Criticism is a destructive force in our relationships. If we want happier friendships and partnerships, we need to get a handle on the toxic sludge that spews from of our critical mind.
Couples researcher John Gottman has identified criticism as one the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Along with defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt, criticism contributes to an erosion of trust and connection, leading to misery and divorce. Being curious about what underlies our shaming judgments can help us move from being critical to being connected.
We all get critical sometimes. We lose our cool and become unrestrained about telling people what we think is wrong with them. When someone offends us or doesn’t gratify us, frustration builds. We may find a curious satisfaction in attacking and shaming them rather than taking responsibility for what we’re feeling inside.
I’m not suggesting we shame ourselves for being critical, although a touch of shame is not necessarily a bad thing. But if we become overly harsh with ourselves for being critical, we’re likely to get more wound up inside. This will only make us more critical as a way to release inner tension. We may declare some variation of “You’re wrong, you’re bad, you always do this, you never to that!”
Attacking a person’s character or offering our diagnosis usually sets off anger or triggers a withdrawal into shame. In my office, it’s painful for me to watch how couples unknowingly trigger a fight, flight, freeze response in each other rather than invite authentic and safe communication.
Being critical is part of being human. Toxic criticisms will only subside when we identify what underlies and drives them.
Noticing Our Deeper Vulnerabilities
Rather than hurting people by spewing criticisms, we create a safer climate for communication by contacting and conveying what we’re experiencing inside. Our inner felt experience is different than our criticisms and judgments. It’s usually something more vulnerable. It’s often something we defend ourselves against.
It’s easy to notice and accuse others of being defensive. It’s more challenging to notice when it’s happening inside ourselves. Being defensive means that we’re defending ourselves against uncomfortable or difficult feelings, such as hurt, shame, or fear.
Rather than allowing ourselves to notice and welcome inconvenient feelings, we may override them and become self-righteous or contemptuous. Through a curious sleight of hand, we shift our painful feelings onto others — expecting them to carry feelings that we refuse to embrace within ourselves. Being defensive means avoiding responsibility for our own feelings and behavior.
Taking responsibility means being an adult in our relationships. The expression, “Think before you speak,” means pausing before spewing destructive comments. It takes patience, mindfulness, and courage to pause, go inside, and notice our actual inner felt experience, even if unpleasant.
Criticism: “You’re so self-centered and controlling.”
Felt Experience: “I feel angry and hurt when you talk to me that way.”
Criticism: “You act like a child. I didn’t sign up to be your parent!”
Felt Experience: “I feel alone and overwhelmed sometimes. I really need your help around the house and with our daughter.”
Criticism: “You’re always on my case. I can never please you!”
Felt Experience: “I feel badly for not calling you when I was late. I was afraid you’d be disappointed and I feel shame when I disappoint you. So I just avoided the whole thing. I’m really sorry.”
Noticing and sharing our inner experience invites people into our inner world. It allows them to see how we’ve been affected by their words or actions. Rather than employ our default mode of being critical, we change the tone of the conversation by going inside and getting a handle on what we’re really feeling.
Sharing our tender and vulnerable feelings not only helps our relationships thrive, it’s also the secret to healing the contentious political divides in our country and between nations. Raucous mutual contempt and shaming keep fueling the cycle of attack and counter-attack that leads to mutually-assured destruction.
It’s not just a platitude that peace in the world begins with us, as Gandhi taught. It’s the necessary psychological foundation for the peaceful world we desire.
The next time you notice yourself being critical of someone, remember to pause, take a breath, and notice how you feel inside your body, which is where feelings live. Notice if any words surface that resonate with your deeper feelings. Give yourself time. Being aware of what you’re actually feeling can be the starting place for a different kind of conversation — one that may lead to more harmony and connection.