How Do We Handle Our Loved-One’s Criticism?

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

I remember when my husband Michael expected me to read his mind. When I didn’t immediately recognize what he needed, he accused me of ignoring and neglecting him. For instance, one day when he was struggling to transfer from his wheelchair to his stair lift, I was standing to one side, waiting to see if he needed my help. I was doing this because he had told me in no uncertain terms that when I jumped in to help him, I was undermining his independence. So, I was waiting to help if he asked me to. Instead, he became angry at me for “Just staring at him.” Later, with the help of our therapist, he realized that I couldn’t read his mind; he needed to let me know what he wanted.

But all of us don’t have a helpful therapist to clarify matters. So, what do we do? 

Well, it isn’t easy. First, it helps to take a deep breath and get centered. Then, decide to respond rather than to react. Responding means to act responsibly. Reactions are often unconscious and based on old defenses that may no longer serve us. In the moment, you might ask him or her what they would like you to do. If their response is an angry one, and they are in no immediate danger, it might be wise to suggest talking about this later, when the air has cleared. Then, perhaps, you can reach an agreement on how to proceed in the future.

In your conversations, addressing feelings is always helpful, such as, “When you did or said (this) I felt (this).” For example, “When you yelled at me and accused me of just staring at you, I felt hurt.” And your loved-one might say, “When you didn’t help me, I felt afraid and alone.” To have an honest conversation like this, we must be willing to recognize our own feelings and to be vulnerable and trusting enough to share them. You may have built trust in your relationship on many levels, but if you are entering new territory as patient and caregiver, new acknowledgements and agreements may be in order. One caution: Statements such as “When you didn’t help me, I felt you were being mean and selfish” are not about your feelings. They are accusations, and they will trigger defensiveness in the other person. This is not helpful. 

An honest conversation about your feelings may not work perfectly at first, but then, if you can talk honestly about what worked and what didn’t and how it can work better next time, perhaps you can become closer and more trusting of each other. Becoming a compassionate caregiver is always a work in progress. We are all human, and mistakes are unavoidable. If at first things don’t work out, just try for more clarity next time. Mistakes are our best teachers.

A Favorite Place

My husband and and I were lucky to live close to the Pacific Ocean. One of our favorite places to visit was Pebble Beach in San Mateo County. We returned often, until he was confined to a wheelchair and we could return only in memory. I think it is so important to have special places to share. Below is a description of Pebble Beach taken from my memoir.

South of Half Moon Bay, Pebble Beach is one of our favorite destinations. It is a small beach, strewn with millions of pebbles of various shapes and hues. The endless ocean waves have pockmarked a section of rough, flat rock near the water’s edge. Pebbles glisten inside these holes, their colors intensified by a veneer of salt water. Occasionally, sea lions bob and bark near the shore, and the air smells of brine and seaweed. It feels good just to be here, to walk down the gentle steps carved out of the rugged cliffs that enclose the beach. It’s a magical place that we’re always excited to visit and explore. 

Wise Communication

Sometimes it’s so hard for caregivers to communicate with their loved one, especially about hard topics. I think this article (below) gives some helpful tips on how to communicate wisely.

I’ve gotten a great deal of personal value from six guidelines offered 2500 years ago by the Buddha; you’ll recognize their essence – sometimes expressed in the same words – in other traditions or philosophies.

From this perspective, wise speech always has five characteristics. It is:

  • Well-intended – Comes from goodwill, not ill will; constructive; aimed to build up, not tear down
  • True – Not overstated, taken out of context, or blown-up out of proportion
  • Beneficial – Helps things get better, not worse (even if it takes a while)
  • Timely – Not driven by impulsivity; rests on a foundation that creates a good chance of it being truly heard
  • Not harsh – It could be firm, pointed, or intense; it could confront mistreatment or injustice; anger could be acknowledged; but it is not prosecutorial, nasty, inflammatory, dismissive, disdainful, or snarky.

And if possible, it is:

  • Wanted by the other person – If they don’t want to hear it, you may just not need to say it; but there will be other cases when you need to speak for yourself whether the other person likes it or not – and then it’s more likely to go well if you follow the first five guidelines.

Of course, there is a place for talking loosely with others when it’s comfortable to do so. And realistically, in the first moments of an argument, sometimes people stray out of bounds.

But in important, tricky, or delicate interactions – or as soon as realize you’ve gone over the line – then it’s time to communicate with care, and with wisdom. The six guidelines do not guarantee that the other person will respond the way you want. But they will raise the odds of a good outcome, plus you will know in your heart that you stayed in control of yourself, had good intentions, and have nothing to feel guilty about later.

Reflect on the six guidelines as you consider how to approach an important conversation. Then, be natural: if you simply speak from your heart, have good intentions, and keep returning to the truth as you know it, it is hard not to speak wisely! If things get heated, stay grounded in wise speech; be clear that how you speak your own responsibility, no matter what the other person does. If you stray from the guidelines, acknowledge that to yourself, and perhaps to the other person.

With time and a little practice, you will find yourself “speaking wisely” without consciously thinking about it. You might be amazed at the powerful, assertive ways you can communicate within the frame of the six guidelines; consider the well-known examples of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And – for a little bonus here – how about practicing wise speech in the way you talk to yourself?!

Rick Hanson PhDSeptember 29, 2012Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. He’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.Read more articles by Rick Hanson PhD

Dreams of Loss

Sometimes dreams guide us and sometimes they foretell things, maybe things we would rather not face. I’m including a selection from my upcoming memoir, Watching for Dragonflies, that speaks to this.

Dreams of Loss

More than once, in these summer months after his collapse, Michael asks, “What is happening to me?” It’s more a bewildered lament than a question.

As his legs stubbornly refuse to respond to his will, he begins to feel that his body has betrayed him. He can no longer control it; he is no longer himself, and his image of his old self is inexorably slipping away. 

Our growing anxiety continues to be echoed in our dreams. In a recent one of Michael’s, he’s driving a big truck down the highway when suddenly he loses control and panics; the truck veers sharply out of its lane. He is terrified. 

In one of my own, I witness a showdown. We are somewhere in the Wild West. Michael appears youthful, in jeans and a plaid cotton shirt. We want to go through a gate in a fence, but a huge, intimidating animal bars our path. It looks like a kangaroo with a seal’s head, and, as Michael attempts to pass, it continues to threaten him. He’s afraid, but he confronts this unnatural-looking animal, refusing to flee. I can see his body begin to shake, and he finally decides to turn back. I, in turn, am left to wonder whether I have the strength and courage to face down this beast by myself.