One of the greatest gifts we can receive is constructive feedback from our peers and loved ones. That kind of feedback–offered in affection with hopes of improvement–shows us that they care enough to say something and that they believe that we can do better than we are now. That give-and-take is part of how we learn and grow and can be an important part of how we reach our various goals in life.
Because feedback is so important, though, it’s really easy to turn into a weapon. Either the feedback isn’t offered in a constructive way because it’s being used to control or hurt us, or else we’re so scared of being controlled or hurt that we have a lot of trouble accepting it.
Today’s post is an Applied Topic in Life.
Last week I turned out to be wrong about something–something that might seem minor to someone else, but was very important to me!–and today I want to talk about what it was, how I dealt with it, and how that process differed from how I approached being wrong years ago.
A Very Non-Scenic Plateau.
A few months ago, I resolved to lose a little weight. My doctor told me that doing this may help out some chronic conditions I have (and he’s right–it is helping improve a lot of stuff). So I was definitely motivated.
I’d already lost a few of those pounds by myself without aid, but friends told me that there was an easier way to go about it thanks to new technology. So I plunged into the pool and looked around.
The sheer number of trackers and services was overwhelming at first. Stuff like MyFitnessPal, FitBits, and other such trackers and dongles didn’t even really exist back when I was a much bigger girl. If I wanted to keep track of what I was eating, there were only a few websites that did that–and smartphones didn’t even exist, so making those records was cumbersome.
Out of all of them, I found an app that seemed easy to use and began keeping track of my intake.
At first, I felt like I was melting. Pounds slid off and I coasted on a wave of success after success. Very soon, my goal came into view: 10 pounds left, 5 pounds left, two pounds left.
But two pounds from the goal, that progress came to a grinding halt.
For weeks, the scales stubbornly reported the same number. At first I wasn’t that worried. I was eating exactly what I thought I should be eating (I thought) and not feeling deprived. If I just kept doing the right things, sooner or later my body would catch up.
But that didn’t happen. I bounced up a pound, down a pound, over and over. I couldn’t seem to bust past a barrier that floated tantalizingly just out of my reach. And I began to feel frustrated and nervous.
I was experiencing what some folks call a “plateau.” A plateau is a time when weight loss appears to stop for a while and one’s weight levels out, neither dropping nor gaining. Sometimes these periods can last for weeks, months, even years.
As you might imagine, many people have come up with a variety of ideas about why plateaus happen and what’s going on in the body during those times.
As you also might imagine, almost all of those ideas are completely wrong.
I try very hard to get my information from reality, not from metaphorical street-corners from my school chums. So when this plateau of mine stretched into the three-week mark, I knew that I had to address the situation head-on.
I knew that I was doing something wrong. I just didn’t know what it was, yet.
We’ve been talking about criticism avoidance for a while now, and I hope I’ve made my point that this behavior pattern isn’t restricted to religious people or topics.
When someone really hates or fears being wrong, such a person is at major risk for becoming criticism-averse. Remember Issendai’s list of mechanisms (from that link)?
Inability to remember criticisms.
Minimization of the criticisms members do remember.
Unwillingness to repeat criticisms.
Refusal to accept criticisms that they themselves don’t agree with.
Hypersensitivity to negative emotions aimed at them.
If you want a front-row seat to a whole population of people behaving exactly like this, join a weight-loss site.
There are pockets of rationality, sure, but there are also a lot of people who are only there for validation and unquestioning sunshine blown up their butts. They absolutely do not want to hear “You’re doing something wrong” when they complain about not making progress. They want to hear “Gosh, you’re a medical miracle and should probably just give up because you’re never going to make these changes in yourself because you are doing every single thing correctly all the time.” They’ve spent a lifetime being emotionally beaten-up whenever they’re wrong, and they’re hypersensitive to any suggestion of it now. They “can’t handle the truth.”
