Joan’s Cape Cod cottage was nearly finished. This second home fulfilled her dream. Joan longed to retire to this cozy cottage at the end of her Information Technology career. She grew more excited every day as her new home approached completion.
There was a problem, however. Her mother was coming to see the cottage. Joan was pleased that her mother was taking the trouble to drive several hundred miles to see her new home. At the same time she dreaded that her mother would find something wrong with her cottage.
“My mother,” she explained, “is an expert at finding what’s wrong with everything! I shudder when I think how her criticisms might ruin my new home for me.”
“What if you don’t agree with her opinions?”
“That won’t matter. Instead of feeling proud of my accomplishment, I will see my new home as a place full of mistakes. My excitement will be ruined.” Joan cradled her head in her hands.
“But you don’t have to let your mother’s criticisms spoil your cottage.”
Joan frowned. “What do mean?” She’s already ruined many of my accomplishments. When I got all A’s in school except for a B in math, she focused on the B. She’d lecture me how I was supposed to turn it into an A. No matter how hard I studied I just couldn’t get an A in math. It was like an indelible stain on my record.”
“That was then and this is now,” I responded. “You’re grown up and more mature.”
“I don’t see how that will change anything.” She shrugged her shoulders. “My mother is who she is. There’s no changing her.”
“Here’s what I suggest.” I sat forward engaging her eyes. “Tell your mother you’re looking forward to her visit. Tell her you have a favor to ask. You want her to act like the house inspector. Ask her to make a list of everything she can find wrong with each and every room. Spare nothing.”
“Oh my God!” Joan threw her hands up. “You’re making this even worse! You’re encouraging her to ruin my pride in my new home!”
“On the contrary, I’m suggesting you put your mother’s critiques to work for you. Make use of her criticisms. By finding all the problems she can help you complete your house. With her inspection you will leave no stone unturned with your contractor before you make your final payment. Her criticisms can help you.”
Joan’s scowl turned into a smile. “I see what you’re saying. In fact I do need to make my punch list. I’ve been dreading that, thinking it would take away from my good feelings about the cottage. I can see how my mother could help. I’ll ask her. No one could do a better job of making a punch list!”
“Precisely. You’ll have invited her criticisms instead of dreading them. Having asked for her critiques, it will be much easier to listen to them. You can even end up appreciating the help she’s giving you rather than letting her ruin your dream.”
Joan came back two weeks later. She entered my office with a bounce in her step.
“It worked just like you said it would.”
“Good for you. You made it work.” I gave her a high five.
Joan laughed. “My mother even commented how much I’ve changed. She said she was amazed when I asked for her criticisms of my cottage.”
“Your asking for them rather than dreading them made the difference.”
Joan smiled: “She was true to herself. She said in the past I’ve not appreciate that she only wanted to help me. Now, I can even see a truth in that.”
I nodded my head. “You’re transformed!”
My experience with Joan came back recently as I listened to Trisha complain about her boss.
“All Maryann sees is whatever I haven’t done.” Trisha’s voice rose to a high pitch. “She doesn’t notice all the things I’ve done, or that I’ve done them well. What’s more, she always brings them up at the end of the day so I’m late getting home.” She rolled her eyes. “The only reason I don’t quit is the money. Without it I can’t help support my kids.”
As Trisha raised her gaze from the floor our eyes met.
“Instead of feeling so unappreciated by Maryann’s complaints, why don’t you invite her to meet with you daily to share her criticisms with you?”
Trisha frowned at me. “Are you out of your mind?” She raised her eyebrows staring at me. “I’m already close to quitting because I feel so hurt by her criticisms. Now you suggest I invite them?”
“Sometimes I am out of my mind.” My chuckle brought a smile to her face. “What I have in mind is what my client Joan did with her mother’s criticisms of her new home.”
I told her the story.
“You could say to Maryann something like this: you know, Maryann, when I get very busy I forget things. I do that at home as well as here at work. It would really help me if you would make a list of anything I’ve forgotten to do each day. Instead of bringing the list to me at the end of the day, drop in and bring it sooner. That way, when I leave at day’s end, I’ll know I got everything done.”
Trisha laughed. “I don’t believe you’re encouraging me to invite Maryann to share her criticisms with me. But I do see the point. My inviting Maryann to be critical of my work takes the sting out of it. It’s almost like a game. I can accept it more easily since I’ve ask her to do it.” She nodded. “Really, it is a good idea.”
I smiled at her. “You can’t lose this way. If she forgets and doesn’t criticize you that’s fine. But if she does come during the day to criticize you, just thank you for doing what you’ve asked her to do. You’ll know when you leave you haven’t overlooked anything.”
“This is ingenious,” Trish said. “How’d you come up with it?”
“I did it for my survival. I felt so criticized growing up.”
“Really?” She looked at me carefully to make sure I was telling the truth.
“Years ago I was in training as a psychoanalyst. I went five days a week, lay on a couch, and said whatever came into my mind without censoring it. One day, after four months of working with me, my analyst asked: ‘How can I say something to you that you won’t take as a criticism?’
“I thought for a minute. ‘You can’t,’ I answered. ‘What’s more, I take that as a criticism!’
“I was trying to be funny to defend myself. I instantly knew my analyst had spoken the truth. I took everything my analyst said as criticisms. My father was stern like an officer in the Marines. Most of what he said to me had sounded like criticisms. Growing up I tried to be perfect to avoid his criticizing me.”
I looked into Trisha’s eyes.
“Based on my analyst’s observation, I worked on changing my mindset. This was a turning point in my life. I realized my analyst was trying to help me, not hurt me. I realized my father was too. It’s just that his manner was very stern. I’m sure he improved on his father’s approach of teaching with a wooden paddle.”
“I had to learn how to make criticisms work for me by changing what I heard from negative to positive. That’s what I’ve been trying to teach you. I had to work on being less stern with my own children. I had to get over trying to be perfect.”
“Well, it seems to me you’ve succeeded,” Trish said as our eyes met.
When she came a few weeks later she entered my office with a smile instead of a frown. “I did invite Maryann to share her criticisms. She did daily. I no longer take them personally. I no longer take them to heart.”
We smiled together as we shared truth. Her inner beauty shone.
©Dr. Doug Welpton