I don’t handle criticism well. My gut reaction is usually a torrent of justification, a quick defensive shield. My throat gets hot and my voice rises. I want to immediately establish that I am good, benevolent, misunderstood, and decidedly underappreciated. Although I have been in therapy, and I am not young, I still find it difficult to respond differently.
I woke up this morning feeling expansive. The sun peaked over the horizon, which was a robin’s egg blue. I sipped hot coffee and petted my terrier, Frankie, trailing my fingers in his soft white fur. I thought to myself that I should really count my blessings. Then, I opened the “Good Reads” page for my memoir, Flashback Girl. The book had 73 ratings, averaging 4.5 stars; really well done! My author heart soared, until I read this:
“This is a memoir by Dr. Deguire . . . Amazingly, she survived but in her own survival, she endured constant family traumas and losses. Most tragic was the suicide of her beloved brother, Marc, that haunted Lise throughout her life. However the author writes about her overcoming these struggles, the most disturbing aspect is her relationship with her mother. She is painstaking in describing her mother’s shortcomings (and indeed, Kathryn had many), but even with her training in psychology, Lise seems blind to the fact that her mother clearly suffered a psychological disorder that likely impaired her ability to be emotionally supportive of others, including Lise and Marc, her own children. Lise’s story certainly shows her amazing triumph and resilience but for me, it falls a little short on genuine insight and empathy.”
My gratitude for the morning vanished like a chased rabbit scurrying down a hole. My body shook, and my breath got shallow. "Even with her training?" “Blind to the fact that her mother clearly suffered a psychological disorder?” “Short on genuine insight and empathy?” Ouch.
Rationally, I should not be upset this comment. The vast majority of reviews on Good Reads were 4 or 5 stars, glowing about Flashback Girl. Logic would say that some people won’t like some books. Logic would say that some people won’t respect my point of view, just as I sometimes struggle to respect other people’s.
Logic would say that we do not all share the same understanding of empathy and forgiveness. But that, my friends, is for another blog.
This blog is about giving and receiving criticism.
It is well-known in marriage therapy that thriving relationships require a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity. Dr. John Gottman observed marriages and found that he could accurately predict (by 90%!) couples who would divorce by whether they displayed this 5:1 ratio. The positive behaviors could be small: a smile, a nod, a pat on the shoulder, a proffered cup of coffee. The negative behaviors could be equally small: a frown, a sigh, an eye roll. The major takeaway is the people need to experience much more positivity than negativity to feel loved and safe.
Five to one, you say? Isn’t that a whole lot of positivity? Is that even possible? Yes! Think of how we interact with little children. With our kids, we are mostly smiling, hugging, and cherishing. When they burst into our office in the middle of the work day with a ridiculously drawn picture, we don’t roll our eyes, frown, and exclaim, “What IS that? Can't you see that I am busy?” Instead, we smile and thank them for the picture. We comment on the colors they chose and ask them to tell us about their drawing. Then we hang their ugly scribble on our wall. That is 5 positive behaviors, and 0 negative ones, a 5:0 ratio. We understand, intrinsically, that children require this level of affection.
The thing is, we all have that little kid inside us. We all have a child within us who needs to feel profoundly loved and cherished. That little kid never goes away, not even decades later. We all need this level of warmth to sustain the toxicity of criticism.
When I conduct marriage therapy, I always start sessions with an “appreciation.” This is a time that each person shares something they liked about their partner over the week. This appreciation is crucial because most people commence marriage therapy in a defensive crouch. They fear the criticism they imagine is coming. And there undoubtedly are some behaviors that will need changing. If, however, couples start the session feeling valued, they are more likely to respond positively.
I am the same way. If my husband simply says, “Why didn’t you take out the trash?” my response is likely to be 1) “I was very busy and let me tell you how busy I was” (defensive) or 2) “Well, why didn’t YOU take out the trash?” (defensive and counter-attacking).
However, if my husband says, “Thank you for doing the taxes. I know you put a lot of time into that. I do wish you could have taken out the trash too.” Then, feeling appreciated, my response is likely to be, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about it, but I will try next time.” It is vital to speak with appreciation and positivity, instead of focusing solely on criticism. That is how you can get people to truly listen to your feedback.
That brings me back to my review situation. Even though Flashback Girl is 4.5 on Good Reads, the reviews that stick with me the most are... the negative ones. Generally speaking, these negative reviews focus on my complex relationship with my complex mother and my depiction of her. Fair enough, I guess, from a rational perspective. I predicted this would be the most controversial aspect of the book.
People often respond to my relationship with my mother through the lens of their own history, unable to imagine that mothers can be profoundly different. Just because a woman is a mother does not mean that she is psychologically equipped to be a good-enough mother. Some mothers do immense damage, intentionally or unintentionally, damage so powerful that it destroys the parent-child bond itself. Sometimes that damage is so toxic that one can not continue in the relationship without imperiling one's own stability. That was my situation, and I did my best to explain it. However, the reviewer took my words as being ungracious and "unempathic."
Since Flashback Girl came out, I have received letters and emails from many people, all positively, thank God, because how I would handle it otherwise? The largest group of readers, predictably, have been my fellow burn survivors. The second largest group surprised me. The second largest group have been people who had difficult mothers. Many of them said that my book was a lifesaver, because so few people write honestly about this issue. Many of them said it was a profound relief to read the book, because it validated their own pain, disappointment, and difficult choices. Most of them hid their truth or downplayed it. But it is excruciating to be poorly mothered, and then to have to hide that pain because 1) No one understands, or worse, 2) People criticize you for not being more forgiving or understanding of the very parent who repeatedly devastated you.
As Bob Dylan once wrote, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land. And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Some evolved souls would gently nudge me toward detachment. I have read about famous artists who refuse to read any reviews, saying that they neither believe the positive reviews nor the negative ones. I think those artists are both wise and, also, have probably had a lot more reviews than I, so maybe they are over it.
I should get over it.
OK, so let's try something. If I were to reframe this critical review, in the way that I counsel couples, it might sound like this:
Opening Appreciation: I see how hard you try, Lise, in your work, your writing, and doing those taxes. You even helped take out the trash this morning (I did!).
5:1: Your book is beautifully written. You bravely write about challenges that most people shy away from. Remember that your mother was just a person, with her own hurts and flaws, and be gracious. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share vulnerable experiences, which help to heal others.
See how much better that sounds?
Here’s another tip. Having reframed that criticism for myself, I actually feel better. My chest has relaxed and I can breathe deeper. Why is that? Our brains don’t differentiate who says what. If I say something kind to myself, my brain responds the same as if someone else said it to me. My brains tells me someone (in this case, myself) has been kind to me, and I feel good. Conversely, (and this is key) if I say something mean to myself, my brain responds the same as if someone else said it. My brains tells me that someone was mean to me (also myself), and I feel bad. So, by rephrasing the review more positively, even if just in my own head, I remove the sting.
There is a lot of psychology in this piece. To recap:
1) Strive for 5:1 (positivity: negativity) in your relationships.
2) Start conversations, particularly challenging ones, with a heartfelt appreciation.
3) Talk to yourself positively. Your own words count. Speak to yourself as lovingly as you would to your best friend.
4) Remember that we all have a little kid inside us, hoping to be loved and appreciated. Be kind to your own little kid, and be kind to other people’s little kids as well.
Also, like Dylan sang, “Don't criticize what you can't understand.”
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.