By J.S. Park
Self-improvement always sounds like a great thing until we actually dig in and get our hands dirty. We talk about the need for accountability, but the second we turn that scalpel inward, we flinch and fight and justify our way out.
It can be messy, awful work to hear the truth about yourself.
It’s never easy to hear criticism, most especially when it could be true.
The hard part is that getting better means we have to confront the ugliness inside.
This is harder than you think.
Recovery and improvement demands getting honest about all the crazy, neurotic, self-justified hang-ups that we’ve buried — and it’s extremely painful to expose how messed-up we really are. But that’s the truth about yourself.
Our addictions and destructive patterns didn’t happen overnight: it took so many steps of rationalization to get there until it became a part of us, and to undo those patterns can feel like death. It feels like giving up a part of ourselves, like an amputation of the only way we knew how to live.
Yet we need people outside us to show us our blind spots. We need people who will risk comfort and safety to say, “You’re better than this.” We need more than giggles-and-games and an idealized fantasy-friendship where everyone is simply a yes-man and only says what we want to hear.
We need a reality check when we’ve checked out of reality.
Even with our voice shaking: we must sometimes become the truth for each other, because friendship and accountability means we’re there to see the best in one another.
This doesn’t mean that we each become the morality police and start calling each other out on everything. It doesn’t mean that every criticism is valid and legitimate. It means that when I see you diving off a cliff, I’ll throw myself up against you, even if we both get hurt. It means that criticism from your friend hurts them more than it hurts you.
As Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And eleven verses later, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Here are three things to keep in mind when you hear the truth about yourself.
1) When you hear the truth about yourself, expect your brain to defend, rationalize, melt down, flip out, and push back. Be aware that your first response will often be the worst one, and work through it.
Because it hurts to hear the truth, our brains are automatically going to defend, even if those defenses are exactly what got us here. The second your friend tells you a hard thing, the limbic system (emotions and drives) perceives a threat and takes over and initiates a fight-or-flight response, while your frontal cortex (reason and judgment) literally shuts down.
It takes a huge self-awareness to understand the mental processes when we face criticism.
If you can actually push past your initial emotional responses, you can “reboot” and begin to hear the other person with a lot more comprehension. It even helps to say to them, “I really want to scream at you and run out of here, but I also want to hear you.” Of course, since we’re frail fragile humans, our first response is almost always going to be yelling or escape. That’s okay. With enough practice and awareness, we can take back control of our automatic responses and see our friend as a friend, and not a threat.
2) When you hear the truth about yourself, the person who tells you the truth isn’t perfect and probably won’t say it perfectly, but that’s no excuse not to consider their words.
The temptation when we hear criticism is to use the Mirror Defense, which is saying, “Well, what about you?”
We want to discredit the source of the truth, so we drag up old history and the other person’s weaknesses for self-preservation. Or we say, “I don’t like your tone” and use their voice against them.
The problem is, two wrongs can never make a right. In other words, someone else’s bad thing doesn’t cancel my bad thing. Even if the other person is a hypocrite, it doesn’t magically erase my own hypocrisy. And no one in the history of accountability has ever used perfect intonation and the perfect wording to tell the hard truth. If you find yourself saying, “If only she had said it like this” or “If only he had not said this” — then chances are that you’re trying to wiggle your way out of truth by a technicality.
It takes a certain grace and patience to filter out your friend’s voice and methods and shortcomings. No one is ever going to get this truth-telling thing just right. No one has it locked down to a science. And while there are certainly people who have no say in our lives, there are plenty of people who want better for us, even as they wrestle their own demons. We can’t discount them on their own failings, because we’re in that same boat. Resist the urge to hold up a mirror at them, and instead hold it to yourself.
3) When you hear the truth about yourself, instead of fighting back or shutting down, ask specific questions about how to move forward.
No matter how well it goes when your friend tells the truth:
It’s going to be weird for a while. You might avoid each other for a week, whether out of embarrassment or resentment or both, and the friendship might hang precariously on a wire.
Settle back into your relationship by asking very specific questions. These are not questions to make the other person “the boss” or a “parole officer,” but so that you both find safety again:
What are some things I can do differently now?
How should I approach you if I mess this up again?
Can you help me with this, even if I don’t do it perfectly?
Can we follow up on this after I’ve had time to reflect?
This is where truth and grace meet hand in hand, so that neither person is over the other, but that we travel on the rugged winding road towards greater joy. It’s carved out of compromise, authenticity, and the real willingness to see your friend thrive.
But we can get there by speaking up and seeking our best selves in one another.