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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


On a long drive with a friend one day the conversation turned to a topic of interest to us both: what does it mean to be fully aware? Now that might seem like a weighty subject to pursue but my friend was a contemplative fellow, someone who considered nothing lightly and I have been known to spend a great deal of time in introspection, so it was not an unusual discussion by any means. I will spare you the byways and rabbit trails we pursued in the course of several hours. The central theme turned on self-awareness.

I remembered that conversation a few days ago when exchanging emails with another friend. By way of background, the issue at hand had to do with a habit this gentleman had of internalizing perceived criticism. The result was, as you might expect, periods of depression, poor self-esteem, self-recrimination, imposter syndrome; in short all of the attendant crimes we are capable of visiting upon ourselves when we lose touch with who we really are.

My friend is a smart and capable person, gregarious and well liked; in short outwardly successful and well adjusted. Unfortunately, it is not how he sees himself and that lack of self-awareness is crippling at times. Without betraying confidences, he has shared openly that one of his parents was overbearing, sharply critical to the point of demeaning, and emotionally withholding. It is no surprise that my friend has spent much of his life trying to overcome these challenges to his emotional health. One might even argue that his outward success, and his ingratiating manner are the product of his efforts to prove his worthiness to a long dead parent. But I want to resist the temptation to engage in pop psychology. I suspect that the truth is more complex and nuanced than my simplistic explanation suggests.

My friend asked me a direct question: how do I change? To be clear, he was asking how do I meet the expectations of someone who has been critical of me—in this case a significant other. Not a simple question, ever. Let’s start by acknowledging that we are human, flawed and can be blind to the things we do that may cause hurt or annoyance to others. When we are called up on such behavior, what should we do? An emotionally healthy person would take the occasion to reflect on the criticism and, if warranted, take what steps are necessary to make amends. I say, if warranted, because not all criticism is valid, as we all know. Sometimes criticism from others is deflection, a way of denying their own inadequacies while pointing at others. Sometimes the criticism is unfounded.

The tricky part is to know when we are being shown a true reflection and not a trick mirror. That requires self-awareness. We might describe self-awareness as objectivity, but it is more than that. There are clues we can look for in evaluating our behavior in light of criticism. Have we heard this before, from others perhaps? Do we recognize the actions, and do we relate to any underlying causes? Most important of all, we must step outside our own egos and honestly appraise our motivation and objectives. It is heavy lifting to do this, and often we are suspended between denial and acceptance. Either one, if not the product of careful introspection will only lead us further down a destructive path.

If you are wondering about my response, it was this: don’t start by assuming there is anything to change. Start with honest self-appraisal—conceding that you are imperfect and avoiding the tendency to mount a defense. Take the time to reflect on the motivations and objectives of the person who is offering criticism—is it out of a desire to protect, guide or help you, or some other purpose. Even if the criticism proves unwarranted the cause needs to be addressed regardless of whether it was the result of anything you did or said.

Though I doubt that it is intentional, the pattern my friend finds himself in leads inevitably to a bungee cord relationship. Things build over time until a critique is offered, whether deserved or not—and that plunges him into self-recrimination, a vow to change and become better, when in fact he may have done nothing which should require apology or change. Lacking a clear sense of and acceptance of himself—positive or otherwise, my friend seeks to restore peace by accepting all blame. This is not only unrealistic it is in the long run the source of continued unhappiness and depression.

My friend cannot change the behavior of others, that is a fool's errand, but he can alter his own. With help he can learn to accept his foibles and failures in a good-natured way and take such steps as he should to avoid their repetition. We all benefit from having people in our lives who will be honest with us—who will refrain from partisanship and love us enough to tell us when we are telling ourselves an untruth. Emotionally health people rely on such interaction for the feedback they want and need to maintain their integrity. To be self-aware is to understand that the self we know is but one of many.

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