I often witness conversational exchanges between two people where one of the individuals expresses themselves by harshly criticizing the other:
“You are always telling lies”
“You don’t have any self-respect”
“You never listen”
“I can never trust you”
“That was a dumb mistake”
And so on. I will usually observe this type of exchange long enough to fully understand the relationship dynamic and its effect on the listening individual. I am always saddened as I frequently detect a prompt and significant deflation of self esteem.
It’s interesting to me that we intellectually acknowledge overt criticism as a negative and yet many of us resort to derogatory critical statements when angry, frustrated, or fearful. We say things that break people down, that feel attacking, that simply are not true (referring to absolutes: always, never, constantly). We say things to one another that would never be acceptable if an educator spoke to our children using the same words.
I’ve heard that harsh criticism was used in prior decades as a way to motivate people to do better, not to repeat derogatory behavior; at least that’s what the criticizers say…. It is learned behavior. Great – and now we are teaching it by example. Not great.
Criticism comes in two forms and is defined in Dictionary.com as such:
Criticism – noun
- The act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
- The act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.
Constructive Criticism – noun
Criticism or advice that is useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions.
Obviously, the examples referenced above are flat out harsh criticisms and severe judgments. Without doubt – this form of criticism is FATAL to relationships!! It can be critically harmful to self-esteem. It fosters perfectionism, which is a root of anxiety and depression (because perfect does not exist). It is engraved into the cognitive structure of our thinking processes. It fosters the construction of emotional walls and defense mechanisms that may inhibit good mental health.
Criticism slowly and painfully KILLS the spirit – one comment at a time.
I like to think, and am pretty sure, that the criticizers don’t realize they are poisoning the spirit of the person to whom they are speaking. I like to believe that they are unconsciously stuck in a pattern that they learned by being judged and when others found fault with them. I believe that criticism spoken in relationships comes from a place of frustration, fear, and anger; not from a desire to belittle someone. How then, do we honor our own feelings and express them so that we are not vocally throwing poison darts at people we love?
Try converting your thoughts in this way:
UNHEALTHY CRITICISM HEALTHY COMMUNICATION
“You are always telling lies”…………………………… “Sometimes, I feel like I can’t believe what I hear”
“You don’t have any self-respect”…………………. “I think we may have different values about self-care”
“You never listen”………………………………………….. “Often when we talk, I don’t feel heard”
“I can never trust you”…………………………………… “I am afraid of being disappointed again”
“That was a dumb mistake”…………………………… “Help me understand that decision”
Notice a couple of important points: In the healthy communication phrases – NONE of them start with the word “YOU”. This will eliminate automatic feelings of being attacked by the listener – promoting more real listening. In addition, healthy communication focuses on descriptions of how the speaker FEELS using “I” statements. No one can argue about how you feel since feelings “just are”. Finally, the healthy communication statements are loving. That’s the most important element here! When we talk with someone we love, we need to do so in a LOVING way. The listener does not interpret criticism as LOVE, nor would it be healthy to do so.
Warning: some people use sarcasm as a way of communicating in general. Sarcasm, a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark, can be hurtful and is often interrupted as criticism. When expressing a sarcastic remark, make sure your listener knows its intent.
Having said all that…. It is good when we can hear CONSTRUCTIVE criticism and grow from our mistakes, however mundane or large they may be. We can all be teachable if we are open to hearing different ways of thinking and doing. Almost anything spoken out of love and compassion for us to be better, to do better, can be heard.