It’s been fascinating and illuminating for me to see the same exact reactions I see in religion going on outside that context. In a way, it’s helped me to understand religious folks–especially Toxic Christians–a lot better. I’ve always seen a lot of similarities between extreme mindsets, as I wrote about years ago in “Fruitarians and Fundamentalists”, but now I was actually involved in the group in question. Now I actually wanted to lose weight and was having trouble losing weight. Now I actually needed to find a way to critically examine my behavior and find out where I was going wrong.
I used to be really bad at being wrong.
How bad? Really, really bad!
Their Way or the Highway.
The sort of authoritarian parenting that right-wing Christians currently favor seems tailor-made to produce adults who are terrified of being wrong or of losing control.
Parents following this philosophy go in for incredibly rigid and stringent punishment-based discipline, and allow for little communication, even less cooperation, and absolutely no negotiation with their children.
That was definitely me growing up.
A child figures out very quickly, in an authoritarian family, that any imperfection leads to criticism, emotional abuse, rejection, and often wildly out-of-proportion punishment. They learn to mirror their caregivers and comply with even the most unreasonable demands as a means of self-preservation (when they don’t simply rebel and become defiant, of course). For the children whose wills are broken by this form of parenting, their caregivers’ desires become internalized and eventually seen as normal and reasonable. They often grow up anxious, depressed, and socially awkward. Even if they realize that their home environment was abusive, they often come out of their experience with a rigid, narcissistic worldview of their own–and a real fear of being challenged or criticized.
They know from their earliest days what criticism leads to and what it means for them to be wrong about anything.
Being wrong means punishment and mockery. It means feeling very bad about oneself. It means feeling worthless. It means giving up one’s personal power and being inferior to the person doing the judging. It means, always, being reminded of a power differential between the person doing the judging and oneself–since there is a very distinct chain of command going on in the world of criticism, one that Jayne Cobb very accurately laid out for us to see. (Can you even imagine a fundagelical lass like I was telling her pastor he was doing something very wrong?!? Quelle horreur!)
The worst thing ever, ever, ever for a right-wing Christian to be is on the wrong side of that chain.
Even worse, failure is frequently tied to sinfulness and horrific penalties both in this world and the next. Even if a Christian critic can’t identify exactly what the precise sin was, the term “missing the mark” covers a wide range of ground. There is always something that a Christian can be criticized for doing or not doing–and every single time, that criticism is tied to condemnation for ingratitude and disobedience.
It’s very little wonder that so many right-wing Christians seem so incredibly criticism-averse in adulthood. The closer the topic is to the heart of such a person, the harder it is to hear any kind of criticism of it. When someone equates being wrong to going to Hell, to personal failure and inadequacy, and to being shunned and condemned by their community and leaders, then it’s going to be really hard for that person to accept any kind of feedback that isn’t 100% glowing.
Psychologists have figured out that the more criticized someone was in childhood, the worse they are at dealing with criticism in adulthood. The more distressed that person becomes by criticism, the more they avoid facing it and the worse they are at dealing with it in a constructive way. It’s a vicious cycle that is very difficult to resolve.
Leaving religion doesn’t automatically resolve that vicious cycle any more than it confers enlightenment about anything else. People still have to learn how to handle criticism in a mature way, how to give it in a loving way (and to entirely refrain from giving it sometimes!), and how to separate out criticism of what they’re doing from blanket-condemnation of themselves as people. If they can’t do that, then they are going to have a much harder time growing and moving forward in their lives.
That was me, for a long time.
Like a lot of folks who’ve escaped a rough home life or toxic religious indoctrination, I had a tough time accepting any kind of critical feedback. It was almost impossible for me to interpret it as anything but a personal attack. If I didn’t flat-out reject the feedback, I took another very common route for the criticism-averse: I argued about it and tried to justify why I’d done whatever it was I’d done wrong. I was only trying to protect myself from those old feelings of inferiority, condemnation, helplessness, and powerlessness. But this behavior came across as me being argumentative and intractable to people who didn’t suffer from the same shortcomings I did.
I’m thankful that some very kind managers worked out what I was doing and helped me over those errors. They didn’t just help improve my job performance; they helped me figure out a lot of stuff I was doing in my personal life, too.
