The 3 Questions You Need to Ask Yourself Before Criticizing Someone
"They barely discipline that kid—the whole family needs some tough love."
"Doesn't he know smoking kills?"
If you have critical thoughts like these, you're not alone: Most of us silently judge other people, at least occasionally. Some folks, however, don't keep their judgment so silent, offering their opinion to every misguided soul they believe could benefit. If you're one of those people, I have some feedback for you: (1) Your criticism is actually making things worse, and (2) criticizing is hypocritical.
Most psychologists tell us there's a place for constructive criticism, and that place is work. If we're talking about criticizing friends and family, the professional consensus boils down to one word: don't. Research shows that criticism wreaks havoc on trust and love. Psychologist and relationship guru John Gottman, PhD, based on his observations of married couples, named criticism as the first of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" that predict divorce with more than 80 percent accuracy. (FYI, the other three are contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.) According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, PhD, our brains may interpret criticism as a threat to our survival, activating the fight-or-flight reflex. In other words, your loved one is likely to lash out or run away instead of calmly listening to your advice.
Does this mean you have to fume in silence? Not necessarily. But if your loved ones seem fed up with your feedback, start by helping the person who needs it most: you.
Criticism tells us our subconscious is fixating on something that isn't settled in our own hearts and minds. For example, Jenny thinks her sister Alexis is wasting her life because she won't get a serious job. Work isn't meant to be fun! Or so Jenny tells herself, ignoring the little voice whispering that she's squandering her own precious hours on spreadsheets. Brittany's enraged by smokers who pollute their bodies and the atmosphere. But her angry thoughts are poisoning her and her environment as much as any pack of menthols.
I'm not saying that unemployment and smoking aren't problematic, of course. I'm simply saying that the only person you can control is you. A friend who's a former addict says: "You can't get anyone else off drugs. You can only clean up your own side of the street." Whenever we criticize, we have an opportunity to identify the places where we're ready to change. Next time you get the urge, take a few long, slow, deep breaths and ask yourself these three questions.
1. How am I guilty of the thing I'm criticizing?
As author Byron Katie says, "I am whatever I believe you to be." Check it out—it never fails. When I'm infuriated by bigoted behavior, I'm judging the living hell out of those bigots. When I grit my teeth as parents fail to control their screaming toddler, my own inner toddler—the one who insists that everyone act the way I want—is having a wild tantrum.
Finding my own flaws takes the wind out of my sanctimonious sails, then exchanges that judgment for empathy. I can feel how hard it is to deal with a frustrated child, or keep fear from turning into prejudice. I also become curious about what's going on inside myself, which takes me to the next question.
2. What's my real problem?
Now it's time to "walk back the cat," a spy technique that involves retracing a chain of events to figure out how one thing led to another. What's motivating this critical urge? Why here? Why now? Recently, a friend sprained her ankle and began describing her discomfort in great detail. I found myself thinking, Hey, stiffen that upper lip! I was whining (internally) about her whining. When I walked back the cat, I remembered the decade when I had undiagnosed fibromyalgia. Many people, including doctors, assumed I was inflating my symptoms and chided me about my ridiculously low pain threshold, so I learned to shut up and tolerate the misery. Now my physical pain is gone, but my shame never went away. My urge to criticize my injured friend was showing me an unhealed emotional wound in myself.
3. Where can I offer myself understanding?
Criticizing yourself is just as counterproductive as attacking a loved one. When you walk back the cat, you'll discover there's someone inside you who's buried in the rubble of condemnation, filled with fear and pain. All we need to do is notice that our suffering is real and let ourselves feel what we've been feeling. Then kindness and acceptance begin to grow in the very situations that once triggered self-righteous yawping.
This three-question approach has a paradoxical effect: Understanding ourselves makes us softer and more compassionate, which means others are more likely to listen to us. And if someone can't or won't change, we can give ourselves permission to detach—from our frustration, or the person who's triggering it. However we find a resolution, we'll be free of the cycle of fear and loathing. We've given the gift of criticism to the only person we can ever truly change—ourselves.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.