Q: How do you change an ugly quality in yourself? It came out that my younger sister is upset with my "nitpickiness." I often say things I feel are helpful, but come across as nitpicking. I say, "Here's a headband I bought for you." And she hears "This is so that when you're too lazy to wash your hair you won't look like such a disaster." Or I'll say, "You should wear your hair down and maybe put some of your MAC lip gloss on" — because my sister is very pretty, but a big tomboy, and I'm jealous of her gorgeous hair and she looks great with minimal makeup — and she hears "You look awful."
I didn't realize what a habit nitpicking was for me. Although my sister said "It's not hate-able, it's just annoying," I think it's ugly, and I would like to change. But I'm not sure how.
A: To get at the nitpicking habit, you have to start with the trying-to-help habit. And to get at that, you have to tackle the rationalizing habit, which starts with the needing-to-be-in-control habit.
Things aren't as dire as they sound. But you have managed to defend yourself in the same breath you admit to "ugly" behavior. That's just the kind of anguishy blame-deflection — "I'm so sorry if you took offense that I didn't intend" — that lets you avoid vulnerability, thereby stunting reflection, thereby stunting emotional growth.
Consider your aside about your sister's looks. In one shot, you shift the blame to your supposed victim, for lovably not recognizing how pretty she could be if she only listened to your well-intentioned advice.
Let's try that again: You think your sister's appearance is your business when in fact it isn't, and so you try to justify the meddling as being for her own good.
Will your sister look more attractive to more people with her hair down? Sure, I'll take your word for it. But she's more attractive to herself when she's left to make her own choices. Being right doesn't make it right for you to overrule her taste.
Unless of course she asks you to. Please see, though, that it's not just your sister who, given a choice between dressing her way badly and your way well, would choose to look bad. Even people who do accept help (with anything) feel more confident, and therefore are more receptive, when it's their idea to ask.
And that means unsolicited suggestions you "feel are helpful" are helpful only to your sense of superiority.
You're not alone in this, either. Your "helping" impulse and your sister's resistance both originate in the same human need: to matter.
The only way you're going to change this habit is to know this impulse for what it is. Recognize it so you can be more conscious of the ways you choose to assert yourself, and do so only when it's your business to (the oversimplified version: when it's about you; when you're asked; in emergencies). That's the only time it's appropriate, and also, conveniently, the only time it actually works.
Put your "nitpicking" to that test and I think you'll see how freely, and wrongly, your attempts to help have crossed these boundaries. This is the light that will show you the limits next time.
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