My wife, Amanda, and I got into an argument this week. In fact, the subject of this argument has been a recurring issue for us since we got married in 2015. What is the source of this conflict for us? Surprise: Communication! Especially how we give, and receive, constructive criticism between us.
“Being corrected, especially by family, has aroused a defense mechanism in me since I was a kid. I have a bad habit of interpreting advice like it is a personal and emotional attack on my intelligence. I don’t seem to have this problem at my job, or with people I don’t know. But when the advice is coming from someone I care deeply about, especially family, then I sometimes see it as a statement that I am not good enough and never will be.”
Amanda and I see eye-to-eye on almost everything including money. We never argue about the life we want, because we both are chasing the same dreams. But we’ve struggled with one area of communication ever since we’ve been married, and this is: How we share and interpret constructive criticism.
I personally believe that the process of learning how to succeed is by studying the ways we’ve failed. I believe that if you can learn how you’ve failed, and learn to avoid failure in the future, then you’ll naturally start finding success.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t always the best at communicating this. I’d often bring up the ways we both failed, so we could learn how not to fail again. My goal was never to blame, shame, or make Amanda feel inadequate in any way. I just wanted to learn why we failed, so we could focus on succeeding more often together.
But unfortunately, I’m not perfect, and I didn’t always explain my methodology with the best words. My intentions weren’t to make us feel bad when I discussed our failures. My goal was to talk about them so we cold learn from our mistakes, so we wouldn’t have to repeat them.
It was hard for me to talk about, and study our failures at first. Part of my problem is that I can resist change because I can feel afraid of the unknown. I also have a bad habit of seeing life as a competition, and I can find myself competing with people in unhealthy ways. For example, sometimes I want to be right even when I am wrong. Because being right makes me feel like I am winning.
But I know this is such a harmful, self-limiting, stubborn way to think. Because being wrong often leads to bad outcomes in life. I can think of several times where I would have gotten farther in life if I would have been willing to collaborate with people rather than choosing to see collaboration as a competition and resist it.
Somehow, the meaning of constructive-criticism got all tangled up inside my mind, leaving both my husband and I feeling frustrated when we tried to talk about ways we could both improve.
Last week we both decided to go on a long walk to talk about our frustrations.
As we began to walk, I held my hands out in front of us like I was holding a cup of water. I said:
“I’m never trying to attack you when I bring up our past mistakes. It’s just information that I am trying to understand and learn from, so we don’t do it again. I’m not trying to control, harm, or make you feel below me when I talk about this stuff. I’m just trying to find creative ways to learn from what has worked, and not worked, in our marriage.”
This was the first time I felt what I call, “de-personalizing information” from someone I was close to. Rather than seeing constructive criticism as a personal attack against me, I saw it for what it was: “It was just information that I could choose to accept or disreguard.” Bill wasn’t trying to control me with this information. He was just trying to share a new idea with me, and if we both liked it, maybe we could both accept it to build a better life together.”
It was an eye-opening experience to me. I have always fought with people, especially family, when they brought new ideas to me because I thought these ideas were going to be used to change me. I’d get defensive and aggressive because I didn’t want to get hurt if I changed for other people.
But now I suddenly saw the truth of what was going on: Bill wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was just trying to share potentially useful information with me. He wasn’t forcing me to believe it. He just wanted to talk about it, so we could find better ideas and ways to live life together.
I suddenly realized the secret to embracing constructive criticism: Don’t personalize it. Advice is just information. Nobody is forcing you to believe their views in life. If someone offers you better information than the information you’re currently believing, then you’re the one holding your future self back if you refuse to explore ideas just because you’re afraid of them.
From this experience, these are the three things I am going to implement into my life every time I hear constructive criticism from now on:
#1: Correction, advice, and constructive-criticism is just information. I get to choose what I accept into my life. Seeing constructive criticism as an attack is a mistake. New ideas have nothing to do with me being a good or bad person. Advice is harmless information I get to choose if I want to accept or reject it.
#2: Constructive criticism should be used as a source of positive change, and change is good especially when I’m unhappy with the parts of my life I want to change. Constructive criticism can help me shed some of my worst behaviors, and turn them into healthier, happier, more-productive behaviors.
#3: I’m going to stop personalizing every bit of advice I receive. Not all advice is an attack on me. Nobody is a perfect human being. If I’m unwilling to improve, then I’ll never be able to become the person I am meant to become, and that is not the life I want to live.
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