nagging Voice of Discontent: Replacing Criticism with Love and Understanding

A two-year-olds swirling lines and dots with fingerpaint

Fact is we are being criticized wherever we go. We do not even need to be famous or in a position of authority to feel the heat of criticism. It is something that we have been breastfed and that sticks with us for the rest of our lives – in fact, sometimes even long after we have left the earthly abode.

In order to reassure or convince ourselves that criticism is necessary and even good for us, we usually add the epithet “constructive.” I assume that criticism is usually perceived as something negative - perhaps destructive? - but sometimes it is not only appropriate and called for, but actually of benefit to us. Or so we tell ourselves.

So criticism is a little like cholesterol: There is the good and the bad variety and, more importantly, their respective ratio is what really matters; so if you are high on the “good” cholesterol you have very little to worry about. Thus, criticism of the constructive kind is really not “bad” for you, while the other types should be taken with a grain of salt.

Criticism - and the impending internalized fear coupled with external pressure thereof - may quite likely lead to success, but it can also scar people for life. Let us talk about the good sides first before we take it apart or rather before we criticize criticism itself.

If you are self-critical and perhaps also analytical, you will strive for the best you can be, the best of your abilities and perhaps even a little beyond that. For those who are driven, perfection will not even stop at the retrieval of the Holy Grail. This is good in many respects, when you are looking for a significant position, fame or fortune. By working on and perhaps coming close to eliminating your weaknesses, you will be steps closer to your ultimate life goal, whatever that may be.

So far so good. We are living in a post-Protestant environment, where we strongly embrace responsibility and self-improvement. Those who devour self-help book and read posts like these one (especially with such a New Agey and self-helpy title, sorry about that) wish to fill a need and would like to work on parts of the self that seem vacant or not up to standard. We might label ourselves as socially awkward or incompetent and look for a remedy or quick fix to this problem or situation. And we may believe that these books and articles can point the way and guide us to win friends and gain respect and social status.

In fact, we do not have to look far to find the cause for this drive and dissatisfaction. We grow up and live in a competitive environment, the free-for-all and free-fall jungle of the wild. No wonder that people need manuals to get by, whether you call it self-help, New Age or the Holy Book.

Our very own parents had to go through this ordeal, and they are, willingly or not, passing on this drive for self-correction and mastery to us from an early age on. It can be demanding at times; it can be unfair and unreasonable, and it will most likely make us feel awful about ourselves, but it seems that it is for our own good like pungent medicine we have to swallow to get better.

In this sense, if you are feeling an inferiority complex and think that everyone is better off than you are, more attractive and more intelligent and much wealthier than you could ever be, please do not despair. Instead use your weakness as your very own weapon. Strive for success to overcome all those inferior feelings and turn them into gold.

But, of course, there are also other things to consider in this respect since everything good and bad comes with a price tag attached to it in this materialistic world of ours. All of this has started in the so important and impressionable, not to say vulnerable age of childhood.

It is my opinion that children are generally not selfish brats or little monsters (they sure can seem like unleashed creatures of our worst nightmares), but that they are mostly craving their parents' attention and, even further, parental respect and love. The problem is that we as parents are either too busy with work or too preoccupied with our own troubles to make time for them and to give them the recognition they need.

We should keep in mind that young children are trying to make sense of an overwhelming world, and they need parental support for this. At the same time, they are on the path of self-discovery, of rounding out their own limits and capabilities. It is at that tender age where criticism can scar them for life.

Let me give an example. Your son may show you a drawing of stick people and claim that one of them is you. The demanding parent would claim that they do not look a bit like them and ask the child to do it all over again. Of course, age matters in this case, you cannot expect the same quality of drawing from a five-year-old that a ten-year-old would produce. Even some adults never outgrow their stick people phase (guilty as charged).

But the point of this illustration is that there is confusion and misunderstanding at stake. The child is not interested in creating life-like portraits, but it is all rather a labor of love meant to satisfy and give pleasure to their parents. I think, believe it or not, pretty much anything young children do is meant to draw not only attention, but to also draw out the parents' love. Criticism at that point will make the child feel inadequate, and he or she will try harder next time to achieve the respect of their parents.

As such, we have already created the internal drive for success. Children will learn to work hard and not be satisfied or complacent with their achievements but to always go a step further or the proverbial extra mile. As good a recipe as that may sound, we have imbued our child with materialistic ideas for what success - and happiness - may mean and look like.

They will become like us. Never satisfied and always striving for more. You may retort that such is simply the human condition; we are meant to desire things that we do not have (yet). That is true, but we also forget to take pleasure of the moment. We are creating the self-obsessed business person who genuinely believes or convinces him or herself that going out with friends is a waste of time, while time is almost always closely tied to money.

My growing suspicion is that this person never had a full childhood to speak of, did not play for play's sake or engage in the wonderful idle activity of daydreaming. His parents may have insisted that he should not waste his time on such idle endeavors and that he better get cracking on Latin grammar, mathematics or the fundamentals of economics.

Remember what happened to Jack Nicholson in The Shining. All work and no play can have devastating consequences. So can constant criticism or nagging. We replace the voice of discontent. What used to be our parents telling us how we do things wrong is substituted by the voice of a spouse and/or boss. And rarely, if ever, do any of them give us the credit and acknowledgement for our efforts that we so desire. We have not managed to please our parents, so now we shift our focus on others, and they also seem to never appreciate our hard work.

But it is not them; it is not their voice that we hear. It is that little nagging voice within ourselves, deep embedded in our psyche or soul. This is the one that pushes us further and further afield until one day we may realize to our horror and dismay that twenty years have passed and not even once did we lie idly in the grass daydreaming and simply feeling happy and content with who we are and what we do. 

1 comment:

Dete said...

Very interesting concept. Nice blog. I would like to follow it, but don't want to share all of my facebook info.