Dr. John Gottman identifies the four killers of relationships as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. If we want to make a relationship work, we have to get rid of these four things. What about your relationship with you? If I want my relationship with myself to work, do I have to get rid of the criticism, contempt, and defensiveness towards ourselves as well? The answer is yes. These four things will lead to anger and resentment, no matter at whom they are aimed. If I only greet myself with contempt and criticism, I will become angry and resentful and the world. If I only notice where I struggle, or put the blame in the wrong place, I will struggle to do well.
The opposite of contempt is compassion. Take a moment and think of someone you are really frustrated with or hurt by in your life. Now try to find a place where you can hold any kind of compassion for them, seeing them as more than just the asshole that is making your life difficult. For anyone over the age of 25 that is usually pretty easy to do. We see the whole picture and know that even though this person may not be our best friend, they aren’t a complete and total horrible person. Now find a part of yourself that you consistently hold in contempt. Find one thing about that part of you that you can hold compassion for, even for a second. Much more difficult, right?
When we look in the mirror and see nothing but the warts and the problems we aren’t finding compassion. We aren’t seeing the whole picture, only the parts that are bad and ugly. Often we hold ourselves in contempt in as an effort to force ourselves to improve things, but it doesn’t actually work. It creates depression and pain and often creates stagnancy.
Criticism often starts with a “why” question. In a past post I discussed why “why” is a problem. It is accusatory and judgmental creating automatic defensiveness, no matter who you are. “Why don’t you ever do the dishes?” “Why are you such a jerk all of the time?” “Why do you never get off your ass and help me?” “Why don’t you have a job yet?” These create anger and resentment and defensiveness when we ask them of other people, and at the same time we throw these questions at ourselves all the time. Often we add a little bit of contempt in there as well. “I don’t know why I can’t get off my fat ass and go to the gym”. “I don’t know why I’m so lazy.” These statements often do the exact opposite of what we want them to do, which is to motivate us. We think “Well, if I call myself a fat ass I will move and it will change”. But what they really do is encourage shame and depression.
The opposite of criticism is what Dr. Gottman calls the soft start-up. This involves changing the statement to a wish, want or would like that comes from a neutral tone. “I would like you to help me with the dishes more.” Identifying feelings about what or isn’t happening. “When you don’t help with the dishes I think you aren’t invested in keeping the house running, and I feel alone and overwhelmed.” We can use the same skills with ourselves. Instead of using shame to try to motivate, change the language you are using and identify what you want. “I want to exercise more and spend more time with friends.” Identify the feelings that are related to the lack of success, and that often get in the way. “I’m feeling very dismayed and ashamed right now and they keep me from doing what I know I need to do”. Changing the way we approach talking about difficult concepts, moving from judgment to desires changes the dialogue.
The opposite of defensiveness is accountability. This will mean something very different from the judgments that you’ve already been throwing at yourself. You already tell yourself how horrible you are. This isn’t accountability, this is shaming and damaging. Accountability is difficult and scary, because it means seeing what the problem actually is. It means being able to look and identify the reason that you aren’t able to meet up with friends is because you’re embarrassed about something and you are afraid that they will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. You struggle to go the gym for the same reason, but tell yourself that you’re just too lazy to go. It’s admitting that you struggle to stick with a diet because you feel that the only good thing in your life right now is the food you get to eat and you are afraid that if you give it up, there will be nothing. Accountability is being honest with the things you’ve been avoiding and a way to move past the avoidance instead of using shame, criticism and contempt.
I titled this blog “Finding Forgiveness” and until I haven’t mentioned the concept. These three things: defensiveness, contempt, and criticism all get in the way of forgiveness with ourselves and with others. They keep us stuck in a cycle of shame and anger, fear and judgment. When we are in that cycle, we aren’t able to find peace or forgiveness for others or ourselves, and we can’t find health. Letting go of the judgment that leads to contempt, criticism and defensiveness is difficult. It is rewarding. When you can find compassion for our own short-comings we are better able to face them and improve. When we learn to let go of the language of shame and learn a language of motivation, we move forward. When we take accountability for the truths in our lives instead of the hurts in our lives, we aren’t as angry. This is what forgiveness is.