Many people have heard of Brené Brown because of her TED talk on vulnerability. After her TED talk she was devastated by the criticism people posted about her on online forums. None of it was true of course, but the words still hurt. One day, she sent her kids to school and binged on peanut butter and watched Downton Abbey until she ran out of episodes. Then she googled to find out what happened during the Downton Abbey era and came across the famous “Man in the Arena” speech by Theodore Roosevelt. Brown took the words to heart and wrote a wonderful book called Daring Greatly.
For Brené Brown, this peanut butter/Downton binge lasted for one day; but for people like me, such days have been a regular occurrence throughout my adult life. I struggle with the criticism I grew up with–not words from strangers who don’t really know me, but my own parents.
This criticism was not always directed toward me. It was meant for pastors, teachers, grandparents, neighbors and just about anyone. But the negative comments are stuck on a tape playing through my head. Even today, when I remember how my mom made fun of overweight people walking into a store, I am afraid to get out of the car.
For a long time I felt the only way to shut up these voices was to numb out on chocolate. No one has explained this better than Dorothy Law Nolte in her famous poem Children Learn What They Live. “Children who live with criticism learn to condemn.” What the poem doesn’t say is they might learn to condemn themselves. One explanation for obesity is anger turned inward–doing violence to self.
I have been criticized for listening to classical music, Christmas music and Contemporary Christian music. I have been chastised for putting an egg in a birthday cake, serving turkey to the homeless and giving a piece of apple pie to my cousin on Christmas. I have been judged for buying a sofa and giving gifts that seemed frivolous to other people. I have been talked about and criticized because I do not see eye to eye with them about God.
My choice to live out the teachings of Jesus and not ostracize ex-family members because of divorce has caused my parents to talk negatively about me in front of my entire family. When I told the truth, they wrote a letter to the judge to defame me. I was hesitant to speak the truth for years because I didn’t want to hurt them.
I told a friend how they stopped talking to me for four months and I decided to call them because I missed them. He leaned over and gently asked, “What did you miss?” His question haunted me for months while I struggled to find an answer. These last few years have been nothing but miserable whenever I have contact with them because they want control over me–what I write, how I spend my money, how I worship, etc. How different our relationship might be if they could accept me as an individual and let go of their need to fix me or control me.
The main compliment I received from my parents was to be called “thoughtful.” Far into my adult life, I felt responsible for their bills. I was raised to give them whatever was mine–even ignoring my own needs to help them at times. Thoughtful seems to mean meeting their needs, while the flip side–calling me “selfish” happens when I don’t comply with their wishes.
For years, I thought selfish was the worst thing I could be called because it was synonymous with not being a good Christian. I was raised to think there is nothing more selfish than a daughter who does not please her parents, but I was wrong. There is something worse than being called selfish–not being your own God-created self because you are trying to please others.
Because of such judgment and criticism, I have often felt paralyzed in my life. I am a talkative person, but I have often struggled to find my authentic voice when it comes to speaking the truth about what really matters. When you grow up in a family with secrets, you learn to lie because you are forbidden to speak the truth. As I grew older, I was not only discouraged from writing about my childhood, but sometimes even speaking of my childhood among my siblings at a family gathering was considered taboo.
It’s not selfish to tell stories about your childhood. It’s not selfish to cook the way you chose. It’s not selfish to spend your money the way you feel is necessary. It’s not selfish to be yourself even if it goes against the family rules. It’s especially not selfish to follow your conscience or worship the God you have come to know.
Why is it not selfish to live as yourself? God didn’t create us to be an extension of our parent’s personality. Just like God created every snowflake and flower to be unique, He gave us individuality. God intends for us to tell the truth, share our stories and be ourselves.
If you too grew up with criticism and judgment, one way to overcome negative words is to remember the names God calls us. If you are a parent who has shown a critical spirit toward your children, it is never too late to change. Here is a list of God’s names for us. God calls us His beloved–the question for each of us to answer is–will we listen to the voices of the past, or the voice of our Creator?
Listen to the One who created you…
the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.”