Last week’s post presented a lesson that aims to get you to think about immature and mature ways to provide negative criticism to yourself (see CRITICIZING YOURSELF: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY). Becoming a master at utilizing the higher levels of maturity takes more than just thinking about them on a single day. It requires some practice utilizing the concepts over several occasions. So today, let’s practice some more with the help of some of our favorite friends.
A PEANUTS EXAMPLE
Below, in the Peanuts comic, Lucy provides negative criticism to herself while Charlie Brown listens. Take a shot, if you will, at rating how mature you think her criticism is on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most mature. Think about why you gave her your rating, and then compare your answer to mine.
My answer: I think Lucy’s actions best match the level 3 description— The criticizer clearly states the criticism with enough detail so the criticized person can, if he or she wills, improve the behavior, idea, or appearance, but couples it with glares, insults, shouts, or threats that are not about bodily harm. The main reason I have for this is that she is shouting at herself. Lucy’s actions indicate to me that she knows what her negative criticism is about; instead of becoming discouraged, she wants her life to move from one “up” to an “upper-up,” without any “downs.” I believe her actions should be reduced by .5 because she doesn’t make it clear to herself what she should do about her expressed concern. I would have felt she at least tried to come up with a plan of action if she had said something to herself like the following: “For the next few weeks, each time I feel discouraged, I’m going to write in a journal how I feel, what led up to how I feel, and then see if I can come up with something that leads to my feeling better.” In the end, I gave Lucy a 2.5 rating.
ANOTHER PEANUTS EXAMPLE
In this next one, Lucy again provides negative criticism to herself, and again we get the sense that she knows what the criticism is about, but she doesn’t come up with some plan to address her concern. What rating do you think she deserves? Also, see if you can come up with a statement that Lucy can make to herself that would indicate she has come up with a plan to address her concern.
My answer: This time Lucy doesn’t shout at herself. She does shout at Linus about the negative criticism he provides, but our job here is not to rate that, but rather her negative criticism of her own actions. That occurs in the last box where she says to herself, “How humiliating!”
I don’t view her comment as an insult, although in real life she would have to decide that for herself. It seems to me that people, when they are dissatisfied with “a failure to accomplish a task,” can feel a sense of humiliation, not as an insult, but as a humbling experience that has the potential to motivate them to seek to make some improvement. As far as I am concerned, a person can feel humiliated and still respond at level 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. If Lucy had insulted herself or shouted at herself, I would have felt that level three was the best match for what she does. I’m giving Lucy, instead, a question mark because sometimes criticism is provided that is clear about what is not liked but useful information about improving is not provided. If this is done in a supportive manner that does not use any insults, shouts, or threats, a question mark can be used instead of a rating. This indicates that sometimes mature people will provide this type of feedback to gently encourage themselves to come up with a solution to the problem of how to improve. The criticizer is in essence merely asking the question, “Can you come up with a way to make some improvement in this area?” Because asking such a question using a supportive tone of voice is not necessarily a sign of immaturity, no rating is assigned.
A FUNKY WINKERBEAN EXAMPLE
Let’s try rating Les in this Funky Winkerbean comic. Below, we see that Les, the guy with the glasses, has been invited to his thirtieth high school reunion. When he looks in the mirror he begins to evaluate how he now looks and recalls how he looked thirty years ago. As he does so, apparently he is providing some negative criticism to himself. Please rate how mature you think his response is.
My answer: The thought of going to his thirtieth high school reunion has put Les in a deep funk. He is saddened to see how he has aged. He doesn’t seem to be insulting himself in any way or threatening to harm himself. He’s also not hitting himself. Hmmm.
Some who view themselves as “healthy-minded” say that by letting himself feel sad about something he can’t do anything about, Les is actually acting in an unhealthy manner. These so called “healthy-minded” folks argue that Les would be far wiser to avert his attention from what is bothering him and live in the light of what is good in his life.
Admittedly, this method does seem to work for many people, and if it works for you, feel free to continue with it for as long as you like. I promise that I won’t send the mental health police after you.
There are those of us, however, who have tried this “healthy-minded” approach and find that, when melancholy comes, the whole system quickly breaks down. If that is your experience, perhaps the words of the brilliant psychologist, William James, might be more to your liking. “[T]here is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”
Clearly, people confront events that create feelings of sadness, horror, and dread. To James, the feelings that accompany such events can lead toward truth. Many of the most creative people have come to believe that periods of melancholy are an essential part of their creative process.
My readings of the research and my own personal experiences have led me to several tentative conclusions. First of all, if you can learn to avoid insulting and threatening yourself during these periods of melancholy, that’s a good thing. Some special types of insults can be especially harmful. “I’ll never be happy again,” is one of these. “I’ll always be a terrible person,” is another. “All is hopeless,” may be the worst .
Practice saying at such times, “Melancholy is part of the creative process; it is a tool that most creative people have experienced, and this mood can spur me to come to a useful understanding of my life.” “Creative” in this context means more than artistic creativity. It encompasses all aspects of a person’s work, and interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.
The melancholy that Les is experiencing will not be his whole response to his dissatisfaction with his current appearance. He will perhaps come to realize that he has some time to still live and the years he has already lived have given him a unique perspective that can enrich the time he has left to fulfill the desires that only come about from our deepest searching. For Les, I am going to put off any rating. As far as I’m concerned, he has just begun to provide to himself negative criticism and some more time will be necessary to evaluate what his rating should be.
Okay, that’s our lesson for this week. I would love to get some comments about the ideas I’ve presented. Do you think that there are more mature ways to respond to criticism than the ideas that I’ve put forth? Has there ever been a time when you criticize yourself in a manner that you would like to discuss?
My Best, Jeff
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.