Because I’d made some strides in learning how to be wrong, I was emotionally equipped to look critically at my recent weight-loss plateau.
The revelation began while I was watching TV one night recently.
Secret Eaters is a British reality-TV series that examines overeating and weight loss. In it, guests approach the show’s hosts and ask them for help them figuring out why they’re not losing weight. Like a lot of folks, they’re convinced that they’re doing everything correctly–yet the scales aren’t reflecting their diligence.
The hosts rig the guests’ homes up with secret cameras and follow them around with private investigators, logging everything the guests do and eat, and finally the hosts show the guests what they’re really eating versus what they say and think they’re eating. In doing this investigation, the show also highlights patterns the guests may not realize they suffer from that are causing them to overeat at particular times and in particular situations. At the end of each episode, guests are given customized eating plans to help them overcome those patterns.
Sometimes the guests deliberately “sneak” food, thinking that the show’s hosts won’t notice or know what they’re doing. Often, however, they’re guilty of mindless grazing and nibbling as they go about their business, so this feedback is often essential to them to understand why they aren’t making progress.
The show is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fascinating to see how people can learn from their mistakes and turn their lives around with the right help–and, as well, to see how similar the worlds of weight-loss and religion really are.
So I was watching this show with Mr. Captain and I suddenly said, “Honey, am I a Secret Eater and don’t realize it?”
That show made me realize that I’d come to the end of my own ability to diagnose my own potential errors.
I needed outside help.
I needed feedback.
A Potentially Explosive Question.
Mr. Captain knows that if I ask for feedback, I’ll listen to what I get with an open mind. Part of being criticism-averse is asking for feedback, then punishing the other person for giving it. I don’t do that.
I said, “I’ve been bouncing between the same two-pound range for weeks. I log everything I eat, I measure and weigh portions so I don’t underestimate servings, I meticulously eat exactly what my app tells me to eat, but that scale isn’t budging. What am I doing wrong here?”
He thought the question over. Finally he replied, “Today when I was in the kitchen with you, I noticed you kept popping stuff in your mouth while you worked. You ate some cubes of bread, a few pinches of grated cheese, and when you were done cooking, you licked roasted-garlic oil off your fingers. None of it was much on its own, but at your weight it wouldn’t take much to push you out of a deficit. If you forgot to log that stuff and you do it every time you cook, it’d add a few hundred calories to your day that you weren’t expecting.”
(He told me later that it didn’t even occur to him that I’d get defensive. I can’t even tell you how relieved and happy I was to hear that!)
At the time, though, I was simply stunned.
I literally had not remembered doing any of that until he pointed it out.
But then every single instance came flooding back to me. I remembered all of it–and even some stuff I’d eaten that he hadn’t even seen.
I know about secret and mindless eating. I know how how quickly those hidden calories can add up.
And if Mr. Captain was right, I was nonetheless guilty of doing it.
Sometimes people ask these kinds of questions but they really don’t want to hear answers. They only want validation. But that was my old life. When I needed answers, I went to someone whose judgment I could trust–Mr. Captain–and asked him for help. Then I listened to his observations, connected what he was saying he’d seen to what I was doing, and realized he was totally right.
After thanking him for giving me that feedback, I began to lay out a plan that’d keep me more mindful of those eating choices I was making. I asked him to speak up when he saw me nibbling while I cooked, just in case I did it without noticing. And I began carrying my phone with me into the kitchen every single time I went there even if I wasn’t seeking food, so I could immediately log anything I ate.
Two days later, I reached my goal weight.
Just like that.
Sometimes we just need that last piece of the puzzle to fit into place to understand why we’re not reaching our goals. But if we can’t hear criticism of any kind, it’s a lot harder to get those pieces into place and to make the changes we need to make.
We’re going to talk soon about the mechanisms involved in getting from Point A to Point B in that particular journey. But for now, I just wanted to mention how different it is now for me versus what it used to be like to hear and accept criticism, and how overcoming my old programming helped in more ways than one.