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. Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone criticize.

Criticism is the first of John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which predict divorce with more than 90% accuracy. In my clinical experience it is the most predictive of disaster in love relationships, as the other three tend to follow from it—stonewalling, defensive, and contemptuous partners almost invariably feel criticized.

Criticism is destructive to relationships when it is:

  • About personality or character, rather than behavior
  • Filled with blame
  • Not focused on improvement
  • Based on only one “right way” to do things
  • Belittling.

Criticism in close relationships starts out, in most cases, on a low key and escalates over time, forming a downward spiral with increasing resentment. The criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense being controlled, and so on.

At no time in this downward spiral does an obvious fact occur to critical people: Criticism is an utter failure at getting positive behavior change. Any short-term gain you might get from it just builds resentment down the line.

Criticism fails because it embodies two of the things that human beings hate the most:

  • It calls for submission, and we hate to submit.
  • It devalues, and we hate to feel devalued.

While people hate to submit, we like to cooperate. Critical people seem oblivious to a key point about human nature: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists. If you want behavior change, show value for the person whose behavior you want to change. If you want resistance, criticize.

Critical people are certainly smart enough to figure out that criticism doesn’t work. So why do they keep doing it in the face of mounting frustration?

They keep doing it because criticism is an easy form of ego defense. We don’t criticize because we disagree with a behavior or an attitude. We criticize because we somehow feel devalued by the behavior or attitude. Critical people tend to be easily insulted and especially in need of ego defense.

Critical people were often criticized in early childhood by caretakers, siblings, or peers. Criticism can be especially painful for young children. They cannot distinguish criticism of their behavior from rejection, no matter how much we try to make the distinction for them, as in the well-intentioned, “You’re a good boy, but this behavior is bad.” Such a distinction requires a higher prefrontal cortex operation, which is beyond most young children. To a child under seven, anything more than occasional criticism, even if soft-pedaled, means they’re bad and unworthy.

A Shadow of Life or Death

The only thing young children can do to survive is attach emotionally to people who will take care of them. Feeling unworthy of attachment, as criticized young children are apt to feel, seems a bit like life or death. So they try to control the great pain of criticism by turning it into self-criticism—since self-inflicted pain is better than unpredictable rejection by loved ones.

By early adolescence, they begin to "identify with the aggressor"—emulating the more powerful criticizer. By late adolescence, self-criticism expands to criticism of others. By young adulthood, it seems to be entirely criticism of others. But most critical people remain primarily self-critical; I have never treated one who was not. As hard as they are on others, most are at least equally hard on themselves.

How to Tell if You’re Critical

You’re likely to be the last to know whether you’re a critical person. As the joke goes, “I give feedback; you’re critical. I’m firm; you’re stubborn. I’m flexible; you’re wishy-washy. I’m in touch with my feelings; you’re hysterical!”

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.

Criticism vs. Feedback

Critical people often delude themselves into thinking that they merely give helpful feedback. The following are ways to tell the two apart.

  • Criticism focuses on what’s wrong. (“Why can’t you pay attention to the bills?”)
  • Feedback focuses on how to improve. ("Let’s go over the bills together.")
  • Criticism implies the worst about the other’s personality. (“You’re stubborn and lazy.”)
  • Feedback is about behavior, not personality. (“Can we start by sorting the bills according to due date?”)
  • Criticism devalues. (“I guess you’re just not smart enough to do this.”)
  • Feedback encourages. ("I know you have a lot on your plate, but I’m pretty sure we can do this together.")
  • Criticism implies blame. (“It’s your fault we’re in this financial mess.”)
  • Feedback focuses on the future. (“We can get out of this mess if we both give up a few things. What do you think?”)
  • Criticism attempts to control. (“I know what’s best; I’m smarter and more educated.")
  • Feedback respects autonomy. (“I respect your right to make that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.”)
  • Criticism is coercive. (“You’re going to do what I want, or else I won’t connect with you or will punish you in some way.”)
  • Feedback is not at all coercive. (“I know we can find a solution that works for both of us.”)

Warning About Feedback

If you’re angry or resentful, any “feedback” you give will be heard as criticism, no matter how you put it. That’s because people respond to emotional tone, not intention. It’s best to regulate the anger or resentment before you try to give feedback.

To give feedback from your core value:

  • Focus on how to improve.
  • Focus on the behavior you would like to see, not on the personality of your partner or child.
  • Encourage change, instead of undermining confidence.
  • Sincerely offer help.
  • Respect his/her autonomy.
  • Resist the urge to punish or withdraw affection if he/she doesn’t do what you want.

If you’re a critical person, you must get a handle on your impulse to criticize before it ruins your relationship.

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