“When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.” ~Unknown
We all have people in our lives who unintentionally hurt us. Their words may sound harsh. We may feel judged. And they may question our choices so much that we feel emotionally unsafe around them.
People can make comments about our career choice, living situation, life partner (or lack of), child-rearing decisions, and hobbies—and often when we didn’t ask for their opinion or advice.
Oftentimes, the healthiest choice is to stay away from these people. But sometimes we have to pay a hefty price for this choice, and it’s worth exploring other options.
For example, if some of these people happen to be relatives, or someone is your childhood best friend’s spouse or your daughter’s best friend’s mom, staying away may bring other challenges.
And even when we can avoid them completely, it can be valuable to have such people in our lives, as they empower us to learn and grow.
Note: I said we could invite them to be a part of our lives, not consume our lives! There is a big difference between the two.
A few years back, a friend’s words began to hurt me and brought tears to my eyes, lots of tears.
I knew her intentions were good, yet her comments on my choice of work, living situation, and vacations, and her constant unsolicited advice, left me feeling sad and angry.
I opened up my heart and ultimately felt judged and vulnerable.
I could have just let the friendship die, but that wasn’t an authentic manifestation of my values.
A part of me wanted to tell her exactly how I felt, but I didn’t have the courage to face the consequences if she didn’t understand where I was coming from, and that I really wanted to save the relationship.
I was sharing this with my mom, and in my pain I asked her why someone who cared about me would say the things my friend had said.
She said something that stuck. “What if you look at your relationship with her as an opportunity to grow? What if you focused on what you could do and change instead of complaining about her? What if she were a friend not to hold, nurture, and support you, but to help you get a tiny bit closer to your own truth along with some pain and discomfort?”
This was simple, yet deep and profound.
Over the last few years I have become a little more skilled and have more peace and joy around this relationship.
Here’s my list of the wonderful gems that have emerged, and my enhanced toolkit on dealing with difficult relationships.
1. Acknowledge the pain.
I have learned to acknowledge the discomfort with harsh words. This doesn’t mean wallowing in the pain or crying endlessly, but simply practicing awareness and noticing my own sensations and feelings as they arise, without getting overly attached to them or pushing them aside.
I have learned that resistance creates more suffering, and accepting our own discomfort is the first step to lasting peace.
2. Embrace your own fears and insecurities.
Difficult interactions give us an opportunity to embrace our own fears and insecurities. When we feel hurt about something, it’s often because it triggers some unresolved emotion within ourselves.
Recognizing this, we can practice compassionate self-inquiry, without anger or judgment toward ourselves.
I have noticed that comments around my choice of work are most difficult to hear, and as I have peeled the layers I have learned that is where my inner critic is the loudest.
What a lovely opportunity for me to come a tiny bit closer to my own truths, practice self- kindness, and work on myself instead of trying to change others.
3. Cultivate curiosity.
I have learned to have an open and curious mind toward critical behavior. I don’t need to judge or label, but I can still bring a deep sense of curiosity around why people may be behaving or saying such things.
With this sense of curiosity, we’re better able to practice compassion for other people’s pain and suffering.
Oftentimes when people say hurtful things, it’s because they are hurting and have unmet needs, and not because of who we are or what we have done.
4. Demonstrate vulnerability with intelligence.
I often felt upset because I opened my heart and revealed my imperfections and didn’t feel held or heard. I slowly learned that if someone might not accept my truth, it would be wise for me to exercise judgment around how much I share.
As Brené Brown says, “Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share, ‘Who has earned the right to hear my story?’”
This didn’t mean that I was better or wiser than other people, but that at this point in our lives, my story doesn’t serve a purpose in our conversations.
5. Create boundaries.
Despite all the benefits that such interactions may bring, boundaries are essential.
A boundary meant saying no to that Saturday dinner invitation (with kindness and gratitude), or agreeing to meet for coffee on a weeknight instead of planning a long, leisurely Sunday brunch. It also meant exercising judgment around the topics that I’d discuss and the opinions that I’d offer.
If a relationship is causing you pain but you feel it’s worth keeping, ask yourself: What boundaries can I set to better take care of myself and my needs?
6. Refuel and recharge.
Practicing this piece can sometimes feel indulgent, or I can confuse this with “being weak,” but at its core, it is an act of strength.
I have learned to take time and create space (even if it’s just five minutes) to do something to recharge and refuel after such interactions—take a walk or practice meditation, for example—in order to ground myself and bring myself back to my sense of calm and worthiness.
When people are critical and judgmental, it’s often more about them than us. Still, this gives us an opportunity to learn about ourselves, take good care of ourselves, and practice responding wisely.
Which of these most resonated with you? What’s in your toolkit that could be added to this list?
Finger art of couple fighting image via Shutterstock