February 1, 2012
If I Dont Express
My Anger,
I
ll Blow Up
 And Other Myths About
Constructive Criticism
   
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When cleaning out an old desk of my father’s, I came across a priceless treasure. It was a letter he wrote in 1959 to the president of his country club. Dear Stephen, it begins.

I want to tell you about this incident, not just because it was irritating and embarrassing to me, but more importantly because it points up so graphically a situation I am sure you will want to know about.

Dad explains that he had authorized me to take a female friend to the club for dinner as his guest. They arrived around 6:00 to 6:30. They sat in the grill for over a half-hour without being able to get a waiter to take an order. Blaine tells me that there were waiters standing around, that a couple of times one started to his table with a glass of water, and then went off in another direction. . . . Finally he took his girl out to the snack bar at the swimming pool and bought hamburgers.” 

It's just one of several complaints Dad details about his frustration with incompetent employees at the club. I marveled at how well he had crafted this letter. His language is animated, his grammar excellent, his expression of thought very clear. He undoubtedly spent hours mulling the content, then laying it down in an impeccably typed document of almost two pages. He takes pains to affirm Stephen; the problem isn’t Stephen’s, he stresses, but his workers are failing him. He concludes: I hope you knock some heads together in your kindly and gentle way.

What made this letter such a wonderful find was the sense that life had served me up with a timeless lesson in how to confront someone constructively. It was inspiring to realize how seriously dad had taken this challenge, and how skillfully he had carried it out. I marveled as well at how sensitively he expressed his complaints to the club president. Stephen was a good friend, and dad had performed legal work for him for years. Dad was clearly concerned not to damage their friendship or professional relationship.

But here’s what touched me most. The letter was unmailed. What I had discovered filed away in that desk drawer wasn’t a carbon or photocopy of dad’s letter to Stephen, but the original, folded inside a sealed envelope fully addressed. An uncancelled four-cent stamp was neatly pasted on the envelope.

Why did he choose at the last minute not to mail this treatise, over which he had obviously sweated for hours? I can only speculate. He may have feared that, in spite of his best efforts to be conciliatory, Stephen would still feel stung by his criticism and respond defensively. He may have worried that the letter would brand him at the club as a complainer. Or, on further reflection, he may have felt compassion for the service personnel--would Stephen overreact and fire workers who dearly needed the employment?

Whatever his reasons, dad obviously concluded that more would be lost than gained by mailing the letter. It appears farsightedness overruled his very strong urge to ventilate.

I thought immediately of a similar though much more notable incident from Lincoln's life. Following the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lee’s defeated troops retreated southward, but found the Potomac River swollen from heavy rains and impassable. Lincoln ordered General Meade to attack Lee’s army immediately and force them to surrender. Meade disobeyed Lincoln and called a council of war to deliberate the matter. While he procrastinated, the Potomac receded and Lee escaped.

Lincoln, boiling mad that Meade allowed a golden opportunity to entrap Lee and end the war slip away, wrote an angry letter to his general, expressing severe disappointment and bewilderment. Lincoln, though, never mailed the missive, which was discovered among his papers after he died.

Dale Carnegie cites this incident in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. He observes that the most effective leaders rarely criticize their associates--even when it's highly justified.

Criticism, Carnegie explains, seldom brings the positive outcome we expect. Denial runs so deep in most people that criticism fails to penetrate its shell. Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.* He devotes his first chapter to expounding the point.

There is, of course, an irony in Carnegie’s position. He makes his point by criticizing. He criticizes those who are critical, criticizes the belief that constructive criticism is usually constructive, and indirectly, at least, criticizes any of us who would disagree with him.

It’s this irony that points out how impractical--and undesirable--it is to adopt an extreme position of never criticizing. There are jobs requiring it (what teacher can be effective without showing students where they need to grow?), occasions in family life and friendships where it’s needed, and abusive situations where it’s demanded. And we encounter those remarkable, magnanimous people, who not only benefit from our criticism, but even appreciate it (Prov. 17:10, 27:5-6).

Still, I agree with Carnegie at this point: Most of the time, when we believe someone will benefit from our criticism, or imagine that getting it off our chest will be cathartic, we’re mistaken. Far from helping the other person, we hurt him, and trigger his defenses. She becomes more entrenched in the position we wish to correct. And catharsis? Forget it. Even if an argument doesn’t ensue, we feel dejected that our words didn’t improve things, and wish we’d held our tongue.

Jesus on Criticism’s Boomerang Effect

Centuries before Carnegie preached his doctrine of not criticizing, Jesus urged similar constraint in a statement that surely stunned many listeners: Judge not, that you be not judged (Mt 7:1 RSV).

The judgment we express to someone else--or merely nurture in our heart--typically flies back in our face like sand thrown into approaching wind, Jesus says. By criticizing someone, we spur them to look more diligently for our faults, which they will surely find and expose. Jesus certainly implies a deeper principle here, too--that God is about the business of humbling those who seek to humble others.

His command also suggests a vital psychological insight. The fact that we're able to feel intensely critical of someone over some matter often indicates we’re guilty of a similar offense. It’s precisely because we know from personal experience how disabling this problem can be that we’re able so quickly to identify it in someone else. Yet we find it far more comfortable to focus on the other’s problem; projection is what psychologists term it today.

Jesus continues: For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Mt 7:2-5).

