One of the key components to my brain’s composition is being critical — not in a mean spirited sense, of course, just in the tweaky kind of way where every time I look at something good, I am almost always thinking of ways it could be better. It’s a truly charming personality trait that never EVER causes any relationship problems (sarcasm!).
I promise I’m not trying to be unkind when I
insist gently suggest the way you’ve just done something is wrong; I’m just convinced I have a better way. Improving on your best effort is how I show you I care and WOW don’t I sound like a fun wife and mom???
But critical thinking is one of the things that makes me good at my job, and it’s a hard quirk to turn off. Being a creative producer means using critical thinking to problem solve on set before problems even arise, using discernment to zero in on the details and make decisions for the better outcome of the overall production.
In photography, being critical is my competitive advantage that’s really to my client’s benefit: since many shoots don’t have the budget for a stylist, I can lend my critical eye to making sure the pose and the light is just right and everything else in the frame is, too. Got a weird hair over your left eye? Not to worry, I got you, and yes I can fix your crooked smile in the edit. My critical eye never sleeps!
I only recently started to notice that the way I conduct myself at work is very similar to how I behave at home. We have an egalitarian household in every sense of the word, meaning I am not the sole responsible party for cooking and cleaning. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much housework as house tinkering, earning myself the nickname “Director of Special Projects” from my husband for the way I putz about the house “improving things” organizationally while he and Lola do the heavy lifting of, uh, all the other chores.
Yet even though their help is a blessing that affords me the opportunity to write every Saturday morning, I still find ways to criticize their methods. When my husband is cooking dinner, I have his full permission to disconnect and do *literally anything else*, but I’ll still ask him a million questions about how he’s sauteeing those veggies. Yes, I have a better way of doing things that are not even my responsibility!
Never more has my critical tick been more apparent than this year, now that we’re all home all the time, but especially over the summer when my husband experienced a mental health crisis, landing him in the hospital — a story that is not entirely mine to tell, but with his permission I’ll write about in more depth at a later date.
You see, for years I’d tried everything I could to help improve my husband’s mental health and get him to show up for his life in ways I thought he needed to:
I ragged on him to get a therapist, without ever acknowledging my own need for someone to talk to about the inner workings of my mind and heart.
I demanded he reignite relationships with friends who were not great for his self-esteem, insisting he “needed community!”…while never once examining my circle of friends who were partly great/partly toxic, and my own social calendar that was entirely exhausting.
I wasted time, energy, and money in life coaching, talking about how we could get MY HUSBAND TO TRY LIFE COACHING, because I was secretly sure that was the very thing he needed to try to really show up for his life. Like who does that?!
It seemed I was constantly looking for the next tidbit of advice that would help my husband #thrive, and when he didn’t immediately take my
criticism advice to heart, I became tired of trying, and so so angry.
But because I was so busy suggesting ways my partner could “cure” his mental health, I didn’t see my own anxiety crouching in the corner, waiting to pounce.
It was only while he was in the hospital recovering from a true blue depressive episode, that I realized every single thing I wanted my husband to change in his life was a change I needed to make in my own.
It was time to hold the mirror up to myself.
“I just ask whatever you preach, how do you live it? We all want someone else to change. And sometimes, the most toxic is the one staring you in the mirror.” — Ethelind Belle, wise woman, my friend.
One night I crumpled under the heaviness of all the things I couldn’t change, and, from a place of desperation on the bedroom floor, I signed up for therapy.
I quit doing things I hated, blaming the pandemic at first but then growing two steps braver and honoring my own intuition. I began to be honest with people who drained me in their taking that I could no longer give to them, and they’d need to help themselves. In other words, I stopped showing up for friends who were not really friends at all.
I wrote a plan of what I want for my life, no strings attached, and started working that plan for my benefit, not anyone else’s. I addressed hurts from the past, examined my behavior in situations where I felt I was truly the victim and realized there’s a villian and a victim inside of everyone — and I’d rather be a woman of valor than a victim or a villian any day. Eshet Chayil!
Once in front of the mirror I realized so clearly what was obstructing my view of everything else. I saw, as Jesus said, what would always hold me back if I didn’t address it:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the plank 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 a 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. – Jesus, Matthew 7:3-5
There in the mirror I began to see my critical eye’s biggest blind spot: me.
It was an aha moment for sure.
As theologian Kathy Keller puts it, “One of the pillars of wise counseling is the statement, ‘The only person over whom you have control is yourself.'”. The same is true in recovery. We always think we’re helping the people around us into helping themselves, but once we hold up the mirror we realize yes, we are looking at the only person we can truly control.
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. – Romans 14:12
Mirror gazing can have some consequences. Once you see your own issues clearly, right in front of you, you might find yourself asking for forgiveness from the people who you’ve tried to control and change. In my experience, being confronted face to face with my own inadequacies has made me more gracious to the shortcomings of others. You might, as I did, find yourself holding something that looks like compassion for people who think differently and operate in different ways than you do. And you might discover a greater compassion for yourself, too, and for your own little inner control freak.
At least, that’s what I discovered when I held up the mirror.
To quote a man who definitely should have spent a little more time looking in the mirror, but who wrote a great song about introspection:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
(Change his ways, ooh!)
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make that
(Take a look at yourself and then make that)