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When Criticism Shames: Learning to Be More Direct

Shame: The Master Emotion, Part 3

This is the third post in a series on Shame: The Master Emotion. It applies the principles of a love-based psychology to the problem of indirect communication in relationship.

Parents ask, “Do you think that was the smart thing to do?” rather than say, “I don’t think that was the smart thing to do.” Teachers say, “Are you sure you want to give that answer?” rather than say, “I think that’s the wrong answer. Please reconsider.” I can also hear Dr. Phil’s infamous statement, “What were you thinking?” instead of saying, “I see your actions as hurtful, unconscious, ill-considered, thoughtless, or senseless.”

Many people, including partners, parents, teachers, and bosses ask questions when they really want to make a statement of challenge or criticism. Having practiced law for ten years I can attest to the fact that attorneys have made an art of this practice (e.g. “Didn’t you know you were drunk when you got into the car?” or “Did you really think it was okay to threaten someone in order to get your property back?”) Psychologically speaking, when someone asks you this kind of question, they are giving a double message or “double signal” which puts you in a no-win situation—you have been criticized but can’t respond as if you have been criticized. You are not free to defend yourself or counter the criticism. This not only allows the criticism to enter unabated, but it makes you feel that there is something wrong with you if you feel hurt or get defensive. The injury from the criticism is bad enough, but the sense that something is wrong with you for feeling or responding the way you do—that’s shame.

Consider the example of Beth and her boss. Beth recently proposed a way to streamline her team’s weekly meetings. Beth’s boss asked her, “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” While Beth clearly believed her idea was a good one (Why else would she have presented it?), she now felt quieted and unsure of how to respond. Beth thought, “What’s wrong with my idea; did I present it poorly? My boss clearly doesn’t like it but what should I say?” When asked by a colleague how the meeting with her boss went, Beth said, “I always get so insecure when my boss asks me questions. What’s wrong with me? I need to be more confident.”

The boss’s question was really a double signal. One message, the one on the surface, simply asks a question requiring a simple answer (e.g., “Yes I think it was a good idea.”) But behind the veil of the surface question there is a very different message: “I don’t think your idea is a good one” or “I have criticisms of your idea” or “What are you, some kind of idiot that made such a suggestion?” The “question” is posed as if the boss is open to various responses, but the criticism puts Beth on the defensive in a way that is hard to directly respond to because the criticism is never directly made.

This puts Beth in a classic double bind: if she responds as if the boss is simply asking a question, nothing she says will satisfy her boss because he is not asking a question; he is making a criticism. On the other hand if Beth responds to the deeper and more potent communication by treating the boss’s “question” as if it really is a criticism, then her boss will likely treat her as if she is being inappropriately defensive when, after all, he was “only asking a simple question.” The double bind will likely leave Beth feeling insecure, confused, and thinking, “How come I can’t get the right answer? What am I missing? Am I some kind of idiot? How embarrassing.” In short, she will not only feel that her idea was not very good but also that something is wrong with her for even suggesting it. In short, she will feel ashamed—a feeling that may become a regular experience around her boss.

The Remedy: Preventing and Healing Shame

1. If you are the questioner: If you are the questioner, try turning your question into a statement. Making your criticism clear and direct will give the other person the best chance of responding. Then—and this is very important—let the person you are communicating with know that you are open to their agreement or disagreement. For instance, you might say, “Here is my criticism or challenge, please feel free to disagree with me.” While this may lead to a more open and direct debate or conflict, it will avoid shaming the other person, which will foster an empowered and respectful long-term relationship where people will bring their best insights, feelings, and intelligence forward.

2. If you are the one being questioned: As the one questioned there are two effective options. First, do your best, even after the conversation, to see that the question you were asked was not really a question—that it was a set-up, a trap. Second, trust that you are feeling the way you do because you were given a double signal, put in a double bind, and for no other reason. In other words, take note that you have been shamed. Being aware that you have been shamed can help heal that wound on the spot because it stops the internalization—the sense that your feelings have arisen because something is wrong with you.

Second, if you become aware of a person giving you a double signal at the same moment it is happening, do your best to label or name what is happening. For example, you might say, “I think you actually have a criticism or challenge for me. Can you please be more direct?” Going further, you might say, “Can I respectfully disagree or counter your criticism?”

If the person gets defensive and refuses to do so, you might have to state the criticism and respond to it yourself. This is a rather advanced technique requiring a lot of momentary awareness and detachment. For example, you might say, “Your question implies a criticism of my idea. You might be thinking… (fill in the criticism you think the person may have). On the other hand, I don’t totally agree with that criticism because….” Essentially this technique puts you in the driver’s seat by having you model the conversation that you and your “criticizer” ought to have if he/she was more able to engage. As I said, this takes a lot of detachment otherwise you won’t be able to congruently raise challenges to your own ideas and respond to them.

In summary, criticisms, challenges, and statements that pose as questions are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Not only can they put you in a double bind, they can leave you confused, quieted, and feeling that something is wrong with the way you respond or feel. In short, double binds shame. Rectifying this situation requires becoming aware of this dynamic, seeing its capacity to cause shame, and making the actual underlying communication as clear and direct as possible.

Good luck!


David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed books are available for sale on the website: Follow David on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.