Monday, January 9, 2012

Critical Judgment

One of the most valuable aspects of intimacy is the willingness (and courage) of your partner to illuminate one's character defects. Ma'ikwe has been working with me lately about how critical I am, making it clear how worn down she feels being in its corrosive presence. (It's not that I'm like that all the time, or even most of the time; yet I'm like that often enough to be an exhausting pattern.)

As you might imagine, the worst dynamic for her is when I'm directing this negativity toward her. However, she's also tired of witnessing my picking apart others, and has been urging me to be both more gracious in my comments and more mindful about when to give criticism.

(While Ma'ikwe appreciates that I'm not one to indulge in false compliments, or to sugarcoat feedback to the point where you have to shift through layers of cotton candy to uncover the substantive nugget buried in the verbiage, her main concern is my tendency toward the caustic; not my willingness to speak up, or my ability to be incisive.)

Like most people, she has some of this in her as well, and I'm nervous about the possibility of my lashing back at her if she points out my doing it at a time when I feel she's giving as good as she's getting. While it wouldn't be fair that I be held to a standard that she is exempt from, she's not asking for that. I just don't trust that the exchange would be constructive (that my pointing out her criticality will come across as deflection, or anything more than another example of my negativity).

Ma'ikwe thinks that I'm mostly unconscious about how much I'm negative, and I suspect she's right. That is, we both agree that I probably drift into being critical without awareness, and she's offered to let me know when she thinks it's happening, with the idea that increased awareness will help me get a handle on it. We've agreed that she can simply say "Ouch!" in those moments as a shorthand signal. Unless I can see her fingers pinched in a door jamb (suggesting that the pain she's feeling may not be caused by me), I'll know that she's having a reaction to my dumping.

To be clear, Ma'ikwe isn't asking me to forego critical judgment; she's asking me to use better judgment about when to be critical. There are definitely times when critical comments are in order (three obvious examples are: a) when they are requested; b) when evaluating proposals; or c) when I'm in a teacher relationship and am correcting ineffective or inappropriate student choices). Ma'ikwe is focusing on my tendency to be critical as one of the ways I share what's going on for me—without her (or anyone else) having asked for that analysis. What I see as transparency (opening up about what I'm chewing on, or what's chewing on me), she experiences as an uninvited dip in an acid bath.

At this point I've been soaking in Ma'ikwe's comments for six days and it's led to considerable introspection, along with some new wrinkles about how to proceed:

1. I'm trying to be more conscious before speaking, screening what's queuing up in my mouth for nastiness. On the whole, this deliberateness has led to my speaking less. While that wasn't Ma'ikwe's intention (at least I don't think it was), it appears that the world is getting along just fine with fewer pearls dribbling from my lips, and it's humbling how little of what occurs to me to say is actually worth voicing, once I reflect on it.

While all of this adds up to a less caustic auditory environment, what's going on inside Laird's head (you might ask), where the printing presses of my mind keep cranking out manifestos, even if the town crier no longer reads them aloud? Good question. While it's early days, and I don't know yet whether I'll be able to transubstantiate my stomach acid into something that will aid others in digesting my comments without experiencing dyspepsia, I see hope.

2. I can still process critical thoughts, even if they haven't been voiced. While talking things out is part of my normal routine, I can journal instead, talk to myself on solitary walks, or meditate. Wrangling with my wife (and close friends) is not my only option.

3. If I'm having a reaction to something (which is far and away the mostly likely reason I'm chewing on it) I have the option to report on the reaction, rather than launching into an attack. This is an important distinction and almost always works better (if I can only remember to do it). Here's how it might look—based on a not-so-pleasant exchange Ma'ikwe and I had on Friday:

Option A (the unmindful bull-in-a-china-shop approach): "Why are you asking me to create a new list without first checking to see what's been covered by the first one I gave you weeks ago?" [Don't miss the pained expression on my face as you read the script.]

Option B (where I report first on my emotional state): "I notice I'm having a reaction to this request. I'm feeling irritated and disrespected that you're asking me to do redo work that I think was mostly already sent to you."

While these two statements mostly convey the same thing, Option B has a much better chance of not starting a border dispute. If you're not sure this would make a difference, just ask Ma'ikwe.

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