Changing Criticism with Interpersonal Neurobiology

A boy sits at a kitchen table, looking sad, as his father scowls at him.Someone recently told me about how he very often hears things as criticism when they are not meant to be critical. For instance, he and his wife had a disagreement about buying snack bars. When at the store he had agreed that he would eat the raisin filled bars since she and their son did not like them. When it came time to fill lunch bags he also wanted one of the other variety and she said,” Oh, no, you wanted the raisin ones, you cannot have these.” This innocent interaction between two people who love each other became a “big deal” and they both left the house in a fowl mood, holding animosity toward the other.

John*, says to me, “Why do I take that as criticism? I do that all of the time. Can I change that?”

My response to him, “Yes, let’s see if we can discover where this all started. Can you remember a time when you were criticized or mistreated, where someone did not care about your feelings nor about what you needed or wanted?”

John: “I have not thought about this for years, but when I was a child, my older brother would pummel me. I mean he would punch me and beat on me repeatedly and my mother would not stop him. In fact she would beat me as well. My father was gone and I had no one that cared about me to keep me safe. They were criticizing me and beating me. Do you think this made me like I am today—about criticism?”

NOTE: Here I can see that John is beginning to feel the sadness, emotional pain, and isolation that he had felt as a boy. And I was also feeling a deep sadness for him, that he had had this experience. I was thinking what a horribly painful experience it must have been, to be that age, living every day in fear, dread, and loneliness; to have no one care about him, or want to protect him. So with interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), the therapist wants the individual to know what the therapist is feeling, and that the therapist is deeply moved and cares about the experience of the child and the adult.

As a child, John’s neurons and body were “wired” to interpret his experiences as “I am bad,” “I am defective,” and “I have no value.” He certainly does not feel deserving of safety or having people hold his best interest at heart. Up until now John had never had anyone really care about his feelings or help him identify and meet his needs for safety, caring, affection, and connection. Although his wife loves him very much, they do not yet know how to meet these needs for each other. My job is to give him all this and, hence, change the way his brain fires—or should we say, rewire his circuitry.

Me: “John, when you are telling me this I notice that I start feeling two things, and they are very different feelings. The first is, I feel this deep sadness and loneliness for that boy. I can only imagine how lonely and scared he must have felt. And secondly, I feel this feeling of warmth and caring for you, the adult here with me now and for that boy. And I feel them together, as they are side by side, like two railroad tracks running along side each other.

“Now please notice if you can sense my feelings for these two parts of you. When you look at my face, can you see the moisture in my eyes and hear the caring tone in my voice? These feelings are for you, and my intention is to provide the physical and emotional safety available to you right now, to give you what you have never had before, to have you feel my caring that this happened to you, and to have us both feel an intimate connection; a personal, emotional connection where we both feel safe and open and this is okay. Just notice what it is like to feel and experience what I just said and revealed to you. Then, after reflecting, please share with me your experience; whatever it is I want to hear it.”

John: “I am overwhelmed right now and do not know how to put into words how good I feel. I can tell that you genuinely care about me, and that boy was here with us and he felt safe—not completely, but more than he ever has.” (He goes on to speak more about his positive feelings).

Me: “John, I have to tell you that I am celebrating in my heart. I am rejoicing that, working together, we accomplished something incredible. Together we helped meet your needs for safety, caring, and connection. And we did it at a deep level. Your tendency to hear things critically will never be safe. We have begun to significantly rewire your brain, so that you will not takes things so critically again. It is not completely repaired, but it is significant. We are amazing, aren’t we? Now, the last thing, John, notice the way your body is experiencing my words and intentions and feelings. Notice the physical sensations.”

In this last part, two things are important. The rejoicing and experiencing the physical and emotional sensations are critical to a successful session.

* Names and identifying information have been changed to protect client confidentiality

© Copyright 2010 by Christopher Diggins, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • natalie

    natalie

    May 12th, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    Ever so often,we see,hear and experience the fact that what we see,do,and go through in our childhood goes a long way in our life and has long-time effects.It kind of ‘crafts’ our personality and many things related to our personality.It is, therefore,imperative of parents to ensure a good childhood experience for their child.

  • Simone

    Simone

    May 12th, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    With all due respect, if a therapist said:

    these feelings are for you and my intention is to provide the physical and emotional safety to you right now… to give you what you never had before… to have you feel my caring that this happened to you… and to have us both feel an intimate connection,…

    I’d be out the chair and running for the door. To my ears that would sound like you’re hitting on me and about to make your move. That technique is not my cup of tea. Quite frankly that would scare me.

  • Hannah

    Hannah

    May 12th, 2010 at 11:19 PM

    This is familiar territory. My husband hears things exactly like John does. He can find a criticism in the most offhand, innocent comments. Some days I find it funny and other days it frustrates me how quickly he can go from being perfectly happy to angry.

  • Lily J.

    Lily J.

    May 13th, 2010 at 2:03 AM

    Some people tend to take advices and harmless suggestions as being views against them or as them being criticism.My dad is one such person and mom has suffered a lot because of this.He has been very good otherwise…involving mom in all the decisions he makes…but as soon as she suggests something,it just pricks him…don’t know why!

  • Connie

    Connie

    May 13th, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    I am not sure that you can change the way that you perceive things. Even if you change your mind after thinking baout it for a while that does not change what your initial reation was when jyou heard it the first time.

  • Zoey

    Zoey

    May 13th, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Christopher, thank you for sharing this. Finally I understand better why my ex was very guilty of this. We had endless arguments over unintended slights and about the stupidest things. He had a very rough childhood and I didn’t relate that at all to the upsets. I appreciate the insight.

  • Joan

    Joan

    May 13th, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    My partner does this. I get mad because I end up being the one that gets blamed for causing the row as well as the imagined criticism, since I made the comment in the first place! He can be hard to live with. Thanks for the article, Christopher.

  • Katherine

    Katherine

    May 13th, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    Explain this to me please. “So with IPNB, the therapist wants the client to know what the therapist is feeling and that the therapist is deeply moved and cares about the experience of the child and the adult.”

    What’s IPNB stand for? And I thought one of the first rules of being a therapist was not to get emotionally attached or involved with your clients? Aren’t therapists supposed to keep a professional distance?

  • Clay

    Clay

    May 14th, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    How long does change take? If you were to acknowledge that was indeed the reason, and willing to rewire your brain. Is it weeks, months, years? Is the change permanent or will you revert to your old ways over time?

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