How it helps the alcoholic grow in recovery
The inability to accept criticism ranks high on the typical characteristics of alcoholics and addicts. They will explode with anger and resentment at the slightest suggestion that they may be wrong.
Their hurt feelings make them strike back when someone suggests or disapproves of their behaviour.
How can they deal with this explosive feeling and avoid creating unhappiness for themselves and others? Probably the best way is to see criticism as a tool for growth rather than a weapon of attack.
Criticism is an Inside Job
The first thing to remember about criticism is that we do it to ourselves. If we are stabbed by a critical remark, we are doing the stabbing. This may seem surprising, but it’s true.
For example, if told they have poor taste in clothes, they can choose to believe it and think they really are poor dressers, or they can reject the remark as untrue, irrelevant, or unimportant.
If they disagree, they won’t hurt. What others say won’t be true (as we see it). They may wonder what’s the matter with them and look for what’s going on inside their heads to provoke a comment like that.
The alcoholic can react in a variety of ways to this kind of statement.
Only when they accept the criticism as valid can they become vulnerable to hurt. Then they take the words to heart and feel the sting inside. The hurt comes when their inner voice says, “I’m so ashamed”, or, “How embarrassing to be so stupid!”. In this case, they’re criticising themselves.
As Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) pointed out, criticism can be observed and helpful. Once we get ego out of the way, criticism need not be such a painful thing. It can, in fact, be quite beneficial. How? For one thing, it can give us a fresh look at ourselves.
Even the most introspective person can be bling to some of the truth about themselves. Years of self-analysis fail to expose the obvious if they have a prejudice or a blind spot.
It helps to have a friend or a therapist diplomatically corrects them.
Helpful criticism lets the addict see where their biases, lack of information, or insight keeps them blind. They will never know all there is to know about themselves; human beings never do. Criticism helps them complete themselves.
An addict’s minds and bodies are booby-trapped with spiritual and emotional “land mines” that can go off at any time. They don’t know what or where they are. It is pretty impossible to live each day wondering when they would trigger one of them again.
Addiction treatment encourages them to share their thoughts and feelings with others, such as fellow members at twelve-step meetings, sponsors, and therapists. Another human being can guide them to some of the “mines.”
Their objective eye can help them see themselves, and they, in turn, can be just as helpful to others. We are mirrors of each other!
Criticism is a tool for determining value. It is a standard for judging and can be used to improve performance. Athletes in training are subjected to criticism to identify their weak points and perform better.
The problem comes when the alcoholic interprets criticism as a diminishment of their value. If their efforts are criticised, they feel they are no good.
One way to avoid hurting others is to speak from our feelings rather than judge their behaviour. We offer helpful criticism if we talk about our feelings without making someone else feel ashamed or guilty.
We can avoid hurting ourselves by stating how we feel rather than pointing out others’ possible shortcomings. We also help ourselves if we avoid making a remark sound like a total condemnation. Being aware of the significance of what we say keeps the sword of criticism in balance.
The Measure of Love
Probably the biggest problem with criticism – whether we are receiving it or giving it – is the problem of personal ego. We know what’s best for ourselves and others based on individual criteria and preferences.
When we decide someone needs to change their hairstyle, we may very well believe it’s in their best interest; but this really is a question of personal opinion. The other person might interpret our words as condemnation instead of a helpful hint.
They might respond with their opinion, which they feel is every bit as good as ours. We end up arguing over who has the best taste. The result will be anger, hurt feelings, and probably a broken relationship.
How do we avoid this? The most helpful rule is the measure of love. When you speak, do so in love. Speak as a friend. Speak as one conscious of your best qualities. For that is what it means to love – to see the infinite value and worth in others.
Criticism is only valid if born of the keen eyesight of love. Those who criticise the alcoholic for helping them be more authentic to themselves speak in love.
Those who criticise to show them how much better or wiser they are, or how much better they are at living their lives than the alcoholic, are not honest critics.
Genuine criticism tells us we are all God’s children and have value and worth; it is the clear-eyed look of love. It can give us a glimpse of what they are and what they can be. With that vision, they are healed and enabled to grow.
Thus, they will never fear criticism. In fact, they shall be grateful for its gift!