Posted: July 27, 2004 at 4:07 pm in people

One of the things that always surprises me is how gentle other people are around each other, and how fragile some people’s self-image is. There have been a couple occasions over the past few months where I asked for somebody’s opinion, and they prefaced their comments with “I know this is going to sound really harsh, but…” After hearing what they had to say, I didn’t think their comments were harsh at all. I felt that they were an accurate description of what I was doing. They were a negative assessment, sure, but I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m not perfect, and in those cases in particular, I was aware of my suboptimal behavior. So that got me wondering what makes a comment harsh. Is every negative comment considered harsh? Do we live in a world where only positive feedback is desired?

I don’t get it. I really don’t. I want to be criticized. I want to find out what I’m doing wrong. How am I going to get better otherwise? I’m secure enough in myself to know that I do some things well, and some things poorly. I don’t need continuous affirmation from others to make me feel good. I also tend to be pretty hard on myself, so I am generally not surprised when other people share their “harsh” assessments of me. If they criticize me unfairly, I can generally make a case for why I think they’re wrong. If I can’t, then it’s time for me to do some deep thinking, and some self-analysis, to figure out why I can’t convince them.

But most other people don’t seem to be that way. They have some self-image of themselves that is unflinchingly positive. I guess. So any criticism is an attack on their whole image of themselves and must be fought with every fiber of their being. And they’re so insecure that they want unabashed praise for everything they do to make themselves feel better. I think. Again, I don’t really get it.

I’m going to continue along this line of reasoning to get myself really in trouble. Because you know what the next step is. If people are looking for uncritical praise and love, that’s not something they are going to get from other people. Because, well, we all get annoyed with each other occasionally. So where do you get such a thing? Jesus. Religion, and Christianity particularly, is designed to fill this need for uncritical love. What are we told as children? Jesus loves you, no matter what you do. Jesus will always forgive you. No matter how much of a screwup you are, no matter what you do wrong, Jesus loves you. And that’s a comforting, warm feeling. It’s nice to think that there’s somebody who’s always on our side, who will always praise us.

But I feel that it’s an empty sort of praise. As I noted in my review of Moral Politics, I hate being praised for things I don’t do well. I don’t want affirmation. I want praise when I do something well, and I want to know when I do something poorly. Some of this is my “Strong Father” upbringing (using Lakoff’s terms), I suspect. Earned praise is really satisfying. Unearned praise feels like an insult. Self-satisfaction is something I don’t understand. I’m always striving to improve, to get better, to learn more. I’m not always successful, of course. Sometimes I’m just lazy. But I don’t ever get the feeling, “Wow, I’m great where I am. Nothing left to work on.” I don’t know if other people feel that way, or if that’s my unkind projection. But it’s certainly consistent with a naive reading of the New Testament.

Anyway. Rather than dig that hole any deeper, I’ll move on. I’ve been struggling with this question of harshness because it’s come up several times in my life recently, both at work and socially. I feel like I can’t address the real issues, because people would react negatively to the criticism, and we’d never get to discuss the issues. But avoiding the issues and trying to apply band-aids to avoid giving out that criticism doesn’t seem to help either. So I don’t know what to do. I guess I need to learn to couch my criticism in a way that the recipient is going to be open to. That sort of finesse is definitely a skill I do not have. I can generally see the problems, but don’t know how to handle the discussion of the problems in a useful manner. I don’t know. I remain extremely thankful that I have found a group of friends with thick skins who are secure and self-confident enough that I can tell them the “harsh” assessments and have them help me figure out more diplomatic ways of handling the situation.

I’ll end here with a great quote from Interface, by Stephen Bury (aka Neal Stephenson). Interface has some incredibly insightful ideas about how politics and media interact in this country. Or maybe they’re not insightful – I just happen to agree with them. But it’s fascinating to me how I can go back and read Interface and find the seeds of many of my political rants. So, without further ado, another quote expressing this idea about harshness far more succinctly than I managed:

This that I am saying to you is not abuse. It’s the truth. It’s just that sometimes the truth is so harsh that when people hear it spoken, it sounds like abuse. And one of the problems we got in this country…is that everyone is so easy to offend nowadays that no one is willing to say the things that are true.

Heck, yeah. Let’s address the real issues. Let’s call things the way we see them. And if people are too insecure to deal with it, then they’ll learn to deal. In the meantime, I’ll be the one spouting harshness. Probably in this very forum…

2 Responses to “Harshness”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Taking responsibility || July || 2004 Says:

    […] It’s interesting to me because it ties back into my previous post about harshness. People are so afraid of being seen as mean or of being negative that we have to delicately talk around the problem instead of confronting the issues directly. Sometimes people screw up. And it has to be okay to say that, rather than talk about how the proper process wasn’t in place to prevent mistakes from happening. […]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Randy Pausch lecture and feedback || January || 2008 Says:

    […] written about the importance of feedback and the feedback sessions. I’ve also written about the value of harshness where I say “I want to be criticized. I want to find out what I’m doing wrong. How am I […]

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