Monday, June 5, 2017

Unfairly Criticized

Today we examine the case of the women who believes that she is being unfairly criticized. Offered by Lori Gottlieb, this case does not sound very complicated.

Apparently, Unfairly Criticized does not wear well on people. She does not put it this way, but, she notes that her friends tend to find fault with her. To her mind their criticisms are unfair, and she does not understand why they all think ill of her.

Gottlieb offers the point that has just popped into your mind. Why does the woman think that all of her friends are wrong? Could it be that she is missing something about the way she looks to others? Could it be that she does not know herself as well as she thinks? Could it be that you are how you look to others, not how you feel about yourself?

Recently, we discussed Tasha Eurich’s new book, Insight. In it she takes down one of the great errors propagated by the therapy culture. She explains that what other people see or do not see in you is a more accurate picture of who you are than how you feel or who you think you are.

Anyway, UC describes her plight thusly:

I’m 40 years old and I keep meeting people (friends or romantic partners, doesn’t matter) who seem great in the beginning — supportive, complimentary, really into me. Then, after several months or even years, they become critical.

To be fair, these are nice people overall and they’re not trying to be cruel. The part that bothers me the most, actually, is that I can’t understand how people who seem to know me so well in many ways can see me so inaccurately in others. Their main criticisms just aren’t true — that I’m distant, or inflexible, or unable to relax. They certainly didn’t feel that way when they first met me, or they wouldn’t have wanted to date me/befriend me in the first place.

I’m not perfect, believe me, and if a criticism is accurate, at least I can understand where it’s coming from. But so often I feel that it’s not. One example: A friend told me I needed to be “less flaky” when I’m actually very responsible and “on it.” She said this because I’d been late a few times and recently I had the wrong day for an event — but this happened exactly once, and it’s only because I’m overscheduled in a demanding job (which I wouldn’t have gotten and kept if I were truly “flaky”). My boyfriend has made similar comments when I don’t return his texts because I’m in a meeting and by the time the meeting ends, several work texts have come in so sometimes I forget to respond. Isn’t that normal?

So I have two questions. (1) Why do I keep choosing people who find fault with me? (2) Why are their criticisms so off base? Are they crazy, am I crazy, or am I just crazy for choosing them?

Of course, it’s not about crazy. But, it is about a woman who sees everyone as a function of her. Qualities she sees in people she meets involve how they treat her: “supportive, complimentary, really into me.” She would do better to direct her attention toward what she can offer to a relationship, not what she needs from a relationship.  She also errs in lumping together romantic partners and friends. They ought not to be confused.

So, what does it mean that they all criticize her? Gottlieb thinks that these are complaints, not criticisms, but whatever you think of UC these critical complaints are rude. They read like preliminary indictments. Is it really a good idea to find fault with your sometime friends? I am not going to say that UC has no faults—she is self-centered and thin-skinned—but friends do not spend their time looking for the worst in their friends. They seek out and emphasize the best. If you want someone to be a better friend, do not attack them for being a bad friend. It causes them to retreat into a defensive shell.

Of course, we all know that we must not be judgmental, yet we spend all of our time criticizing and complaining about our friends. We are often offended by their rudeness. Of course, the culture does not promote the virtue of politeness, so what did you expect?

But if you are constantly criticizing and complaining you are saying that you do not like the person as much as you or they think. True enough, these people are probably right about UC, but their way of presenting their case leaves much to be desired. It does not lead UC to want to change anything about her behavior.

Anyway, UC is defensive. First impressions are not last impressions. And UC is wrong to criticize these people for not feeling about her now the way they felt about her when they first met. This does not make them faithless friends. This means that they have revised their outlook.  Isn’t UC being critical of her friends?

Apparently, when they first met UC she did not appear to be distant, inflexible, unable to relax and downright flaky. Later, they discovered that she is not especially good at showing up on time. Obviously, when you first meet someone you do not know whether she will show up on time for future meetings.

But, UC thinks nothing of it, because she did not do it intentionally. And yet, I suspect that when she defensively says that she only did it a couple of times and that she only forgot a meeting once… she is downplaying her behavior. I will offer my unscientific opinion: if she says a couple of times the truth is probably a couple of dozen times. Note that she does not feel any remorse or shame for being derelict, but expects that other people will easily forgive her.

As a rule people will forgive you once, but if you make a habit of being late—which is probably closer to the truth—they are less likely to be understanding. This does not mean that they ought to call her out on her bad behavior, but it does mean that she does not show sufficient consideration for other people, for their time and schedule. Having a demanding job is not an excuse.

