A guest post written by my husband, Don Nenninger.
Want to deal with the haters in your life? Have a critic in your family of origin who is always telling you another way to do it better, or why you’re not good enough? Work someplace where criticism is the norm? If any of these are true, your happiness depends on knowing the difference between a coach, critic, criticism, corrections, and critical assessment. When you lose the critic, you gain a healthy happy life.
There is absolutely no role for a critic or criticism in any type of healthy relationship whether this relationship is your family, business, activity, or other important area of your life. Criticism is a critical assault on a person’s value and psyche and not an objective assessment of ways to improve a skill.
When my wife and I meet with clients we try to help them to work through the underlying causes of their behavior going on “behind the scenes.” Recently, one of our clients -who has experienced a lot of criticism in their life- was having difficulty making changes. They felt that change was disloyal to their family of origin, and it didn’t help when they were constantly criticized. This criticism was not a new experience. When a person breaks away from the “traditions” of the family and refuses to continue a negative pattern of behavior (a pattern that most likely has its roots in generations long gone) clients (and others) can feel extremely distressed, lost, and stuck in a rut.
There is NO NEED for a critic and/or criticism in your life. Ask yourself, “Who made them the judge and jury over my life?” and then ask yourself, “Why am I accepting this as fact that they are the judge and jury?”
Like many of us, you’ve bought into a belief forced on us by societal norms- that a critic is needed in your life and criticism is necessary for you. Do you consider it an obligation to unwaveringly submit to this incessant criticism? Nothing could be further from the truth! The concept that we need a critic is often presented by those same critics with a personal, self-serving agenda. Criticism is nonsense.
We often find clients have been the victim of some self-anointed “critic” who spends their life telling them the things they should be doing better, shouldn’t be doing, might be doing, or doing just wrong enough to displease the critic. What is the end result of this criticism? People are angry, and don’t know why they are angry. People feel a chronic low-level of dissatisfaction. Or, sometimes they push themselves to the extreme- always “on” in an unreachable quest for “perfection.” Or, they lower their expectations of themselves and live a life of less.
When I share this concept of no need for a critic, people feel bewildered, their jaws drop, and they don’t know what to say. The simple concept -living a life without a critic- is so alien that it takes a while to wrap around the concept. But when they do, the shift opens up a vast space in their lives to fill with positive energy and positive action.
We are often raised in this environment of criticism and so, like all of our experiences, because this is our experience, it feels like the truth. But that feeling, that our experience of criticism is truth, can be changed.
There are people who are resistant to this idea, that criticism is unnecessary. There is a loud and vociferous group of supporters (critics) claiming there is no substitute for criticism. I present another option, one that says there is no need for either a critic or criticism in your life and that the act of criticism serves one primary purpose. That purpose is not to help you, but to meet the critic’s needs!
They spend a lot of energy putting forth a slew of statements justifying the need for critics and for criticism. Even when these people can see in others how this criticism negatively affects their life, they find it difficult to believe the same is true in their lives. This does not make them”bad” or”wrong” it makes them human with their own journeys of inner growth. We all carry built-in biases we have towards believing our own preconceived notions.
Often the critic attempts to explain away their behavior using statements like “I’m trying to teach you a lesson,” “I’ve always been this way,” “it’s for your best,” or “I am trying to be honest with you, how are you going to learn if I don’t criticize you?” This scenario occurs in sports, athletics, academics, work, relationships, and most commonly- your family of origin. This critical assault can be severe depending upon the ego investment of the critic.
Why does the self-anointed critic have this driving need? The need where they absolutely must continue to criticize the subject regardless of whether the subject desires this criticism or not? The critic’s stated outcome of their criticism is to correct some “flaw” they perceive in you. Yet, a more accurate assessment is that the critic is serving their need on some level.
Criticism never addresses the potential for change in a healthy manner.
If you feel attacked (and this is how most people feel when they are criticized) the emotions of resentment and frustration combined with defensiveness rise. This energy dominates the interaction in these moments and this makes the possibility of change remote.
