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September 3, 2014 / 8 Elul, 5774
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Imperfectly Critical


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As my friend “Eva” and I started filling our plates at a recent buffet lunch, she smiled wryly at the baked ziti and the bagel smeared with cream cheese she had piled on her plate, and commented that lucky for her, her mother wasn’t with us.

“Why,” I asked somewhat taken aback, wishing with all my heart that I had the opportunity to share a meal with my mother again.

“Because she would have said I was being a ‘piggy,’ that no one would want to marry me the way I look and basically make me feel inadequate,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone that belied the deep hurt and frustration I knew were hidden in her words.

“But why would she say that!” I exclaimed. “You’re not fat! You might not be hired as a model, but you’re not heavy!  Besides, you’re a grandmother many times over. You’re old enough to choose what and how much to eat.”

“Mom always had a hang-up about my weight. When I visit her she scrutinizes every morsel I put in my mouth. And always has a negative comment on how I look.”

I shook my head in agreement.  Eva’s mother, like my own and many others in our crowd of friends, were Holocaust survivors and even though I thought Europeans of that generation were not fixated on weight, they nonetheless had bought into the North American mentality that “less” (of you) was more. Thin is in and stout is out.

How confusing it was growing up with conflicting messages.  On the one hand, we were told, even admonished, to eat everything on our generously piled up plates (it was a sin to waste food), yet we were made to feel like we were a lower form of human being if we were overweight.

While the girls were pressured to look their best, the boys were pressured to excel academically. I came to the conclusion that many survivors experienced extreme guilt for being alive when they felt that others in their family had been more worthy of a second chance.   To make “sense” of their survival and alleviate their guilt, they must have felt that they had to produce “super children.”  Giving the world a world-renowned cancer specialist son or a beauty queen daughter would, in their guilt-ridden souls, justifies their existence.  Anything less than perfect had to be continuously pointed out and harped upon until the flaw was fixed.

But how then to account for the same behavior in parents who were not Holocaust survivors?   For as I grew up and expanded my circle of friends and acquaintances, I realized that there were children who had been raised by parents not mentally and emotionally traumatized by the Shoah, yet they too demanded perfection and were disparaging, judgmental and disapproving of their kids. I remember being told that a girl who came in second in a multi-school gymnastic competition was berated by her dad for not coming in first. Enraged, he tossed her silver medal into the trash can.

I am not a psychologist and cannot offer a professional explanation as to why mothers and fathers are so chronically censorious of their children – often needlessly so.  I can only offer my observations and conclusions.

I am convinced that critical parents who constantly shower their kids with toxic, negative comments truly love their children and may feel that berating them will cause them to try harder. They are tragically unaware that they are destroying their children’s egos and shredding whatever positive sense of self-esteem they have.  They are in fact setting them up to fail, by breaking their spirit and hamstringing their ability to be assertive and confident when dealing with others socially or in the workforce.

So why are these parents so hypercritical?  Why do they have expectations that are unattainable?

My guess is that these individuals themselves have very low self-esteem. It is very likely that they had parents who demeaned and minimized them. Those parents had probably been raised by mothers and fathers who were perfectionists or had some kind of personality disorder – and the cycle continues.

Each generation seems to carry on the dysfunctional parenting they were subjected to.

Parents who on a subconscious level believe they are worthless or inferior project this poor self-image onto their offspring. “If I am flawed, if I am lacking, then my children who are after all extensions of me must be also.”  Hence their kids are fed a steady diet of ego-destroying comments: “You are stupid, a dummy, will never amount to anything, you are an embarrassment” or “You are a dirty slob, no one will want to marry you, you can’t do anything right, you are a lazy good for nothing.”

Some individuals are aware enough to break the cycle of verbal and emotional abuse and   build their children’s self esteem with kindness, patience and tolerance – and realistic expectations.  Others are clueless and do what’s familiar to them (the root of that word is family), heaping words of scorn, contempt and derision on their hapless children (and spouses and friends – if they decide to stick around).

Ironically, many of these abusers fall to pieces or get enraged if you point out anything slightly negative about their behavior or actions.  Their fragile egos cannot handle even a minute hint of criticism – they must believe they are perfect, for the wounded, angry broken child still lurking in their adult psyche cannot tolerate hearing the echoes of the scathing, caustic, blistering voice of the parent who belittled, eroded and dissolved any vestige of positive self-esteem.

Tragically, young children believe what their parents tell them. After all, the mother/father who feeds, clothes, and takes care of them when they are sick or scared; who knows how to make cookies, drive the car, and the way to the zoo, must be right when he/she says you are bad, or useless, or stupid.  After all, they are grownups and grownups know everything!

Even more tragic, these parents are creating wounded neshamas who will likely gravitate to that which is familiar to them – abusers – and will be victimized even more.  Or they will become the next generation of bullies, abusive parents, spouses or bosses.

It goes without saying that children should be corrected or disciplined when necessary. But your words or actions should not be lethal blows to their egos. The dents never go away. When you feel like saying something negative or hurtful, try to remember how you felt when someone you loved and looked up to spoke to you that way.

It is very difficult to change learned behaviors, but it can be done. The most important thing is to recognize and admit that your actions/words are toxic. If your children try to avoid you, if new friendships fizzle out; if your spouse feels divorce is the lesser of the two evils, then you need to consider that you are the problem and not everyone else.

Getting help is crucial.  If a thorough medical examination rules out a physical cause for your disposition, like a hormonal imbalance, then mental health therapy may be the light that guides you and your family out of the darkness.

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