Does an absence of praise or validation equal criticism?
I wonder if we repeat what we experienced or mess up because we tried to avoid repeating it, and I could be wrong …
It’s not always a generational thing or explained by, “They did their best considering what they knew, and the times they lived in,” which we’ve all heard or said in excusing our shortcomings or those of our parents. And it goes further to relationships of all kinds – not the classic abuse-label types, but the passive-aggressive ones, the way it was for many of us with a parent, boss, colleague, or partner.
If someone congratulates, praises, or encourages – we think that’s great, whether encouraging a child, a student, a new hire, or someone new in our life, someone we call honey, sweetie, or dear. It’s not always full-throated or full-throttle, nor should it be blatantly false, and it’s not a judgement in a contest – it’s saying nice things, kind things, helpful ones too.
So consider the opposite, the converse, the reverse and the perverse – the absence of all that, not once in a while but a constant. Is not silence, in the absence of good things, an equivalent to criticism, dismissal, denial, put-down, derision and punishing to self-esteem?
Ask any child who has grown up in a horrible vacuum, being the absence of loving and affectionate words, kind touch, hugs and spirited praise – and you’ll get no argument. Ask any lonely partner in an ostensibly happy home, and they’ll find the absence crushing to their spirit, debilitating to their self-confidence, and leaves them craving a loss they spend the rest of their lives seeking out wherever and however they can find some facsimile.
So easy to fix, so easy to prevent, so easy to ignore.
And, in our society, it seems so easy to repeat what we’ve experienced without understanding it deeply.
I used to think what I’d missed could be found, replaced or substituted. Over time I’ve encountered enough people with similar experiences; it’s easy to realize we are not alone – but so quickly, we feel completely alone.
I’m no sociologist studying this. I’m just a walking, talking casualty of growing up in what I thought growing up was a typical and normal family for its time in modern culture.
Whether or not it was typical, I’ve learned it wasn’t good by measures we now understand (in my case, an alcoholic father, a codependent mother, no siblings, poor friend-making skills) yet so horribly bereft of essentials that had nothing to do with food, clothing and shelter, but everything to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think this causes people to appear needy to others sometimes, but observers don’t appreciate what we’ve not had when we needed it in life cannot be replaced by anything today.
It makes me wonder if our appetite, that hunger for things that aren’t things, and credit are faux merit badges for support and care that wasn’t given to us when we needed them most. Not as we see it now, in the rearview, but as we saw it then, as uneducated ill-informed children who could only judge by what we saw in action, which triggered how we felt. We may have got the wrong view of many things or to understand someone’s intentions, but our data was what we heard and what we saw – and the rest was what we concluded at five, or seven, or twelve …
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m off the mark here.
I got to thinking about this the other day, on Saturday morning; it happened when I was driving to the office. I saw a man without gloves, hands in his pockets, walking across a major road at a light change. He might have been homeless, he might have been poor, or he might have been walking home from the train after a long night of work. The quality and condition of his clothes, no gloves on a frigid clear-sky morning, two-days-stubble on his face, and his exhausted, scruffy look first thing in the morning, I saw in him a portrait of someone experiencing a pained and weary-making life.
Except for his younger age and lack of fame, he reminded me first of the Gordon Lightfoot I saw and wrote about recently – and at that moment, I realized the more obvious error we make when we form a judgement of someone by what we see because what we see is rarely an accurate reflection of what is there, what is going inside someone else’s life.
Sorry Gordon, sorry man in the crosswalk – I made assumptions about you I had no right to make, no way to validate, and you both deserved better from me; you didn’t need my opinion, my judgement. I should have given Gordon fewer words and more applause. I should have honked at that man and offered him my gloves. That is probably the only thing I know for certain they each needed.
Yesterday, as I pondered and polished this piece, I realized – not for the first time – that we too often form quick judgements about people we don’t know, people we’ve never met, and we do that on the skimpiest bits of information. Worse, far worse, is when we do that with people we are close to – among our friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. When we believe we know quite a bit about someone and their circumstances, we think we know enough to pass judgment about what is going on in their lives and minds, and we really don’t have a clue without their input.
Sometimes when realizations like this hit me for the first time or the thousandth time, I feel small and petty, and then I don’t.
I don’t think this is small, and it’s not petty.
This is real, and it’s essential that we gather information and context, that we ask questions, and get clarifications first. When we work at building connections through dialogue and remembering to avoid making assumptions every time we can, we avoid making false judgments and avoiding saying hurtful things because we are often very wrong-headed. Even though we might be close to the mark, we are missing so much understanding and perspective.
I can’t stop thinking about this quote – one of my favourites that sums this up more succinctly than thousands of words can:
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain.