One Step Back, One Step Down

I have learned a lot about myself during the Covid pandemic. Mainly I learned things I already knew about myself, but had forgotten. Or I faced things I hadn’t needed to face in a long time. Or I learned how to observe myself doing things. In other words, I gained some more self-awareness.

I learned again, for the umpteenth time, that I am a people pleaser, and a damn good one at that. It mostly works out for me, except when it doesn’t. I can’t please someone whose pain goes so deep I don’t have any business trying to fix it. I can’t please someone who has decided that I am the problem. And I can’t please people who are in conflict with each other and want me to take sides.

One thing I did a few months into Covid isolation was get a therapist. I’ve done this at various other points in my life when I’m in a situation that feels intractable and I realize I’m not going to get out of it on my own. Because I’m kind of cheap, I went through my insurance company and someone was assigned to me. It’s been super helfpul. We’ve never met in person – it’s always by video conference. We don’t meet very often – every 6 weeks or so – but it has helped me notice some things about myself.

One insight I had is that I do this thing when I get criticized. The criticism could be a complaint from a person in my church, or an offhand comment by a friend, or even my daughter getting mad at me for moving her stuff. The criticism could be large or small, but in almost every case I do this thing I call taking one step back and then one step down. At first, I called it taking two steps backward, but then I realized that I could separate the two steps and that the first step is almost always necessary while the step down almost never is.

One step back means considering the surface content of the criticism and taking a moment to look at what I did or didn’t do, or what I said or didn’t say. I get curious and stay non-defensive. I wonder could or should I have done differently. I ask myself what I can take responsibility for. But I try to keep it light, withholding judgment from myself or the other person. I can only take responsibility for what I do or say, not for someone else’s reaction to it. Taking one step back in the face of critical feedback is a helfpul way to practice self-awareness and to grow as a person.

But then there’s the step down. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it until I learned to pay attention. The step down comes after the step back. The step down is a judgment, not of what I did, but of who I am. After I get the criticism and think about what I did or said to deserve it, then I wonder what is wrong with me. Why did I do that? Why did I say that? Am I oblivious? Do I lack compassion? Am I simply acting out of some ingrained bias or personality deficiency? The step down is not about sincerely looking at yourself; it’s about shame. Shame is the nagging sense that we are irredemiably flawed, and when we dwell in that place we diminish our own humanity and are unable to be in genuine relationship with others.

Notice above I said that the step back is almost always necessary and the step down almost never is. Being able to step back often, without judgment, taking note of the feedback offered and paying attention to the behavior that sparked it, is a good behavior to cultivate. Stepping down should be rare, but sometimes it’s necessary because we do have biases that need to be noticed and even interrogated. But once we’ve done that, it puts us in a better position to do the step back without having to take the step down.

I hope I’m making sense to someone reading this. To make it plain, I have learned in the past year to be self-aware without being self-diminishing. It’s made me happier and less anxious, a better friend and partner and pastor and parent, and it is far less exhausting than dwelling in the place of “not good enough.” I believe that all of us are good enough when we are aware of our strengths and struggles and do our best to give ourselves and others the benefit of the doubt.

2 responses to “One Step Back, One Step Down”

  1. Yes, you are making sense. The first impulse in face of any criticism is often “What’s wrong with me.” When we are simply just being human, and are being reminded to continue the journey knowing we will do better next time. Forgiving oneself can be harder than forgiving others


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