The woman at the 72nd Street pay phone had strands of dirty tinfoil in her matted hair and an enormous collection of broken pieces of plastic in her rusty shopping cart. She turned to show me the enormous ring of keys in her hand, insisting that one of them would fit into the door of the magnificent million-dollar brownstone across the street that she owned but couldn’t unlock.
Then, as fast as a flash of lightning across a clear sky, she started haranguing me about my having killed John F. Kennedy. Flecks of spittle punctuated her pointed accusations; she seemed quite convinced that I was responsible and spared no detail in her lengthy diatribe.
Rather than pointing out that I was seven years old at the time of the assassination and not a particularly sophisticated marksman, I decided to find another pay phone and shuffled off through the Upper East Side. The schizophrenic homeless woman returned to the receiver. To this day, I am not certain whether or not she was actually connected to anyone.
Fast forward thirty years: I’m reviewing case files. I find the following notes and emails:
“I don’t know how to thank you for this first success and for having connected with my son.”
“Ross is happier than a pig in mud; we never would have found ____ College without your patient insight and guidance.”
“You took the anxiety out of a visceral process. Hannah’s friends are all panicked and stressed about getting their applications in but she finished her essays weeks ago and is able to attend to her school work and enjoy her life.”
“Gus has been clean for three years now; we don’t know how to express our gratitude. You have saved our son’s life.”
But I also found this note:
“Ricky is still using. We haven’t heard from him in over a year and have no idea where he is living, presumably on the street somewhere. Following your advice, we spent his entire college fund on treatment and we don’t even know if he is alive or dead. Our entire family is in shambles. It is hard to imagine how things could have turned out worse. Thanks for nothing.”
Of course I was hurt, devastated really. I had known Ricky his whole life, cared deeply about him and his family. I was deeply saddened at the time when he ran away and was upset that he wasn’t sober after three stints in expensive rehab facilities.
And then it dawned on me – the woman with the tinfoil in her hair and the shopping cart was back. She had somehow managed to send me an email and was still channeling messages from her controllers on Neptune. She was still unhappy with my professionalism, my recommendations, and the outcome. She wanted to make sure that her annoyance was expressed and that I got the memo loud and clear. For reasons of her own, she just wanted me to feel bad.
Slow down a sec, I tell myself. That’s no way to look at criticism. There’s no reason to internalize this misery. Ricky’s parents have legitimate concerns. Perhaps there’s something for me to learn here. After all, the child didn’t get better, is still an active drug user.
Perhaps, indeed. But why do I feel so badly looking at this poor result from a client of years ago? After all, I’m an adult with a graduate degree, two published books, and 30 years of adoring clients who still write me notes thanking me for “changing their lives.” Certainly I have enough good will in my self-confidence account to weather the occasional negative comment.
But this column is not about adults with professional success. It’s about children and teenagers and young adults who are just figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. And it’s about how we – their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers and counselors and everyone else who loves them – can best help these precious people both grow into successful adults who can enjoy their young years and feel good about making the best decisions that they can.
Unfortunately, these kids don’t have the advantage of a life’s worth of psychological callouses to protect them. And as you have likely realized by now, many adults don’t have very strong psychic armor either. That’s why unnecessary and often untrue comments, barbs, and sarcasm can be so hurtful. And why we have to be ever vigilant to temper our disapproval with our kids.
Truth is, constructive criticism is usually the later and seldom the former. And even when it’s delivered with compassion, concern, and consideration it’s not always taken that way.
“You got a 96 on your exam? What’s the matter? Don’t they give hundreds in that school?”
When in doubt, go with unconditional positive regard rather than clever condemnation, no matter how witty.
Who knows? Maybe the critical note was actually trying to help me be a better counselor. Maybe the comments were intended to be motivational, to spur me on to greater heights, to encourage me to study, practice, and hone my skills even further.
Maybe. But regardless of how the message was intended, that’s not how it was received. And the great lesson here is that our kids don’t always hear what we say the way we want them to either.
Which simply suggests that we should look to be overwhelmingly supportive, loving, and encouraging–even when the voices in our head are telling us otherwise.