As Oscar Wilde put it, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the criticizer than the people he or she criticizes. Steven Stosny, Psychology Today
As the first of relationship expert John Gottman‘s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—the communication styles that can be the most destructive to a couple—criticism is the negative foundation on which the other three (contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) often build.
On the Gottman blog Ellie Lisista explains that criticizing is not the same as complaining or voicing a critique. Whereas “(t)he latter two are about specific issues…the former is an ad hominem attack: it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.”
Steven Stosny, PhD, Psychology Today, lists the ways criticism hurts relationships. When it’s:
- About personality or character, rather than behavior
- Filled with blame
- Not focused on improvement
- Based on only one “right way” to do things
Never effective as a way to produce change, as Stosny points out, criticism rankles because of two major pet peeves of human beings—submission and devaluation. What we really want are the opposites, cooperation and to be valued.
If you’re a continual criticizer, you might not even know it. The behavior is often learned in childhood, and perhaps because it was common in your family you’ve failed to recognize it as a problem.
How to own your tendencies, says Stosny:
If someone tells you you’re critical, you probably are. But there’s even a better way to tell: Think of what you automatically say to yourself if you drop something or make a mistake. Critical people will typically think, ‘Oh you idiot,’ or, ‘Jerk,’ or just curse or sigh in disgust. If you do that to yourself, you most likely do it to others as well.
Brené Brown offers a few ways to work on not being so critical (The Huffington Post):
- “Be mindful…It might seem awkward at first, but the next time you feel judgmental, stop and ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on here’?”
- “Change your inner monologue.” Be kinder to yourself.
- “Make a pact with a friend or a family member. Declare a judgment-free week — or, if you’re feeling brave, month. There will be long periods of silence; it’s a shocker when you realize how much ‘connecting’ we do by talking about others.”
What if you’re not the critical one but you have to deal with someone who is? Margarita Tartakovsky, Psych Central, quotes therapist Ashley Thorn, who says a few things to avoid are getting defensive, fighting back, and/or staying silent.
Thorn’s advice on what to actually do:
- “Be assertive.” Let the person know this doesn’t work for you.
- “Back up words with behavior.” You may have to walk away, hang up the phone, etc.
- “Give feedback.” Offer some constructive words about what would work better than criticism.
- “Remember you’re worthwhile.” Remind yourself “you’re so much more than what one person says.”
- “Take a break from the relationship.” If the above type of strategies don’t work, this could be necessary.