“A failure to confront is a failure to love.” —Scott Peck
No one likes critical feedback. We often avoid criticism by discouraging those who give it, or dismissing it as invalid. It’s hard to hear that someone feels mistrust, disappointment, or anger toward us. But avoiding “tough love” denies us the opportunity to enhance respect and trust in our relationships and our lives.
Invalidating a partner’s feelings undermines the level of trust and respect in the relationship. To maximize the love and intimacy between you, pinpoint your most common reaction to criticism through this thought exercise:
Imagine someone saying, “I felt disappointed when you did not keep your agreement to arrive on time.”
In response, you may react in one of the following four ways:
- Dismiss them. You try to convince the individual that he or she shouldn’t feel that way because you “had a good reason” for doing whatever you did.
- Question their maturity or motivation. You attack the person for being too sensitive, using comments such as, “You shouldn’t take things so personally. You need to chill out.”
- Criticize them for over-reacting. You may say, “You are making a big deal out of nothing.”
- Remind them of their own failures. You may justify your behavior with accusations such as, “Well, you were late for an appointment with me last week,” or month, or year.
You have probably been on both the giving and receiving ends of similar exchanges. Such strategies attempt to defensively silence our critic, but are the wrong way to address criticism.
Here are four reasons why “shooting the messenger” will always backfire:
- Silences criticism but leaves it alive. Reacting defensively with anger, hostility, or judgment when confronted with someone’s feelings may intimidate that person into shutting up or retracting their words. Unfortunately, though, their underlying feelings will not go away. Forced into silence, the person may begin to express themselves subtly over time, and eventually explode in anger or frustration.
- Denies opportunity for personal growth. Whether or not our infraction was intentional, it’s natural to want to avoid the discomfort of shame or embarrassment when we are called out. We want to defend ourselves because we feel that our public image has been tarnished or our deficiencies exposed. However difficult it is to accept, though, such information may be worth listening to. We need better awareness to interrupt unskillful patterns and improve our behavior in the future. Next time, try to accept responsibility for your actions—and the guilt or distress that may ensue.
- Erodes intimacy. Couples often find themselves arguing over topics like money, sex, kids, and in-laws—but these subjects tend to be cover-ups of deeper issues such as power, control, respect, trust, freedom, and acceptance. Over years or even decades of neglect, intimacy can erode and get buried beneath layers of ignored, invalidated, and denied feelings.
- Leads to bigger problems. When it comes to dealing with broken agreements or with emotions that arise between people that need attention and understanding, there is no such thing as “no big deal.” Any disturbance that is unacknowledged or unattended to is a big deal and it quickly becomes even bigger if it is denied or invalidated.
To help us listen to another’s distress, we need to foster tolerance, restraint, intentionality, and vulnerability. Few of us enter adulthood with these qualities fully developed. We cultivate such traits through practice in relationships. Instead of avoiding relational challenges, then, use them as opportunities for self-development, and pave the way for deeper intimacy and growth.