Becoming non-defensive

What do we have to do to be able to hear complaints or criticism? We first have to be willing to know and to accept ourselves. We really have to believe that we are good enough, lovable, and entitled–entitled to be happy, to make mistakes, and to ask for help.

“I am good enough” is not a response to criticism; it’s what enables us to hear criticism. If I know that I am lovable and good enough, then if you tell me something that bothers you, I can listen to it because it doesn’t mean I am a failure. I can hear, consider and understand criticism, and look for and negotiate solutions. But I have to start feeling good enough about myself so that when you tell me what bothers you, I don’t hear it as an indictment or as an indication that I am unworthy.

If I don’t feel good enough about myself, and I think your criticism implies that I am not good enough, then I won’t be able to hear what you say. I will have to negate what you say, or respond with, “Who are you to tell me all the things that are wrong with me? I have a whole list of things that are wrong with you.”

There is a crucial difference between love and approval. We look for approval in the area of competence–whether it’s competence at playing basketball, practicing law, or cooking a meal. And as children we need to hear a lot of approval for work well done or efforts made in order to feel validated. If we get the kind of validation we need as children, as adults we don’t really need to turn to other people for approval: the only approval we need is our own. We do need other people for love; that we can’t provide for ourselves. But we can set our own, realistic standards for what is “good enough.”

You don’t need to be good at everything, and you don’t have to become unrealistic about how good at any given thing you have to be. You can be “good enough” at being a human, “pretty good” at being a cook, “not so good” at dancing, and “terrific” at balancing a checkbook. As long as your basic sense of yourself is that you’re okay, it won’t be painful or humiliating to admit that in some areas you’re not that great. When the standards you set for yourself are too high, you’ll never be good enough at anything. It’s okay to say, “I’m not good at A, B, and C.” It’s when the feeling of being inadequate, the fear of being found out, is pervasive that you have to look at the ruler you’re measuring yourself by. When you can be brought down by any criticism or negative comment, and imagine them where they don’t exist, then you have to look carefully at what’s going on inside yourself, as sustaining an intimate relationship becomes very difficult.

Approval has to do with what your own standards are for yourself. It has to do with competence out in the world. Sure, one kid is not going to be as good at basketball as another kid. That means that in the area of basketball, he’s not at the top–but that doesn’t mean he’s not lovable. It doesn’t mean he’s not good enough to be loved. As a matter of fact, for most of us it’s easier to love someone who’s not perfect. People who are perfect are often not loved; they’re envied, sometimes respected, but often not loved. Often the ones you love are the ones you feel need you, and you have something to give to them. People give all kinds of love to their pets because they feel needed and can nurture them.

To say, “I’m good enough. I’m lovable,” is to say I’m good enough to be loved. I don’t have to conceal. I don’t have to make excuses. I don’t have to say that I never made a mistake. One of the things that often goes wrong with couples is that they can never say, “I’m sorry” because it implies that I’m defective in some way–instead of indicating compassion. (I’m sorry you’re hurting.) We can give compassion to our partner, who is hurting, even if we don’t agree with them — because agreement isn’t the issue: understanding is, wanting to know.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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