UC believes that her demanding job provides a ready-made excuse for not doing better at cultivating her friendships. As rule, such excuses suggest that her friends are correct: she makes them feel like afterthoughts.

As for returning boyfriend texts, I will confess that I find the question of texting etiquette to be slightly mind-boggling… especially because it assumes that people are going to respond immediately to any text message. Whatever happened to delayed gratification?

Finally, we see a picture of an overscheduled businesswoman who neglects  friends who are not part of her work world. In truth, “I forgot” can be used once as an excuse. After that it becomes a message. It tells people that they are not very important compared with her work. And yet, as her work consumes her she is losing friends, or better she is confronting friends who are trying, in their rather lame way, to save her from herself.

They seem to be telling her that if she is seeing business and pleasure as either/or propositions, choosing business over pleasure. And she is doing so at the expense of her friends.

We would also want to know whether this woman is married or divorced, whether she has children or wants children. We want to know what her boyfriend thinks about marriage or about having or not having children. We want to know whether her friends have families or not. For all we know, and we know very little, her friends are concerned about an issue that has nothing to do with her taking them for granted. They might be aiming at a larger issue. And they might be too polite to deal with such an uncomfortable topic. As happens with many letters written to advice columnists too many salient details are kept in the dark.

We suspect that her friends believe that she is sacrificing family and children in favor of her work. We cannot offer further speculation because no one raises the issue. All we go on is her age, 4o, and her discontented boyfriend. 

One of the joys of texting and emails is that you have an electronic record of the messages that require your personal attention. UC has a good excuse for everything she does wrong, but she cannot run her personal life on excuses. She ought to embrace a piece of advice that former Bear Stearns Chairman Alan Greenberg used to tell his staff: “Return all phone calls promptly, even if they are selling malaria.”

True, Greenberg uttered these words at a time before texting and email, and he was addressing people who were in business. And yet, the advice works just as well and is perhaps even more salient when you are dealing with your personal friends. Just because you can get away with not responding promptly does not mean that you should.

Returning all messages promptly is a formal, almost a ritual gesture, but if you sacrifice your personal relationships and your family responsibilities to your important business work, you are likely to end up with neither.


Ares Olympus said...

It is hard to guess what is actually happening merely by the description. Calling this unwanted feedback "complaints" rather than criticism may not be helpful. We could be more neutral and just call it feedback.

My guess might be that UC is a "sensitive person", someone who takes feedback more personally than others, and perhaps even ruminates on apparent negative feedback. And self-judgments can be involved, so neutral feedback sounds negative through her own fear and self-judgments.

Like if I say "You look tired" I might be expressing caring concern to a friend who looks tired while "looking tired" can be opposite of what you're trying to show the world, and then it may sound like criticism, as if I am expecting you to always look wide awake and energetic, and you've let me down. But really it might be you who has set a "standard" and the feedback is negative because it suggests you've failed your own standard. So you hear criticism while its a self-judgment you are generating from otherwise neutral feedback.

Gottlieb expresses something like this in saying "deep down, you’re mortified that these shameful parts of yourself have been seen, especially by people you care about."

And some of the people around UC may have no idea that she's taking their feedback so personally, and might think very well of her. They may have grown up in families where frank feedback was give and accepted without any fear or drama. So if they knew how she was taking their feedback, they might be shocked at her wrong assumptions.

So the first step maybe isn't questioning why her friends are so critical, but why or how she is so sensitive. Byron Katie has a process called "The Work" that questions our own thoughts, and it might apply here.
1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2. Can you absolutely know that it's true? (Yes or no.)
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?

Some "untrue" thoughts can be solved by direct questions, but as Tasha Eurich showed, getting honest feedback is always difficult, whether from uncritical lovers, or unloving critics.

trigger warning said...

I would love to meet this chica. I could have a lot of fun with her

Re texting, I thought the design point of text messaging was asynchronous communication (like email). Chat exists for synchronous textual communication. Personally, I respond to texts when its convenient.

James said...

Being on time and remembering, are issues of respect period. They are excellent pointers of how another person rates you in their little universe. You are right Stuart once can be excused, but at the same time how that once is handled by the late person also tells you how you rate with them. My Dad (still alive) always said "being on time is being there 15 minutes early".

Sam L. said...

When it seems everyone is against you, well, maybe, just maybe, you ought to entertain the thought that "baby, it's you".