Stand up to Criticism
One behavior that is open to self respecting, lovable people is the appropriate expression of their anger. They can express their anger in mature, appropriate ways, and then kiss and make up. The unlovable, unself-respecting person cannot do any of the above. That became Julia’s Homework: to do something she had never done before, something drastically inconsistent with her old way of moving through life, something that will “break the Sound Barrier” of her old attitudes and release her.
One day, after a month of therapy, Julia found an opportunity to express her anger appropriately for the first time. She told the truth: she did a Homework in her own behalf.
Julia: “Mom, do you remember last week when you said that my new, green dress made me look like puke?”
Mom: “Yeah. What of it?”
Julia: “Well, you hurt me terribly when you said that. I thought it was such a pretty shade of green, and I really hoped you would like it.”
Mom: “Well, I didn’t.”
Julia: “You don’t like anything I do, Mom, and I guess I should have given up on you a long time ago, but it makes me very angry when you criticize me that way.”
Mom: “Well, you make me plenty angry too!”
Julia: “I know I do, Mom, and I’m sorry. But let’s not change the subject. I’m still angry at you for hurting my feelings in front of everybody last week. I wish you wouldn’t criticize me like that, because I don’t like to be angry at you.”
Mom: “Well, maybe it was a bit much. You didn’t look that bad. But you’ve always made it so easy for me to criticize you. You’re such a safe target. God knows I can’t criticize your brother. He can’t take it like you can. But that doesn’t make it right, and I guess I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
Julia: “Mom, that’s the first time you ever apologized to me.”
Mom: “That’s the first time you every told me you were angry like a grown-up.”
In counseling, we set an example of problem analysis for our clients to follow. They see their “insolvable” anger problems being broken down into manageable bits and pieces. After a while, clients learn how to apply the procedure to themselves. It is a technique that will serve them in good stead for the rest of their lives. In this case, Julia’s problem was fear. She was afraid that if she expressed anger, which is displeasing, she would be even less lovable than she was already. She would be putting herself on the slippery slope to abandonment, loss of control and annihilation. That’s too scary. She was unwilling to take that risk.
This fear didn’t keep her from getting angry. That’s not the point. She got angry all the time. She was just precluded from understanding it and managing it in a civilized manner. Her mismanaged, out-of-control anger served to maintain and perpetuate her dependency, her unlovability, her anger and her self-contempt.
The Homework she did with her mother had nothing directly to do with lovability as such. To us, Julia’s complaint that she felt unlovable was only the presenting problem on the surface. Below the surface, we look for the self-anger and self-contempt that give rise to the surface complaints. Julia’s Homework had the effect of giving her a success experience in this very sensitive arena of her relationship with her mother. She was able to express her anger in the middle ground between erupting like a volcano and seething inside for weeks. She gave herself relief from the pressure, tension and stress of the anger situation. She experienced feelings of accomplishment, success and confidence that she could do it again. She was in control. She made it happen. She was living her life independently in the present on her own valid terms. These are all components of self-respect, the specific antidote for a lifetime of self-anger and self-contempt. She had the feeling that she was a worthwhile human being in spite of her faults and imperfections. On the new basis of self-respect, she could feel she was as lovable as anyone else, and that she deserved to love and be loved. After she did her Homework, Julia felt all of these components of self-respect. Even if her mother’s vindictive criticisms were valid, which they weren’t, she would have been worthwhile in spite of them. She was only the imperfect child of an imperfect mother. She could respect herself in spite of it.