Dear Amy: I come from a very judgmental family, and I’m wondering how to break the awful habits I learned.
Growing up, we’d often be driving home from family events and my parents would bad-mouth the relatives we had just seen. This affected me, even if their criticism was sometimes justified.
As adults, my boyfriend and I have not been spared, either. The day after get-togethers, my mom will often tell me things I said or did “wrong.”
My parents have no reservations about picking apart every little thing my boyfriend does.
Not only is it annoying, but I find myself doing the same thing now to other people, and I hate it! It’s not a good way to live. It also makes me wonder what others are saying about me behind my back.
Do you have any advice on how to break the cycle? And how can I politely shut them down the next time they do it?
— Judged and Judging
Judged and Judging: You know the admonition, “Judge not, lest you be judged…” and now you are experiencing the reality of this wisdom. Harsh judgment and malicious gossip are insidious and destructive to relationships.
The way to break a lifetime habit is by mindfully addressing your habit, one incident at a time. You can do this by giving yourself a visual/sensory reminder (put a rubber band on your wrist and give yourself a little “ping” every time you find yourself engaged in unfair and judgmental thinking). Every time you resist this terrible habit, you should recognize your tiny triumph and mentally give yourself credit: “Today, I resisted my habit of harshly judging and gossiping five times. I’m getting better at this.”
If your folks pick apart you and your boyfriend after every single encounter, the rational conclusion for you to draw would be, “My parents don’t enjoy our company. Therefore, we won’t expose them to the source of their displeasure so often.”
You may be able to retrain those around you, over time, by hitting “pause” every time the dynamic shifts toward judgmental. You say, “Well, this conversation seems to have taken a turn, so I’m going to hop off. I’ll talk to you later.” (c) Ask Amy
It’s disturbing how strongly I can relate to this. My mom does this all the time. It’s repugnant to me, because I’m a huge fan of not being overly critical of others. However, inside my head, do you know what goes on? Criticism. Yeah. I’m just glad that I don’t live with my mom (and haven’t in decades). It’s intolerable.
The worst thing (sort of) is the self-criticism.
My mom will often tell me things I said or did “wrong.”
Yeah. That’s the worst. I always feel embarrassed and stupid when my mom does that. What worse is that she’s usually right. But still. There are nicer ways of sending a message.
I’m not sure how this became the stuff of family legend, but when I was in middle school (or thereabouts), my mom criticized Beetle Bailey, the comic strip. “This comic strip is idiotic! The characters never go to war like in real life.” At that point I started to suspect that she was a negative person. She also said, “I hate tampons! They hurt my body.” And do you know what I started noticing every time I’d wear a tampon? It’s toxic. I mean, not like toxic shock syndrome, but… anyway.
It was toxic and hellish being exposed to her for so many years (i.e., living with her). At this point in time, there’s a valve in my brain that shuts down before overly criticizing anyone. Like, my mom will randomly criticize my beloved stepsister, saying, “At her age, she should have her life together now.” Nice. That irritates me. A lot.
You may be able to retrain those around you, over time, by hitting “pause” every time the dynamic shifts toward judgmental. You say, “Well, this conversation seems to have taken a turn, so I’m going to hop off. I’ll talk to you later.”
No, sorry. That never works. It just doesn’t. With my mom, there’s no hope for it. The only thing I can do is act vague, vague, vague whenever she asks if I’ve heard from my brother, for example. “No,” is the best answer.
“Well, what if he’s dead?”
“He posts on social media.”
“Yes, I saw where he has a new girlfriend. Do you know anything about it?”
“Oh, that’s nice. No, I don’t,” I say. I could know the girlfriend’s middle name and her favorite color, and I wouldn’t cop to it.
“Oh, too bad. Isn’t it sad that your brother has nothing to do with your father?”
“Um, because he works seven days a week and has no free time?”
My mom sighs. “Well, it’s just sad that he doesn’t make an effort to keep in touch with your dad.”
“He sends presents and cards. He stops by.”
“Yes, but… I don’t know. I just think he ought to be more committed to his family. He takes your father for granted. And I haven’t heard from him in weeks.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Poor Mummy.” It’s good that we’re on the phone and my mom can’t see me rolling my eyes to the ceiling.
“Ohh, it’s okay. I just wish he cared more.”
“How’s your father doing?”
“He’s great.” At this point, I’m feeling a bit braindead.
“Does he have any symptoms of the coronavirus? A cough? A sneeze? Aches and pains?”
(She’s been asking me this question for the past year or so.)
“You know how I worry.”
“Yes, Mother. Of course. It’s your favorite pastime.”
“Ohh, it is not. You tease! It’s just that your father’s so wonderful. I truly love him. If he were to get sick and die, our lives would be ruined, and I just don’t want that to happen.”
“Uh-huh.” My eyes glaze over as I pray for an earthquake that won’t come.
“You might not know this, but anyone can die at any time for any reason.”
“Why, just yesterday, I heard of someone who died from [insert unthinkable tragedy here].”
“Well, why was that person hiking near an active volcano, Mother?”
“I don’t know! I’m not sure why anyone does the things they do. You’d think people would know better. I’m sure you would never approach an active volcano. You’re my sensible, intelligent daughter.”
“But sometimes, you can be walking down the sidewalk, and–”
“I know,” I interrupt. “Spontaneous sidewalk geysers. I get it. Look, I’ve got to go.”
“Tell your father I said hello. Will you remember to do that?”
Okay, so my mother’s a very negative and gloom-and-doom person.
This is making me laugh. But… it’s tragicomic.