what your therapist really thinks

‘Why Is Everyone Always Criticizing Me?’

Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Dear Therapist,

I’m 40 years old and I keep meeting people (friends or romantic partners, doesn’t matter) who seem great in the beginning — supportive, complimentary, really into me. Then, after several months or even years, they become critical.

To be fair, these are nice people overall and they’re not trying to be cruel. The part that bothers me the most, actually, is that I can’t understand how people who seem to know me so well in many ways can see me so inaccurately in others. Their main criticisms just aren’t true — that I’m distant, or inflexible, or unable to relax. They certainly didn’t feel that way when they first met me, or they wouldn’t have wanted to date me/befriend me in the first place.

I’m not perfect, believe me, and if a criticism is accurate, at least I can understand where it’s coming from. But so often I feel that it’s not. One example: A friend told me I needed to be “less flaky” when I’m actually very responsible and “on it.” She said this because I’d been late a few times and recently I had the wrong day for an event — but this happened exactly once, and it’s only because I’m overscheduled in a demanding job (which I wouldn’t have gotten and kept if I were truly “flaky”). My boyfriend has made similar comments when I don’t return his texts because I’m in a meeting and by the time the meeting ends, several work texts have come in so sometimes I forget to respond. Isn’t that normal?

So I have two questions. (1) Why do I keep choosing people who find fault with me? (2) Why are their criticisms so off base? Are they crazy, am I crazy, or am I just crazy for choosing them?

– Unfairly Criticized

Dear Unfairly Criticized,

I can understand why you’re so confused. This might sound like a semantic detail, but I think what you’re referring to aren’t criticisms so much as complaints. What’s the difference between a criticism and a complaint? The former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. I know that you hear them as criticisms, but that’s mostly due to a quirk of human nature: The complaints of those we’re closest to often contain essential truths, but the discomfort these truths produce makes it hard for us to hear them. In other words, our discomfort with a complaint is largely due to its accuracy, not its inaccuracy. As a general rule, the greater our discomfort, the greater the accuracy.

“But!” you’re probably thinking. “I’m not …” Hold on. That’s just a reaction to the discomfort. And like most of us, you’ll push away the discomfort with a rebuttal: “I’m not distant — I’m warm and loving. I’m just strong and independent.” Or, “I’m not inflexible. I try to be reasonable. I just can’t always accommodate what the other person wants.” Or, “I’m not unable to relax. I love to relax! I just have a demanding job. That’s also why I was late a few times. I’m not flaky.”

Now, all this may be true: you’re warm and loving, you try to be reasonable, you’re pro-relaxation, and you have a demanding job. But you probably also feel shame around the parts that are equally true and that your friends and partners have picked up on: you can be distant, inflexible, uptight, and unreliable. And deep down, you’re mortified that these shameful parts of yourself have been seen, especially by people you care about. So your defenses go up, which sound like this: “What? Not me! Besides, you’re the one who’s distant/inflexible/uptight/unreliable. Why, just last week, you …” (Cue the dialogue heard in marriages nationwide.)

You wonder how somebody who knows you so well can be so wrong about crucial aspects of who you are. I think what you’re really asking is, “How can somebody who sees these aspects of me, the ones even I can’t fully acknowledge, also love me? If I have trouble loving myself while also accepting these traits, how can somebody else?”

The answer is that you can, you must, and that there’s no way around this. If you’re in an intimate relationship, you’re going to be seen from every possible angle, and whether you like it or not, this means that a mirror will be held up to you. And I’m not talking about the ones in fancy dressing rooms with the soft, flattering lighting.

I’m talking about the mirror that therapists hold up to our patients, a mirror we can hold up to them because of a phenomenon known as transference. In transference, the feelings and behaviors that were once triggered by a caregiver from the past are unconsciously transferred onto important relationships in the present; conveniently, these current relationships tend to be with close friends, lovers, or therapists. As a result, whatever clients do in their daily relationships will eventually play out between clients and their therapists during sessions. If you were to see me for therapy, for instance, I’m fairly certain that you would, at some point, feel criticized by me. Perhaps you feel slightly criticized by me right now, as you read my response to your letter, because I’m suggesting that you may have a tendency to be unreliable, or keep people at a distance. As children, often we “disown” part of ourselves we see but don’t like, meaning that we take those unwanted aspects, toss them into an emotional trash bin, and figure they’re gone. But they aren’t. Unbeknownst to us, they’re still in the trash bin. Then our best friend or partner or therapist comes along and says, “Hey, look at all that stuff in the trash!” and while consciously we have no idea what they’re talking about, unconsciously we’re squirming with shame.

So let’s say that there’s at least some merit to the complaints you’re getting, some nugget of truth. What’s the point of calling them out and making you feel bad, right? Well, most people aren’t trying to make you feel bad. You may feel criticized, but the people who care about you aren’t finding fault as much as trying to say, graciously or not, that because they like you so much, they want more of you. I see a common theme to their complaints: You’re distant = I know you’re independent, but come closer. You’re flaky = I know you have a demanding job, but I want to be important to you, too. You’re inflexible and can’t relax = I wish you’d take down the walls you put between us.

Many of us are so afraid of being judged that we take any potentially negative feedback as condemnation, as proof that something’s “wrong” with us. But it may be just the opposite: Perhaps the significant people in your life voice their observations because they think you’re fantastic and underneath their words is the desire for you to care about them as much as they care about you. If they didn’t care so much about having a relationship with you, they wouldn’t bother calling your attention to the things about you that bother them — they’d just leave.

Granted, they may not have expressed themselves in the most effective way, but by considering the underlying message and taking a closer look at yourself instead of going straight for the rebuttal, you may get an answer to your question about why you keep finding yourself in this situation. We’re all difficult and impossible and imperfect in our unique ways, and the people closest to us will surely notice. When they do, pay attention to your discomfort. Don’t throw it in the bin along with your other trash. Instead, consider it a gift that few other people will be generous enough to give you.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘Why Is Everyone Always Criticizing Me?’