Recently I’ve been noticing my tendency to criticize others. It’s something we all do, but most of the time we either ignore it or think it’s justified. But I’ve been realizing more and more lately that criticism is a blunt and ineffective instrument to solve the problems in my life. So I decided to take a hard look at why I criticize others and what I could do instead.
Here’s what I learned:
Why We Criticize and How to Stop
When I examined why I criticize I found three main reasons:
1. Connection: Sometimes I criticize to create connection with someone else.
For example, I might complain about politics to someone who I think has the same perspective as me. Alternatively, I might complain about one friend to another friend if I think we’ve had a similar experience.
I do this because creating a common enemy is an easy way to feel of connected without being vulnerable. The problem is that collusion doesn’t create real connection. Instead, all it creates is a common ground of negative feelings towards another person, when what I really want is to be heard and accepted.
2. Reassurance: Sometimes I criticize others because I want to feel better about myself.
So, if I’m insecure about how good I look or how successful I am it can feel good to put someone else down who seems worse off.
The problem with this is that comparison goes both ways. Sure there are people who are ‘worse’ than I am, but there are just as many people who are ‘better’. So, while criticizing someone may feel good for a moment, it doesn’t really satisfy my fears about my own shortcomings.
3. Expression of Difficult Emotions: Sometimes I criticize as a way to express frustration, sadness, etc.
Sometimes I feel a difficult emotion I don’t know how to express. Perhaps I feel frustrated with someone else or sad because someone has broken my trust and need to express it. But because taking responsibility for these feelings is difficult, instead I use criticism to put them on someone else. I create a situation where my feelings are someone else’s fault so that I don’t have to deal with them or feel them fully.
How to Stop Criticizing.
Seeing clearly that criticism is a clumsy way to feel better about yourself is only the first part. The next step is to develop some skills to help curb this bad habit. Here are 3 skills I’ve found helpful.
1. Holding Your Opinion Lightly –
Opinions are something that everyone has but that are often over emphasized. I’ve noticed that when I am too attached to my perspective on the world it prevents me from being open and compassionate towards others.
One way to hold your opinion lightly is to just imagine that your opinion is one of many opinions. You might do this visually by imagining that your opinion is a tiny dot on a map and then zoom out to see that dot as one of thousands in your city, one of millions in your country, and finally one of billions on the earth. Finally, you could imagine your tiny dot on the tiny blue dot of earth in the middle of the galaxy.
The purpose of this isn’t to make you feel insignificant, rather it’s to help you see that your opinion is just this tiny thing in a vast world and perhaps you shouldn’t take it too seriously.
2. Exchanging Self with Other –
Exchanging self with other is simply trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. This doesn’t mean you try to justify or agree with their perspective, but instead you simply try to step into their reality if even for a moment.
One way to do this is to imagine the person you’re criticizing as a child who is scared or frustrated. This works because when you can see someone as inherently vulnerable, you begin to feel compassion for them, even when their actions hurt you.
3. Being Aware of Criticism –
The simplest of the three practices is to simple notice when you criticize and asking yourself, “What do I hope to gain?” Very often just the awareness of what you’re doing can help you find a different way to meet your needs.
Where to Go From Here:
While I think, it would be awesome if this one post ended criticism forever! I know that’s not realistic. I know that there will be times when I fall back into my habit of being critical and I’m sure the same is true for many of you.
So, instead of trying to be perfect realize that curbing criticism is a life long practice and be patient with yourself. Just remember that anything you do to be more compassionate to others has benefits that ripple out in all directions far beyond what we can see.