On dealing with criticism and pattern arguments

Someone on Tumblr suggested that it was not ideal to answer criticism with “I’m a terrible person.” Someone else said, “But I say that because I feel that badly about myself.” Someone else suggested that was still manipulative and not a good thing to do.

Okay, life lesson time (or, “How to accept criticism like a rational adult and avoid pattern arguments when other people pull this nonsense.”)

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I kept getting involved with people who would say, “Oh, I’m a bad person” any time I brought up ANYTHING that was the least bit of a disagreement.

Like, “Please don’t leave my X on the floor” would get, “Oh, I’m a horrible person!”

HERE’S WHY THIS IS A HUGELY PROBLEMATIC BEHAVIOR, and if you think I’m calling you out and you think you’re about to shut down, take a breath, remember that this is about learning, and keep reading.

What is important is what happened after. My then-boyfriend might say, “Oh, I’m just an awful boyfriend” and instead of him acknowledging the BEHAVIOR and working on fixing it, he’d get me trying to buck him up for the next half hour, telling him he was a good person. The behavior that started it all would not change.

Well, things led to things and I went back home to live for a while, and found that the same exact thing was happening… with my mother.

And then I learned about pattern arguments. Pattern arguments are the ones where you keep having the same nonproductive argument over and over again. They don’t all follow this pattern, but this is a really common one.

The trick?


First you have to know what the pattern is. In this case:
1. Grievance
2. Self deprecation
3. Ego stroking

So, with my mother, we started in on one of these, and she said, “I guess I’m just a terrible mother.”

And instead of reassuring her, instead of derailing the issue and letting it go… I said, “When you say that, it makes me wonder how terrible a daughter I could be that you would think you were a bad mother. We have this conversation this way over and over, and the problem that I have always gets pushed aside in favor of trying to make you feel better. When you’re willing to have a real conversation about this, I’m happy to talk to you, but I’m bored with this argument, so I’ll see you later if you want to really talk.” And I left the room.

Now, my mom is a reasonably self-aware person, and does a lot of hard emotional work, and so she got it, very quickly. 10 minutes later she came out and found me, and we had a real conversation about whatever the hell the issue really was, and we have literally NEVER had that particular pattern argument again in 23 years.

Then-boyfriend came to visit. I was upset about something, he started in on the “I’m just a shitty boyfriend” thing… and my response?

“Yep. You are.”

His jaw dropped. He blinked.

And I said, “Look, that’s what you do. You say shit like that and it means you don’t have to change your behavior, and I’m tired of the pattern we have where I tell you something isn’t working for me, you tell me you’re terrible, and I spend half an hour making you feel better. I’m tired of it and I”m not doing it anymore. If you’re willing to have an actual conversation about this, and not just the same old argument, I’m game. But this thing we do where you talk yourself down and I butter you up? Is boring. And I’m over it.”

We also did not have that argument again. (The relationship finally ended for real a while after, but it ended in a grown-up way, and not with a ridiculous meaningless fight.)

When you knock yourself down, the gut instinct for the people around you is to pick you up. But that means you’re not pulling your weight in the relationship. You’re making them do the work and you’re not actually hearing them.

So that brings us to another point:

How to deal with criticism

Okay, so if you’re not going to knock yourself down when someone says something negative about you, what DO you do? We don’t actually train people to take criticism well. But it is an art and a skill and NECESSARY to finding emotional stability in the face of a critical world.

I see it as a flow chart, but since the flow chart I made for it ended up in a book that I don’t own the copyright to (not a big deal) I’ll write out the decision tree here instead:

1. Someone offers criticism (constructive or not!)

2. Listen and think about it without immediately trying to defend yourself. You can say, “Okay, I need a moment to take that in and think about it because I want to understand it.” Or something else appropriate to the situation. It is okay to ask for time to think in most circumstances. Most people will appreciate that you are thinking about their words instead of immediately getting defensive or counterattacking. Think about whether what they are saying is valid, might be valid or is not valid.

3A. If it is valid, then you have a choice. You can try to fix the behavior or you can acknowledge that it is a valid criticism but decide you aren’t likely to fix it. Start by acknowledging the validity of the criticism, and then say what you’re going to do to fix it, or say that it’s valid but it isn’t something you’re willing (or possibly able) to change, or say that it’s a valid criticism and you’ll need to think about possible solutions. They may have a suggestion. Taking it or not is also a choice.

3B. If you’re not sure it’s valid, but it might be, tell them, “I really need to give this some more thought.” or “Can you tell me more about this? I’m not sure I understand the issue well.”  Or “If you can point me at some reading material or search terms, I’d like to study this before I decide what I’m going to do.”

3C. If you know it is not a valid criticism, STOP a moment, and look at WHY they are making it. This is where Active Listening can be very helpful. “I hear you saying that X is a problem. I don’t see it that way right now but I’d like to understand better why you do.” Or if you think they don’t have enough information, “I hear you saying X, but my understanding of the issue is Y. Here’s what I know about it if you’re ready to listen.” If they’re just looking for a fight, tell them you’re not interested in fighting, and disentangle yourself.

4. If the criticism is something you are going to listen to and take action on, tell them what kind of action you’re going to take. If it’s something you’re hearing and thinking about, tell them that. If it’s not something you’re going to do anything about or it’s just wrong, thank them for their input and move on.

Literally never is it going to be helpful to say, “Oh, I’m just a terrible person.” That’s very much like a nonapology-apology in terms of how unhelpful it is to any conversation. It’s kind of worse because it actually expects emotional labor from someone who is already having to bring up something unpleasant with you.

Think about what they say
Decide whether you’re going to do something about it
Do the thing, or tell them you’re not going to do the thing.
Don’t demand emotional labor from other people when you were the one who messed up.

Apologize if appropriate.

This is all predicated on the notion that you’re talking to someone who actually wants to communicate and isn’t just an asshole on the attack.

Because seriously, the whole “I’m a terrible person” thing?

Boring as fuck. Knock that shit off. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. But take responsibility and have a little self-respect and don’t make others pick your emotional dirty towels off the metaphorical bathroom floor.

Posted in Lessons for my kids, Life.

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