We’ve all been told at one time or another that if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. I think that’s good advice if all you have to say is something mean or negative. Most of us have also heard the expression “think before you speak,” but we rarely hear any good advice about listening. Maybe that’s because we’re not listening?
In all seriousness, we not only hear what we want to hear, what we hear is usually run through a filter of what we were expecting to hear. In other words, if we are expecting negativity, that’s what we’re going to hear. Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. Example: my mom has historically been my biggest critic. All through my childhood, it always seemed like I wasn’t smart enough, ambitious enough and I definitely wasn’t thin enough! She would be the one to point out that my clothes or makeup or hair weren’t very flattering or that I’d gained more weight. There was usually very little that was complimentary from her unless it was that ‘I didn’t screw up as big as she thought I would!’ As a result, my knee-jerk reaction to anything she says is to ‘hit back’ since I am expecting to get ‘hit,’ so to speak. Secondly, I’m not really listening to what she’s saying because I’m already halfway to some mean-spirited retort!
The problems with this all-too-common scenario are obvious: forget about ‘listening with an open mind’! How about starting with ‘listening while not in Attack Mode’? It would be easy to blame my mom for always putting me on high alert: “if you weren’t always so critical of everything I did, then I wouldn’t be like this!” Maybe that worked when I was a kid, but I haven’t been a kid for a really long time now. That means it’s all on me! (Yikes! Talk about the world going crazy!) All joking aside, as easy as it would be to lay all this at my mom’s door and just walk away from any responsibility for my responses, that’s the problem right there: they are my responses!
If we are going to hold others responsible for their words and behavior, then we need to do the same for ourselves! That means instead of jumping all over someone for what they just said, maybe we should listen to what they have to say before we attack them. This idea of Listening means we first need to listen with an open mind and then think about what they said before we respond. Remember that “think before you speak” I mentioned earlier? This saying always reminds me of another line from The Simpsons: Lisa wisely telling Homer “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” to which Homer makes a typically foolish response. Key point here: don’t be Homer!
Truthfully, my mom brings out the Homer in me. It’s partly because of a childhood full of criticism, disappointment and recrimination. After thousands of verbal slings and arrows, my automatic reflex is to return fire immediately after her opening volley, but that means I’m also automatically assuming that whatever she has to say is going to be another criticism, and that’s not always the case anymore. Sometimes she has a good idea or– gasp!— something nice to say about me, which means my mean or cold-hearted retort makes me small, petty or just plain stupid. My automatic reflex may have been born out of a painful childhood, but now as an adult, I can choose either to fix that or let it continue. That choice is not a childish defense mechanism: it is an actual choice I am making with a clear head. That means I am responsible for my responses and my behavior! Yikes! Yeah, that’s one of those Lisa & Homer moments! Who am I going to be today?
When it comes to our weight loss and exercise, most of us are in the same camp: all we seem to hear is criticism from our family and loved ones. The ones who were always there to point out that Boston cream pie isn’t on your diet and that the sourdough garlic bread you had with lunch isn’t Paleo are the same ones who always make you feel like a failure with their criticism. Your diet isn’t the right one; you aren’t exercising enough and obviously you must be doing something wrong because “you haven’t lost much weight in the last month, have you?” It’s easy to run all those statements through the filter of criticism and fire off a few return volleys back at them. It’s easy to begin to feel like “everyone criticizes” and “no one has anything good to say about my weight loss.” After that, it’s a short ride to feeling stressed and depressed and “I’m such a failure again!” We all know the danger that carries with it: emotional eating!
But before we open the bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and go to town, let’s try using our Listening Mode instead of our reflex Attack Mode. Not everything everyone says to you is criticism. Sometimes it’s just an observation or sometimes it’s a question. Sometimes there is a compliment involved, but until you listen with an open mind, you might never hear anything but criticism! Sometimes just keeping an open mind when one of your critics makes a comment is much harder than it looks. It means thinking about what they just said and staying silent until you can think of an appropriate response while your emotions are screaming at you to attack. Example: you tell a family member you want to try a three day water fast and her response is “you think you can do that?” This is one of those phrases that is open to interpretation. If it were a text, you’d hope there’d be an emoji attached to give you an idea of how they mean it: either a Scream face; eye-roll; mind blown; or at least an OMG! It can mean “wow! that’s extreme! do you think you can handle it?” or it can mean “yikes! is that healthy?” or it can mean “yeah, right! you won’t last three hours!” Most of us who feel we’ve been criticized to death go right for that last one! We don’t even consider there are other interpretations: “Obviously, my mom thinks I have no self-control!”
That’s where the pause, listen, interpret and thinking before we speak keep us from putting our foot in our mouth and hurting someone’s feelings when they only meant well. When I started eating Paleo, my mom kept pushing other diets at me and encouraging me to eat differently. It was easy for me to ignore her suggestions because what I was hearing was “you don’t know what you’re doing again!” when now I realize it could have easily been “are you sure that’s healthy?” It seriously took a while for that to sink in because I was hearing it through the “criticism filter” instead of listening with an open mind. It’s ironic. I try to keep an open mind about just about everything else in my life: food, nutrition, exercise, pets, books, movies, etc! But when it comes to my mom, I just automatically assume she’s got something negative and critical to say. That narrow-mindedness is all my own fault, since it’s a choice I made. And it’s not a good choice, either!
We started out on our journey to improve our health and our lives, and most of us were laser focused on ourselves, but that laser focus can also lock us into seeing only what we are expecting to see and hear. Changing for the better means thinking about old things in new ways, and sometimes that means realizing that the person you always thought of as a critic might actually want to help you. We can’t make those realizations without keeping an open mind and really listening to what they have to say. Even Homer has a good day now and then!