Criticism is toxic to relationships. If we want happier friendships and partnerships, we need to get a handle on the shaming sludge that spews from 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 erodes trust and connection, leading to misery and divorce. Being curious about what underlies our shaming judgments can move us from being critical to connected.
When someone offends us or doesn’t gratify us, frustration builds. We may find some curious satisfaction in releasing tension by attacking and shaming a person rather than taking responsibility for what we’re feeling inside.
I’m not suggesting that we shame ourselves for the human tendency to lose our cool and spew some version of "What's wrong with you?" Although a touch of healthy shame can be instructive, if we become overly harsh with ourselves, our inner shame may trigger anger. We may ratchet up our criticisms as a way to dodge shame and release inner tension, perhaps declaring 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 often escalates tensions by evoking another’s anger or triggering a withdrawal into shame (a shame freeze). In my office, it’s painful to watch couples create cycles of distance by sparking a fight, flight, freeze response in each other rather than inviting authentic and safe communication.
Being critical is part of being human. Toxic criticisms will only subside when we identify what 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 something we defend ourselves against.
It’s easy to 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, shaming comments. It takes patience, mindfulness, and courage to pause, go inside, and notice our actual 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’re acting 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 child.”
Criticism: “You’re always on my case for being late. 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. I freeze up and avoid the whole thing. I’m really sorry.”
Noticing and sharing our inner experience invites people toward 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 can change the tone of our conversations by going inside and getting a handle on what we’re really feeling. Many approaches to personal growth, including Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin, can help uncover our authentic felt experience that may be driving our criticisms.
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 ourselves. As Gandhi knew, it’s a 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 come 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 leads to more harmony, intimacy, and connection.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.