Friday, January 22, 2010

Authenticity and Criticism: cagefight

Story: An ex-girlfriend of mine and I had a DTR (discuss the relationship) chat a few weeks after the breakup. The ex shared her feelings of negative feelings of hurt, pointing to a number of my behaviors as triggers/causes. I, feeling defensive and criticized, shared a negative perception in return, and !voila! a criticism cycle was born. These cycles are very bad (see Leadership and Self-deception's treatment of collusion).

I believe in being transparent. It's one of my values, one that I think has value in a large number of contexts: parenting, law-making and law enforcement, relationships, transactions, and organizations are some examples. For example, in a dating context, there is usefulness in both partners being themselves rather than "acting," because 1) their experiences will be more genuine and 2) the eventual evaluation exchange will have an authentic foundation rather than a contrived one.

However, I've decided to make an exception to transparency in the area of human relations. I've decided to mostly conceal my critical views of the behaviors and attitudes of my friends.

This decision will result in attenuated authenticity, but I think the net consequence bundle is more positive than the alternatives. Generally, I think that being transparent about one's emotions is psychologically healthy. When I worked for a wilderness therapy company, the clients (in exchange for certain privileges) were required to "check in" at least three times a day. Example: "i feel frustrated. I feel this way when feeling tired on this hike. I feel this way because I think that after three months I should be able to hike just like everyone else in the group, without getting so worn out. My hope inside my control is that I will improve my fitness, and my hope outside my control is that the group will magically slow down." There was a structure, and it helped me realize how at-odds the practice of expressing authentic feelings is in our culture. Usually it's only appropriate to share one's true feelings occasionally, and then only with intimate friends. Yet, emotional experience is the substance of our lives, and we experience complex emotions at a frequency and magnitude far in excess of our expression and sharing of the same. Because I think we "figure out" our experiences more by expressing and working through them rather than bottling them up in side, I think that cultural norm causes a lot of unnecessary stultification. We should listen to and express emotions more.

However! When I listen to another's emotions when those emotions are negative and about me, I often fail to remain objective. I almost unerringly feel attacked and blamed, whether or not the blame was intended. Take the exgirlfriend story. She might have been blaming my behaviors for her hurt; she might have just been sharing the emotion of hurt. Whichever was the case, my emotions presumed the blaming scenario, which resulted in ugly feelings and behavior on my part. Presuming others experience these types of scenarios the same way I do leads me to conclude that I should usually forbear from sharing critical perceptions of others whether or not I'm actually criticizing or merely sharing emotions.

Humans can self-flagellate far beyond the bounds of justice. Example: Sarah perpetrates 10 units of thoughtlessness toward her friend Jeremy (say, she forgets he has a big test he's been studying for for weeks). She remembers the next day and is horrified and punishes herself with 10 units of guilt and shame. Then she remembers the day after than and experiences the shame, embarrassment, and guilt again- 9 units worth. The next week she recalls the situation- how could she? - another 11 units. Now she's suffered more than her crime would demand (30 units where justice demands only 10 -see Jeremy could have reminded Sarah of the fault in place of Sarah herself, with the same result. In the ex-girlfriend case, I felt that type of abuse was occurring- though I was at fault for x units, her choice to consistently react to and remind of my error caused me 5x units of punishment- for which I now feel 4x wronged that I want recompense for.

Because it is so difficult to not feel criticized when negative perceptions of you are shared by your friend, in the absence of the categories of 1) exceptional emotional safety and 2) festering resentment (in which case the experienced harm outweighs the likely harm caused by sharing the poison), I think I'll keep my negative perceptions of friends and family inside. I'll also try to remember that people say and do ugly things they wouldn't normally do when they're hurt. I'll try not to dwell on the faults and mistakes of my relational partners- it's useless to prove that they have them, because that's given. The best result from sharing them is that the partner agrees- "yeah, I guess you're right- I really do suck." That's not a conclusion you want to reinforce to your friends.

President Packer: "All of us carry excess baggage around from time to time, but the wisest ones among us don’t carry it for very long. They get rid of it.

Some of it you have to get rid of without really solving the problem. Some things that ought to be put in order are not put in order because you can’t control them.

Often, however, the things we carry are petty, even stupid. If you are still upset after all these years because Aunt Clara didn’t come to your wedding reception, why don’t you grow up? Forget it.

If you brood constantly over some past mistake, settle it—look ahead.

If the bishop didn’t call you right—or release you right—forget it.

