Remember Kerry? We wrote about him a couple weeks ago. He and his brother-in-law had a flare-up because Kerry used some very sharp language to make his point. He felt entitled to “express” himself.

His wife, Penny, was exhausted with a lifetime of this sort of thing. She used to quarrel with her husband and that certainly didn’t work. Then she tried to reason with him and learned, much to her surprise, that he could not apologize to her brother because he would feel it was “weak.” She disagreed; she told him that admitting mistakes is a sign of strength because it takes a strong person to do that.

I asked how readers think that the story will end. Some people think that Kerry will never change. Here is my problem with that: You have to have tried everything—and I mean everything—before you can be sure that your conclusion is correct. Most people give up too easily.

When You Criticize Your Child

Kerry might possibly be able to change if he can heal from the original pain that caused him to become so adversarial and sharp-tongued.

Kerry grew up with very critical parents. As he said, “They never had anything positive to say.” When that happens, the child is always on the lookout for criticism.

He expects it.

So, if the best defense is a good offense, then Kerry mastered the art. The problem, of course, is that it causes the very problem it was meant to avoid: attacks. Not only that, it certainly loses the good will of others.

This is made worse because Kerry bears a painful secret, a secret that he is too ashamed to admit to anyone. It’s one thing if your critical parents missed the mark in their negativity, but what if they were correct? What if they thought you were something of a loser – and you actually were? Wouldn’t that really put a dagger in your heart? That’s what negative self-talk is all about. We buy into the criticism and make it our own.

That’s how Kerry felt. You see, he had, over his lifetime, made some bad business decisions and lost a considerable sum of money.

As a child, Kerry learned that one way he could feel good about himself (given all these toxic messages swirling around in his head) would be to brag and spout out what he believed to be wisdom: He became a know-it-all. When he graduated college, he decided upon embarking on a business. This would be a great way to quiet those ugly voices: He would be wildly successful. So it was not enough for Kerry to work hard at growing his business. After all, it was not to be an ordinary business but one that produced real wealth, and quickly, if possible. Only that would chase away the evil voices in the back regions of his mind.

Unfortunately, he suffered a self-fulfilling prophecy: His business history was a disaster. I’ve found that this scenario happens often. It seems as though having been criticized as a child goes hand in hand with later business failure and verbal abuse at home.

Worst of all, not only will the undesired end come about through these messages, but the recipient of them will surely hear a lot more of them once the business dreams collapse. The entire family and extended family will blame Kerry for all these mistakes. They would be justified; after all, he lost a lot of money through bad planning and insufficient ego disguised as grandiosity.

How to Start Over

What can Kerry do for himself? What is Penny’s role here? And what is the family supposed to do?

Kerry has two jobs. He has to work on the present but he must correct the past. In the present, he needs to acknowledge each of his mistakes and come up with a plan to solve them. The beautiful thing about life is that we all get another chance. And another one. Our generous and gracious God bestows endless opportunities on us to get it right.

Kerry can sit down, for example, with a member of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) who give their time for free to figure out how to rescue his business – or start over. He can consult a vocational counselor and consider getting a job to generate a cash flow while he restarts his business. There are hundreds of possibilities for Kerry. He only has to think in terms of “How can I solve this problem?” rather than, “It’s all over.” Because it most definitely is not all over.

The second job Kerry has is to correct the past. Now this is tricky. He can’t be telling himself, “I am a successful investor,” because he’s not. But he can’t continue with the negativity he always received, either. He’s got to start displacing all the negative self-talk in his head with positive but realistic new ones such as, “I’ve learned some tough lessons and I will use what I’ve learned to rebuild my life intelligently.”

What should Penny be saying to her husband when he starts up with family members? I think Penny should reinforce the above positive message that Kerry needs to hear. Perhaps she can say to him, “I love the idea of you rebuilding your life intelligently. Do you really want friction with family to be part of that?”

Since friction is not intelligent, it is unlikely that Kerry will keep up the battle with Chuck, his brother-in-law, or with others, for that matter. Penny may need to ask that question more than once. I have rarely met a person who learns with one trial.

Now just how many times should Penny have to remind her husband through this gentle question before she can conclude that it is not working?

It is really possible that it will have to go on quite a bit but that in the end, Kerry will improve his vision of what he wants for his life. Which brings me to all the extended family and how they can be helpful. All they really need to do is lovingly remind Kerry of his new goals – and cheer him on. They also must be realistic about the possibility of backsliding and watch Kerry’s actions going forward. No one learns anything in a straight path to a goal; there’s always a step or two back. But don’t look at the backsteps and think everything is doomed. There is always a chance for Kerry to redeem his life. I believe in giving lots of chances.

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