“I’m not going to pretend that you’re not judging me…”

In a moment of surprise, I say no to accepting feedback that is tainted in judgement. In doing so, I learn a lesson in self love.

At Esalen, I meet a neuroscientist who is working on the same biofeedback project as my friend. She is there to develop a system to measure the state of emotional connection in participants. From the moment we meet, I am very open with her. I feel as if I have met an old friend and I treat her as such. I don’t see that this openness is more than she is able to receive. 

In the past I would have held myself back in order to meet people where they are. I didn’t want to risk making them feel uncomfortable. I would have accommodated their incapacity by speaking a little bit less lovingly or being a little bit less open. But I am beyond that right now. 

One evening, we all head to nearby hot springs. Clothing is optional, and she wears her swimsuit. Since it’s a pitch-black night, I laugh at the irony that it’s impossible to see her, even with her swimsuit on. My observation clearly does not land with her, and I can tell I’ve hit a trigger. She’s uncomfortable and becomes defensive. My words were not ill-intended, but it doesn’t matter.

I know these wounds run deep and I do not want to press her buttons. But her pain is palpable and undeniable. Ever since my mother was killed, I have been acutely sensitive to other people’s emotions. And since I have spent most of my life trying to manage my emotions, I see that process clearly in others as well. The neuroscientist presented herself as open, but she left no space for true vulnerability.  

I am fully aware at this point that our relationship will go one of two ways: Either she will reflect on what I said that made her feel uncomfortable and allow it to bring us closer together, or she will judge me and react defensively. In my experience, in moments of discomfort, most people turn to judgment. Words like “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are dropped with ease as people move away from their own discomfort and project it onto others. 

In my current state of vulnerability and openness, I don’t feel like holding space for someone who wants to use me as a punching bag to get rid of her own discomfort. I have self-sacrificed to make others feel more comfortable enough to know it’s unfulfilling. I choose not to make it my problem and thus accommodate her insecurity. I’ve learned from other situations like this that it’s pretty hopeless to defuse the tension. So I move on. In the past, I would have spent more time, and let her incapacity absorb my energy and attention. At this moment, I’m happy to be sitting in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever been, gazing up at the stars. 

The next day she is incredibly cold to me. I have grown accustomed to this throughout the years. My work is to engage people in very emotionally uncomfortable spaces. So there’s a lot of tension when people resist. I don’t have a problem with her aloofness. But I also don’t pretend like there’s nothing going on. I smile at her with love. No need to do anything. Just be there. 

The next day, I’m sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and she comes and sits next to me. She asks, “Are you open to feedback?”

For the first time in my life, I say, “No.” I can tell that whatever advice she has for me isn’t coming from a genuine place, so I’m not interested.

She is surprised, but I continue, “I am not interested in feedback from someone who is judging me. You can tell me how I made you feel so that we can better understand one another. But I am not interested in you telling me what you think.”

Frustrated, she asks, “Well, how do you learn if you’re not open to feedback?” 

I say, “I learned a long time ago that when someone judges you, giving them space to project that judgment only takes away their responsibility for reflection. I have also seen that feedback from a person who is not reflecting on themselves tends to be filled with the idea that I should be different.”

“There is a possibility of us exchanging feedback. That is by answering the question, ‘How did I make you feel?’ If you’d like to share that, then I have the entire day. But I’m not open to you dropping off your discomfort in the guise of ‘feedback.’”

Her frustration rises visibly. “Well, if that’s the way you live,” she says, “you’ll never have the opportunity to learn from others. You’ll only surround yourself with people who validate your reality.” 

I say, “In your perspective that may be true. But keep in mind, why would I want to spend any time with someone who is judging me? Why would I spend my time with anyone who is not looking at me with love and compassion? I love feedback. I just don’t need to spend my time with people whose ‘feedback’ says more about them than about me.” 

She retorts, “You are not open.” 

I reply, “Fuck you. Fuck you and your judgment. You go through life judging others as if you have some superiority. All the while not sharing anything of yourself. Shutting others down so that you can feel less uncomfortable. I am not interested in participating, thank you.” 

“You are triggered,” she says. 

“Yes, I am. How would you feel if you were being judged to your face? I am allowing myself to look at you in the face and say, ‘Fuck you for judging me.’ That’s freedom. I don’t have to take your judgment and pretend like it’s not there.” 

She looks puzzled. I don’t display any of the training on how people are “supposed to” respond. Instead of continuing down this path, I take the moment to flip it on its head. I look in her eyes and show the vulnerability she is unwilling to show me. With tears in my eyes I say, “It is not easy to allow myself to be freely myself while facing judgment from others. As you separate from your emotions, there is a cost to the people around you. I am showing you that cost. 

“I am being authentic. I know that being so will also come at a cost. Some people will not be able to see me. I don’t ask them to be different. I don’t judge them for judging me. I am allowing myself to be fully me. You’re allowed to be you. We can decide if we belong together. Or even if we want any further contact.”

“But what I won’t do is sit here and pretend that you’re not judging me. That would be inauthentic. I have spent years with that inauthenticity and I don’t have time for it any more.” 

I can see she is still perplexed. But at the same time, she sees me. It seems she needed to see me before she could trust me. 

We laugh. We then speak openly for the next half hour, seeing one another, feeling closer, appreciating the different ways we live. By the time our conversation ends, she jumps off of the bench and asks, “Can we hug?” We hug and I feel a deep connection, the kind of connection that arises when you are able to love yourself and the other in equal measure.  

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