If you resent someone for something he has done—or failed to do—forget it.

We call that forgiveness. It is powerful, spiritual medicine. The instructions for its use are found in the scriptures. "Boyd K. Packer, “The Balm of Gilead,” Ensign, Nov 1977, 59
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). In our day the Lord similarly proclaimed, "My disciples . . . forgave not one another in their hearts; and . . . were afflicted and sorely chastened. Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin." (D&C 64:8-9). Forgiving others is absolutely necessary for us to receive a forgiveness of our sins."


". Let us not dwell on the critical or the negative. "

"I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort. I am not asking that all criticism be silenced. Growth comes of correction. Strength comes of repentance. Wise is the man who can acknowledge mistakes pointed out by others and change his course. I am not suggesting that our conversation be all honey and blossoms. Clever expression that is sincere and honest is a skill to be sought and cultivated.

What I am suggesting and asking is that we turn from the negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good in the land and times in which we live, that we speak of one another's virtues more than we speak of one another's faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.

When I was a boy our father often said to us:

Cynics do not contribute.

Skeptics do not create.

Doubters do not achieve."

"Two students of this University came to see me awhile ago. Six months earlier they had been married. They had declared their love one for another. They had pledged their loyalty one to another for time and eternity. Now, the young man came first. He was disillusioned. He was bitter. He was heartbroken. His wife, he said, did this and did that--simple little things of small consequence, such as leaving the dishes undone when she left for school in the morning. And then came his wife, a beautiful girl of great talent. She spoke of her husband's faults. He was stingy. He did not pick up his clothes. He was careless. Each had his or her faults. Every one of those faults was easily correctable. The problem lay in the fact that there was a stronger inclination to emphasize the faults than there was to talk of the virtues. With a little discipline, each could have changed. With a little desire, each could have spoken with a different tone. But neither was willing. They had permitted a negative attitude to destroy the sweetest, richest association of life. They had thrown away with careless and sour words the hopes and dreams of eternity. With criticism and shouting, they had violated the sacred promises that might have taken them on to exaltation.

My dear young friends, don't partake of the spirit of our times. Look for the good and build on it. Don't be a "pickle sucker."

Recent and relevant BYU devo:
Example excerpt: "When our spouse does something that hurts our feelings, we need to let him or her know in order to give them the opportunity to apologize and repent. That doesn’t mean that we point out every tiny weakness and mistake; to do so would violate the fundamental requirement in marriage to nurture and lift each other. But if we find that something that our partner said or did creates negative feelings that start festering and won’t go away, then it is important that we speak with our spouse and then let them know that they did something that was hurtful.

The second major obstacle to repenting of our sins and mistakes in marriage is pride. Apologizing and repenting requires us to look inward, be humble, and take responsibility for our mistakes and weaknesses. Pride is the antithesis of these virtues."


  1. Okay, not that this really adds to the discussion: but I honestly don't think you've ever been critical of me. I know I have habits that must drive you insane. (I swear, I mean come on...has to bug you when I forget and swear in front of you) But you never say anything negative to me. So when you talk about your transparency and how it's effected your relationships, I think "he's never done that with me" and wonder if you really are that way as it's out of my scope of experience.

    What I'm saying is, I don't believe you.

  2. Fair enough- perhaps I'm not as transparent as I perceive. However, I don't have many negative perceptions of you (I'm not sure why- maybe it's because we've been friends and accepted each other for so long, or maybe because we're both nerdy grad students at BYU, I dunno), which goes a long way in explaining why I haven't been all that critical of you. (Although today I did think of a couple counters to your man-lambaste the other day where you said it's the fella's job to be self-disciplined, low necklines and modesty choices of the girls be damned.) Thanks for not believing me, though! I could have used your skepticism on the last survey I made- I needed some critical feedback but my chosen reviewers just said "good job" or didn't respond. :)

  3. Hold the phone, I didn't say "modesty choices of girls be damned." At least that wasn't the intent. What I was getting at is, guys can't blame the girls for their inability to control themselves. Dressing inappropriately can/will trigger men to behave in certain ways. But that does not make it the girl's fault if he continues to have impure thoughts. He is still ultimately in control of himself, regardless of my (or any girl's) actions. That was all I was getting at. Bottom line: girls should probably not dress inappropriately, but it's not their "fault" if a guy has impure thoughts. The guy needs to man up and accept his share of responsibility.

  4. I blogged about the modesty thing in an effort to clarify my stance. :)


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