The criticism started in such a subtle and innocuous manner, I didn’t even recognize it as such. It began as playful teasing. Having grown up with older siblings, this was something I was accustomed to and even equated with love.
My boyfriend had an incredible talent for making me laugh, even when the joke was on me. He teased about my “beach panic” that set in if I wasn’t out frolicking in “el sol” by a certain hour on any given day. I found it hilarious when he told a friend I wouldn’t eat off his plates if they weren’t organic. And I had tears of laughter rolling down my face when he first referenced my spiritual teachers and guides as “heaven’s national team.”
My love for the beach, preference for GMO-free food and spiritual beliefs weren’t things I judged about myself, so the teasing didn’t push any buttons. He poked fun at himself also, so I didn’t think anything of it. I enjoyed it and sometimes volleyed. Like the time he put some Shea butter we’d picked up at a farmers’ market in his soup, not realizing he was shaving it from a bar of soap. We laughed about that for weeks.
Life with an American woman was an endless source of material. I refused to make the switch from the raw, organic honey from his native country to the cheap, processed American brand he found in Publix. He put the good stuff in my alternating cups of Yerba mate and teased me every time.
The absurdity that we each needed our own honey – from one another’s countries of origin – was hysterical. The fact that he began to harp on things he didn’t like about me and my life of perceived privilege wasn’t as comical.
His abundant compliments grew scarcer. He began to tease a little less playfully, a bit more directly. The progression was so subtle, I didn’t even notice.
Then one afternoon, he reprimanded me for raising my voice in excitement at an outdoor restaurant. This was the exact moment the teasing gave way to criticizing.
I’d learned long ago that when people criticize, it has more to do with them than the person they are judging; often they are projecting some unseen aspect of themselves onto that person. True to point, he had brought this to my attention loudly enough for the woman at the next table to hear.
I didn’t appreciate the parental manner in which he did so, but I initially chose not to take offense. As someone who always wants to evolve into my next highest yet to be, I was receptive to the message. I became more conscious of how loudly I was speaking and lowered my volume.
Any time I forgot to be cognizant of such, he was quick to remind me. Once I became accustomed to his role as my self-appointed volume patrolman, his critiques became more personal, his manner of delivery increasingly less playful.
I could hear the voice of Andrew Vidich, one of my amazing teachers, reminding me how to contend with this. “When people criticize you, ask yourself if their message contains any truth. If it does, thank them. If it doesn’t, pray for them.”
I did a lot of praying.
I didn’t just pray for my boyfriend; I also prayed for my ability to see where the line between my issues and his was drawn and to work only on the part that was in my control – my responses.
For the first time in my life, taking the spiritual high road led to greater challenge. I wasn’t anywhere near the level of enlightenment required to stay unaffected and unconditionally loving with someone who was treating me in what I considered an increasingly cruel manner.
By doing my best to tolerate his propensity to judge and harshly criticize me while I worked on my side of the street, I conveyed the unintentional message that it was perfectly okay for him to do so whenever, wherever and however he wanted. I inadvertently told him it was okay to switch lanes with abandon and recklessly drive over my heart, again and again.
It got more challenging to not take his critiques personally, especially because they became more personal. He insisted they were focused on my actions. Looking back, it’s amazing how much I believed just because he said it, even when it went against what I knew to be true.
I fielded character assaults on a regular basis, some of which stung much more than others because I believed them about myself. When he began to refer to me as the most unsupportive person he’d ever met, a liar and a game player, however, I began to see how his perceptions had very little and sometimes absolutely nothing to do with me.
I knew myself to be a supportive person – sometimes at my own expense – as do most who know me. I did not recall having been dishonest with him. I am very rarely dishonest with anyone other than myself. The only games I play with people are board games.
In time, I’d start to see his projections as what they were and begin the first of countless attempts to explain that I don’t respond well to aggressive and passive-aggressive, blaming “you-based” communication. (Does anyone?)
I’d explain how I’d be perfectly willing to explore how my actions affected him if he would learn to communicate his feelings in a non-confrontational “I-based” manner, as opposed to the blaming you-based one.
But that phase was still a ways off. At this point, I was mostly just tolerating the criticism, sarcasm and insults, trying to use my spiritual tools to remain impervious. I tried to prove I wasn’t “too sensitive,” forgetting I have a right to my emotions…and that my emotions are often right.
Looking back, I can see how much time and energy I wasted explaining myself and trying to improve our communication efforts and relationship. I made excuses for him not meeting me halfway in this mission. (It was cultural!)
I began to walk on eggshells in hopes of not triggering his anger. When I inevitably did so anyway, often by saying or doing something I meant in a positive manner, I tried to handle his reactions more effectively. I even blamed myself when I failed, as if his anger was somehow my responsibility.
Tolerating emotional abuse is no longer on my list of things to get better at.
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