Posted on December 11, 2017 by Jenn Zatopek
I heard this quote from a master therapist at a family therapy seminar I recently attended. After the professor shared, the whole room of us fell silent. Most therapists know this truth at a deeply visceral level, and the pause itself felt reverent, a brief memoriam for all those who had suffered from this sort of abuse.
As I sat in the brief silence, I recalled my own experiences of ongoing criticism as a girl and how this propelled me into the counseling field. How often I condemned myself because I perceived I wasn’t good enough. The critical parent voice haunted me for years, long after the persons from whom I received it died or moved on.
Living in the world, raising a family, and working requires feedback from and to others, of course, but generally speaking, ongoing condemnations (even ostensibly small ones) are shards of glass that bury themselves in the soul of another, which can eventually kill. Constant criticism received during our formative years creates shame in our hearts, and it often takes years of concentrated efforts to repair the damage.
Sometimes, the culmination of constant criticism can practically damage a relationship beyond repair, and at times, the most sane course of action a person can do involves loving the offending person from afar, maintaining a respectful distance, and monitoring one’s own internal reserves should one decide to visit the wild bear of the relative that inflicted the hurt. This is called setting boundaries and it is necessary to thrive.
But we all live in the world and we cannot avoid others at all costs, so what are we to do then?
One of the reasons why I am drawn to ancient spiritual practices like centering prayer and meditation is that I cannot do them perfectly. There is no possible way but simply to enter into the flow of God and let myself be drawn into Love. Allowing myself to sit in this Love is often impossible for someone like me, but as an adult, I have the chance to offer this gift to myself. I practice drawing into the Divine Source and feel the Spirit’s healing cultivate in my soul as I sit in stillness.
Another way I engage in healing from the negative impacts of childhood scorn is the gift of self-compassion. Most evenings, I practice the great spiritual tradition of placing a cat in my lap and listening to Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion guided meditations. I breathe in deeply and remember that it is okay to be flawed, that no one alive can ever hope to get things right all of the time, including the people who have hurt me.
Anne Lamott (St. Anne) wrote that forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past, which includes becoming aware of the inner critic whose clamoring voice rings loudly in my head. That is good news for those of us who struggle with these sort of voices that drown out our own pure childlike voices of hope and joy.
And the great truth is that clamoring inner voice, the one who seeks attention, it was never mine to begin with. It belonged to the people who raised me. The great gift I give myself today is giving those voices back to whom they belong. Maybe you could do the same.
So perhaps the first part of the antidote to criticism is the understanding that I will never be able to change the great harm that was done to me. However, I can learn from it by choosing to turn toward my pain. Leaning into the pain of love and growth is not what I naturally want to do, of course, but it has been the place in which great healing has occurred. I heal by honoring my feelings and by seeking help outside myself. I am granted the great gift of insight because without it, I would never have known that the loud voice inside was not even mine.
Do I sometimes want to feast on anger and bitterness about my past? I can tell that this way of living was a literal hell for me. Although I followed Christ, for years I lived like a vulture, feasting on dead things like past incidents of hurt and meanness. Engaging in the habit of nursing anger for so long caused me to become addicted to it, and its grip was so powerful that I feared I would never be free.
But today I experience more peace and freedom and joy and the only way that has been possible is because I open myself up to the pain of the past and ask God for help. This act is not the easiest for those of us with perhaps very small self-sufficiency issues (like me), but asking God for help will soften your heart, maybe just a bit and really, God needs only a little bit to work Her healing magic.
And then I move to the next and perhaps best gift of all in the antidote to criticism: forgiveness.
I ask God to help me forgive my parents for all the mean things they did, and then wonder of wonders, I relax and breathe easier and more deeply. This really makes no sense to me but I tell you the truth, it works. Second, I ask God to help me forgive me for all the mistakes and missteps and my breathing comes easier again. Again, how is this possible?
So it seems to me that when I engage with God in the forgiveness dance, then I am granted respite. And then the other great gifts arrive: self-acceptance, peace, compassion for my friends, my family, all the other weird humans (like me) who live and breathe in this beautiful and scary world. I embrace my friends and family and strangers and smile, knowing I can live in peace today, which for me, is the greatest gift of all.