What put-downs really are
Let me begin by saying what they are not. Put-downs are not "harmless jokes." The test of the difference between a put-down and a joke is this: Would the jokester be happy if someone he respected used that very same so-called joke on him?
Put-downs are not "constructive criticism." At a construction site, people are building something. To construct is to build. To give the kind of criticism that is constructive, you must see evidence of it helping the receiver to grow. For instance, when my children were little, they took music lessons. When they hit a wrong note after having practiced long and hard, the teacher would say, "I can tell you have been practicing well." She would then recite, very specifically, five or so things they did well. Then-and only then-she would say, "Now play that [name of note] again for me." If it was right this time, she would say, "Do you hear the difference from before?" This helped the child feel good about what was done right and turned the mistake into an opportunity to train the ear.
In contrast, "You played the wrong note!" is just plain criticism, not constructive and, "You played the wrong note again. I don't know what's the matter with you" is a put-down guaranteed for the child to hate music and ruin your relationship.
Put-downs are not the best way to express exasperation with those you love. What is heard and received is rejection and the response is to reciprocate that rejection, to feel depressed over that kind of treatment, or to get out.
Put-downs are anything that attacks the other person or what that person holds dear. They can be as subtle as eyeball-rolling or a cold tone of voice. They can be as obvious as cursing. They can be things in between such as referring to your son's friends as "oh, those people," and your husband's skill at softball as "it was great 30 years ago." The best way to know if you have put someone down is ask your heart what your feelings really are about the person it was directed to. The best way to know if you have been put down is to ask your heart if it feels proud after hearing that remark. The heart knows.
The damage they do to the soul
Unfortunately, unlike a courtroom in which the judge can instruct the jury to "please disregard that," once said, a put-down enters the soul in much the same way a virus enters a cell: destructively. Each and every time a put-down is leveled at someone, the soul is injured badly. You can actually see this on the outside: the smile is not so bright; grades drop; work suffers; car accidents occur.
People who hear put-downs long enough begin to doubt themselves. They begin to think there must indeed be something wrong with them or those they love wouldn't hurt them so. They go beyond thinking there is something-some aspect of themselves-that is wrong; rather, they think their whole selves are wrong. God, somehow mis-made them; the essence of their being is wrong.
No matter how angry you are with someone, you don't want to do this. You may think you do, but when you act out of anger, the damage boomerangs: Doing it injures your soul too. And you can easily tell that it has: You somehow don't feel happy afterward; you are not relieved or unburdoned. Rather, you feel as miserable and perhaps as angry as you did before. Look in your heart; you will see you are angry with yourself now in addition to being angry with your loved one.
How they escalate
Let's look at this further: Joan is furious with Tim and tells him off. She sees the dagger enter his heart. She sees the look on his face. He is quiet and there is a moment of peace. But in that moment, Joan does not feel relief. How can she? Whatever it was that Tim did that hurt her did not change. Nor did she give him a chance to apologize or make it good. Nothing was corrected. Joan thought she got even but what her heart craves is love, attention, and acceptance, and she sure didn't set up the situation for that. Tim meanwhile has only the foggiest idea of what he did wrong in the first place, if he has any idea at all. But he is really mad, now and who knows where that will lead?
Surveys of thousands of fighting couples show that bad words can escalate into physical violence. The probability is there. But even if that doesn't happen, at the very least-and this isn't small potatoes-the couple (or the child) becomes alienated.
How to respond
If someone puts you down, first you have to recognize it for what it is. Once you do, here are four possible types of responses.
Name it. Giving the down-putter the benefit of the doubt, maybe he didn't realize that it was a put-down. Maybe he just thought it was a joke or constructive criticism. Maybe he just thought "Well, that's what I do to vent anger" without meaning to put down. The solution here just might be to tell it like it is and say, "That was a put down."
Throw the ball back to her court. By asking, "Did you really want to say it that way because it was a put down," a reflective person might think about it and realize that she didn't intend that and make some correction or apology right on the spot.
Say it hurt. This suggestion comes with a warning: Only do it with a person of good will. If the person who said it is so angry that she just wants to inflict wounds, saying it hurt can, unfortunately, lead to more abuse. For all others, saying the put-down hurt can, indeed, put a stop to it.
Challenge. When the sender of the message honestly cannot see that the message is highly critical and not constructive at all, challenging the statement on a purely logical basis can be a wonderful experience in empowerment. For example, Sue hurts her daughter, Rochelle's feelings. Rochelle tells her it is a put-down and it hurts. Sue replies with, "You're too sensitive." That itself is a put-down because (a) the word "too" is judgmental and (b) it devalues the characteristic of "sensitivity." Rochelle can challenge this with: "How do you know I'm too sensitive? Maybe you're too insensitive."
Put-downs are not jokes and they're not constructive. They are virulent soul-destroyers which can lead to total alienation from those you care about most. Sometimes naming it, saying it hurt, throwing the ball back into the sender's court or direct challenge can put a stop to it.
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