W ife: You never consider my feelings.

Husband: I never consider your feelings? That’s a good one! When was the last time you considered my feelings?

We humans are a defensive bunch. It’s hard for us to hear criticism from others because our fragile sense of self tends to panic. What if he/she’s right? What if I really am a terrible person?

Entertaining the notion that we may be unworthy human beings is akin to spiritual death. Similarly, when we feel diminished by another person’s negative feedback, the painful shrinking feeling we experience is a tiny bit of soul death — and a huge threat that we’ll be completely extinguished if we let this go on. Therefore, we bring out the army to shoot down the offending attacker.

Overreaction

Husband: How many times have I asked you to shut this drawer properly? It’s going to break and I’m not paying for a replacement drawer!

Wife: All you do is complain! Why don’t you thank me for opening the drawer, taking out the cutlery, and putting it by your plate? Oh no! All you can see is that I didn’t shut it all the way. You’re just a miserable person. No wonder your own children avoid you!

Hmmm. A little overreaction? Or the outburst of a woman scorned, a woman whose mother was similarly critical and disapproving, a woman who never received the affirmation, adoration, and celebration that children need in order to grow up whole? She can’t help what she feels after a lifetime of psychological wounding. However, she can help what she says.

Another Option
A non-reactive, non-defensive, honest, and transparent response to a complaint or criticism has surprising benefits. First, it creates authentic connection and relationship healing. Second, it helps heal both speaker and listener, individually and simultaneously. Let’s see how this all happens:

Wife: You never consider my feelings.

Husband: Ow! That hurts.

This husband has issued his truest response to his wife’s statement. He’s not saying he doesn’t want to hear what she has to say. He is saying that her exaggerated negative portrayal of his behavior hurts him. In fact, as we saw above, a typical response would have been a strong counterattack, arising out of the unnamed hurt. When the feeling is brought into the open, there is no further need for a defensive counterattack. Now the wife, experiencing the truth of her harsh characterization, can try again.

Wife: I’m sorry. What I meant to say is that, regarding this issue, I don’t feel that you’re taking my feelings into consideration.

Husband: I’m sorry if it’s coming across like that. Tell me again what your concerns are and let me try to address them so we can work out something we’ll both be happy with.
Simultaneous Healing
We can see how the husband’s honest expression of pain facilitated a positive relationship outcome. But how does it heal both him and his wife?

It heals him because he’s allowed himself to experience and express his pain. In order to do this, he has to pause before speaking to pay attention to the way his body tensed in response to his wife’s words. He has to name his emotion to himself and then share it with his wife.

It turns out that this man suffers from low self-esteem and he takes criticism very badly. When he tells his wife that he’s feeling hurt, his acceptance of his pain begins his healing process. Over time, as he continues to identify and name his pain, it will diminish more and more.

Defensive responses, on the other hand, prevent the healing process, as they involve ignoring or running away from the pain. Only when we pay attention to emotional pain does it begin to loosen and work its way out of our system. As for his wife — when she hears his open statement of hurt, she checks in with herself and finds that she was unduly aggressive.

Most people feel uncomfortable having their not-nice side publicly exposed.After being confronted with the reality of causing someone pain, a person normally gets into his or her “better voice” and tries again. In our example, the husband’s vulnerability leads to a softening in his wife.

As he continues to be authentic, she too will grow in authenticity, eventually learning to express her needs in kinder, more relationship-oriented ways. Transparency allows the light to shine through. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 538)>