Jesus clearly intended the principle of not judging to be pervasive in the Christian life. His language is emphatic--judge not--almost as though he entertains no exceptions. Did he mean there is absolutely, positively never a time when we should criticize anyone? Clearly not, for he implies we’ll sometimes need to address the speck in another’s eye. Yet the emphasis in his imagery could not be plainer. We should focus primarily on our own problems, and require a strong burden of proof before approaching anyone else about theirs.

Is Ventilation a Safety Valve?

But aren’t we in danger of damaging our psychological health by not expressing our anger? Many psychologists believe so. According to ventilationist theories, pervasive in psychology for the past century, we store anger, and unless unleashed, it will grow and intensify, until we explode like Mount Vesuvius.

Carol Tavris debunks this notion in her excellent book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.* We don’t store anger, Tavris points out, any more than we store positive emotions. Who would claim, for instance, that we’ll explode if we don’t express joy or gratitude? What’s more, expressing anger--far from relieving it--often nurtures it, for by focusing on our angry feelings we intensify them. Expressing our anger, too, frequently sets up a chain of events that worsens the situation which has upset us, leaving us even more aggravated.

Anger is relieved, Tavris insists, not by its expression, but by the resolution of the problem provoking it.

Imagine, for instance, that a coworker informs you that she overheard your boss tell his secretary you’re going to be fired. You’ve served this company faithfully and diligently for years. Besides, you’ve had a cordial relationship with your boss, who recently commended you highly for your work. You’re outraged, not only that he’d think of terminating you, but that he’d be so duplicitous as to imply he’s pleased with your work when he’s actually intending to let you go.

For two weeks your resentment grows, and you barely sleep. Then comes the dreaded invitation to your boss’s office. You sit stunned, as he explains that he intends to--promote you. Later, your coworker admits she must have misunderstood that conversation she overheard.

Now--what happens to your burning anger in that astonishing moment when you learn that you had things completely wrong? Why, it vanishes, of course. Yet if it’s true that we store anger, it must still be there, still needing to be vented in some way. There’s no mistaking, though, that it’s gone--even though you haven’t let it out at all. You have no more sensation of it than of physical pain that's suddenly relieved.

Each of us has endless experiences like this, where anger  we’ve never expressed disappears in a moment, once the situation upsetting us is happily resolved. Reflecting on such episodes should convince us that we’re not endangering our equilibrium by keeping the lid on angry feelings.

Whether expressing our anger relieves it depends upon the results. Sometimes venting does improve things. The person we confront is contrite, and makes a sincere effort to address the problem that has perturbed us. We feel validated for being assertive. Our anger dissolves.

In many other cases we’re severely disappointed with the outcome. The person we confront is defensive. Nothing improves. We’re frustrated with ourselves for caving in to the urge to ventilate. Expressing our anger has magnified it.

The most redemptive thing we can do when we feel compelled to confront someone we’re angry with is to consider as honestly as we can what the results will likely be. Are we confident that speaking our mind will help heal the situation? Then we should do so. If we’re less than certain about the outcome, we should hold our peace.

Different Levels of Assertiveness

Even if we realize confronting someone may do more harm than good, we may still feel compelled to do so in order to preserve our integrity. Holding back is cowardly, we assume, and sends the wrong message. We need to be frank to stay properly assertive.

Yet a vital part of being assertive is owning our own life. We don’t fully own our life if our well-being depends upon how others think about us or respond to us. If I feel it necessary to tell someone off in order to save my pride, I’m letting that person have too much control over my life. My happiness is hinging too greatly on his needing to know I can stand up for myself, and upon my needing to affect him in a certain way. It’s a higher form of assertiveness in this case to hold my tongue, especially if I know that speaking my mind is likely to undermine things further.

So often, too, the person we want to criticize is already well aware we’re upset with them, and knows exactly what we want to say. They are braced for a confrontation, and ready with their best defense. The fact that we choose not to confront them may leave them surprised and grateful enough that they drop their defenses, and in humility take steps on their own initiative to address the problem that has angered us.

Tom Wolfe has observed that effective writing results more from what writers leave out than from what they include. In the same way, we sometimes have greater influence on someone through what we don’t say than through what we do. We're more effectively assertive by holding our peace.

I’m not suggesting we use silence as a weapon. If our motive in not confronting someone is to hurt them through our silence, then we’re still allowing them to control our feelings too greatly. If we know that confronting someone isn't likely to help, then our goal should be to forgive this person. By letting go of animosity rather than ventilating it, we’re not only acting graciously toward them, but doing ourselves an enormous favor as well--for we’re removing any chance this person’s action will continue to frustrate us. Indeed, forgiveness is the most supremely assertive step we can take.

I don’t mean to downplay the challenge often involved in achieving genuine forgiveness. Yet it helps to know that by offering someone forgiveness we’re not demonstrating weakness, but extraordinary character strength.

It helps, too, to know that the anger we’re releasing will not remain secretly buried in some deep recess of our psyche, and come back later to haunt us or damage our life. At worst, we may feel a little embarrassed--that friends may think we’re off our rocker for having let go of anger so successfully.

Or, that someone years from now may find and read that spirited letter we wrote and revised so carefully, then buried forever in our desk drawer.

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For a condensed version of this article published in Christianity Today in February 2003, click here.

For a longer version of this article published on this site in April 2001, click here.

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