I am not good at taking criticism. I mean, to be fair, I don’t know if anyone really is. Some people are better at hiding their disappointment than others, I think, but no one likes to hear something which is both devastatingly unflattering and true. And I am one of those people who is simply not good at masking that disappointment and offense. I’ll try to brush it off, or to defend myself, or to make it feel just slightly less accurate than it is. “I’m not impatient,” I’ll think, “I’m excited about the things that are important to be excited about.”
So when a friend told me, recently enough to still have that fresh-wound sting when I think about it, “Sometimes I feel like you talk down to me, like you don’t listen to what other people want,” I couldn’t stand it. “Maybe that’s because I’m awesome and always right,” I replied, trying to play it off. I wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t funny. Nothing was funny about it, particularly because I could understand, without any prolonged reflection, exactly what she was talking about. I know that I have a tendency to condescend without realizing it, or assume that I know what is best for those around me, or take charge when I should let others make the decision collectively. I know this well enough that I don’t want to admit it when I hear it mirrored back to me.
The worst part of this, of course, is not my temporary squirminess with having to hear the things I’m doing wrong. It was the hurt and the frustration in her eyes, the idea that she had a friend who made her, on a regular enough basis to bring it to the surface, feel unhappy. I was the person who made her feel like she wasn’t listened to, like she wasn’t cared about, like I knew better than her simply because I was — what? Better than her? Of course not.
I could never feel that I was better than her, but how would she know that if I didn’t show her?
The thing is, we rarely feel like we are giving off the impressions we are actually conveying. We don’t feel condescending, we don’t want to be the person who doesn’t listen. They are simply parts of us which escape because we have not done enough to temper them, or erase them completely. The vision we want to keep of ourselves — the good friend, the attentive partner, the devoted family member — is often just that: a vision. Something that we allow to comfort and surround us while we go on being selfish, fallible human beings.
“Find someone who makes you happy,” we hear all the time. “Find someone who loves you, who takes care of you.” And that is what we look for, in friends and in romantic partners. We are told that we deserve to be happy, and we do. But so do the people around us. And in many ways, as with much of human interaction, happiness and fulfillment are a kind of exchange. If we are giving people the affirmation and the affection and the compassion that they deserve, then we deserve to get it back. But what if we are not being that person? What if we are actively rendering someone unhappy with what we do? Do we still deserve happiness? Do the elementary school platitudes about being with people who build you up still stand?
I realized, in the moment my friend told me that about myself, that I was being a greedy person. I was siphoning her kindness and gentle nature and, in many ways, not giving it back. As with so many people who err to the quiet, placating side of the emotional spectrum, it is easy to forget to take their desires into consideration. It is easy to drown out their opinions or their needs with those of the more loud people in the room. And as someone who has always been loud, always expressive, it takes a certain measure of effort to be the gentle person that listens to every voice — but that is just the person that a friend as good as mine deserves. And I was not being that person. Her criticism was hard to take, because it wasn’t just about listening. It was about making her feel like her voice wasn’t important enough to hear.
I think we all deserve happiness. But I think that, when you are not actively giving it, you deserve to feel hurt. You deserve to feel that pain of, “Look at what I am doing to someone else, I should not be allowed to treat people this.” You deserve to swallow the pill of accurate criticism from someone you love, to understand that you not the perfect, unique entity that you learned you were in kindergarden. You are simply a human, like your friend is. Like your sister is. Like your partner is. And just as much as you deserve to surround yourself with people who make you feel good, so do they. If you aren’t doing it, they have every right to say goodbye and find someone who will. But hopefully they won’t. Hopefully, like my friend, they will tell you what you are doing. And you deserve to be the kind of person who is willing to change.