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Your Nag Hath Made Me Stronger

“Why do people who least have their shit together always want to give you advice?” my friend John said to me with an exasperated sigh. I had called John because I was dealing with some family issues, and we share some common family dynamics. He was lending a sympathetic ear and sharing the latest advice from his born-again brother, who persisted in being John’s self-appointed life coach. “He has been divorced twice, he goes to church, but he hates poor people and can’t hold down a job. And he has the nerve to give me advice on how I should be living my life.”

This dynamic has always puzzled me: the compulsive need to give advice when none has been asked for. What is this dynamic all about? I have seen it so many times in life, with micromanager bosses, overly critical colleagues, overbearing friends and well-meaning family members. Who actually welcomes this hypercritical and unhelpful feedback? And when does it actually help?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this – my interaction with hypercritical people in the office led to traditional psychological therapy, so yeah, it’s come up. Through that process, I’ve come to believe there’s something else at work when someone gives you uninvited advice.

Big surprise: It’s not you; it’s them.

We’re so damn insecure, and we (especially women) are certainly not allowed to express rage, anger or power. So we are left to become victims, or called bitches, or become pathologically sarcastic, or buy guns.

Between talk therapy and working in social justice, I have learned to deeply listen for people’s true motivation behind their actions. Turns out, people often ‘shout their wounds’ and are usually completely unaware that they are doing so. (I do that too. Talk therapy! It helps!)

In my quest to understand more about myself and the people around me, I read experts on anthropology, psychology and personal development. One of those anthropologists was Angeles Arrien, who wrote the book The Four Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary, which examines the spiritual practices of cultures across global human history. (I loved it.)

My editor called this “woo.” It’s true – I’m woo these days. I’ve embraced the woo. Actually, I think it’s more ancient than woo – hence the insight that anthropology provides. Modern social cues or cultural tradition keep us from being direct in expressing how we really fucking feel. We’re so damn insecure, scared and fearful, and we (especially women) are certainly not allowed to express rage, anger or power. So we are left to become victims, or called bitches, or become pathologically sarcastic, or buy guns. (I guess I should note that I live in Texas.)

Arrien’s anthropological work helped me see a connection between hypercritical behavior and fear. Arrien wrote, “Patterns of positionality, judgment and control are generally fear-based and always reveal a lack of trust.” That dovetailed pretty well with what I had experienced being on the receiving end of persistent, so-called constructive criticism. I started to see nagging as an attempt to exert control, or as a signal that someone didn’t feel secure about themselves or their surroundings.

While I had an intellectual understanding of this, I didn’t emotionally understand what that meant until I was at a recent sparring practice. I had been practicing the martial art of Krav Maga for a couple of months. Being a new student, I am open to advice – preferably from the instructors who own the gym, not necessarily other students. Nonetheless, I would get uninvited advice from other students and, in particular, one other woman student who has been practicing a few months longer that me.

Her “advice” grated on my nerves. That day, as I was firmly blocking one of her roundhouse kicks (metaphor!), something finally clicked for me: Nearly every woman that walks in to the gym to learn martial arts comes because on some level she feels unsafe. Maybe her liberal giving of advice was an attempt to exert control on her surroundings and to manage her fear. As her leg hit my shin guard, this connection between her feedback and the likelihood she felt unsafe really came home to me and dissolved my irritation. I saw my sparring partner with new eyes – as a tiny, vulnerable and, dare I say, lovely woman. This wasn’t actually about me. I saw the nagging as meta-information and the exposing of her very soft and vulnerable underbelly of fear.

Anodea Judith, a psychologist and expert on trauma recovery wrote, “If you are confident that the world is a friendly place, you have the sense that you will live. Without trust, your survival feels constantly threatened, and because there is nothing you can do to meet the threat, the anxiety is unbearable.” Sound familiar? (Alas, recent headlines would indicate that yes, it does.)

But when you think about the overbearing, intrusive condescension of the hypercritical as anxiety management, it changes your perspective. Or at least it changed mine.

I also realized that my own non-reaction to her nagging was a signal — not just to her, but to me. My own confidence had gotten so strong, I wasn’t threatened and I wasn’t controlled by annoyance, either. I was able to listen without judgment and perhaps help her be heard and seen. A part of trusting your surroundings and environment is being heard, and so I listened to her.

We live in a world where people are constantly shouting, broadcasting themselves as loudly as possible – in person or online. But who is really listening? Perhaps the simple act of listening to someone else, of helping them feel heard, is a tiny but important act of peace building. Jeanne Achterberg wrote in her book Woman as Healer, “healing is learning to trust life.” Finding peace is trusting that the violence is gone and that our survival is stable and safe.

It hasn’t just been my physical muscles getting strong in that gym. I’d like to think beyond tight abs, my invisible confidence muscles are getting toned, too. Every time I land a kick, hold a plank for another ten seconds or neutralize a knife attack, I become less scared and any anxiety or fear I carry dissipates. I know that if an attack shows up, I can save myself. The stronger I am, the less the nagging irritates me because I see it for what it is. I don’t need to manage my fear – I don’t have any. I trust I am safe. I’m free.

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