Like all behaviors, a critic gets something out of their behavior. In many cases they are attempting to resolve some deficit in their psychological makeup through the achievements and activities of others. Because they have invested their ego into the results of another person, when the performance of the other disappoints them; their view of the person is distorted, negative, and is inappropriately amplified into a personal attack presented under the guise of criticism.
Criticism is “put on” a person and not asked for. In fact, we have never come across somebody asking for incessant criticism. Many have learned to tolerate it (to the detriment of their emotional/psychological health) or tune it out. When criticism is chronic this personal experience of being criticized often represents their sole experience of the world. In other words, because this criticism (and resultant self-doubt) is what they know as true, this has become a fact- this is their personal experience of the world. They believe and internalize the criticism and believe that constant self-doubt is the only experience possible. We try to expand their awareness and show that because of their experience they can’t yet see the multitudes of possibilities available for them. We expand their view so they see that new and different experiences outside of their personal reality are available.
Criticism is bullying. It is not a cooperative give-and-take, it is not a consensus built upon a sharing of concepts and ideas, and it is not invited. Instead, it is put upon us.
We have a choice what to do with the people in our lives; whether these people are our family of origin, partners, colleagues, friends, media, or others we meet in the world. Are we going to tolerate criticism, confront it, or discuss it or live with it? The answer depends on who you are, what is important to you, the context of the criticism, and the connection that you have with the critic.
My suggestion for you is if someone in your life is investing that much of their energy criticizing you, you don’t really have a relationship with that person; you are the target of that person. In our research, we found different reasons that people feel the need to criticize. In the most innocent of cases, they are continuing a family tradition that they had yet to develop the consciousness to address. However, that is their journey-not yours. Your journey is to discover how you want to handle this situation.
We have a dog, a chocolate lab, an athletic and gentle creature. This dog has a very gentle and sweet soul, which is beautifully combined with an incredible athletic grace. We often play ball with her. She runs outside, catches the ball, and runs the ball back to us- a simple game. When she misses a catch (which happens at times) could you see the ridiculousness of criticizing her in that moment for the miss? Telling her how she could “do it better?” Or, can you imagine how damaging my words would be to her, if my ego was invested in her performance so I told her she was not good enough, she was bad, or she was inferior in some way? Should I imply (without stating it directly) she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t a Collie or Dalmatian? Should I shun or ignore her? Tell her she’s not as good as the other dogs? What would I be getting out of that criticism? What would she get out of that exchange?
If you are not invested in criticizing, you would see she had given her best attempt and notice that she is not upset she missed; she’s too busy having fun chasing the ball. When my ego is not invested in the miss, I have no desire to reprimand her as she joyfully picks up the ball and runs it back for the next throw. Now consider how our interaction would change if my ego was invested in her athleticism and the outcome of her “success” when some friends came by and I wanted to show them how “good” she was. If she missed the ball I would criticize her because of my personal expectations and my belief she was not “good enough.” Now, I would elevate criticism to shame and our relationship would be more severely damaged. The result of this constant barrage of “help” is that she would be a different dog- a dog that is less than she would have been without the criticism.
This example shows how silly it would be to criticize her technique, tell her how “wrong” or “bad” she was for doing it her way, or to continually disparage her attempts to catch the ball focusing on her misses. This criticism would damage her and our relationship. Criticism wastes time and costs me the opportunity to connect with a beautiful and gentle creature. The amount of energy that was put into criticism could instead be put into the experience instead of damaging her gentle spirit. We ALL have gentle spirits.
The actions and words of the critic only accurately reflect solely their perception of the world. This information tells you about them. It does not tell you about you!
To answer those of you insistent upon the need for a critic and criticism, I suggest a different perspective. When we are trying to improve any aspect of our lives; whether it is our health, career, spiritual development, relationships, or an activity we enjoy, it is natural to have a desire to improve. Rather than investing energy repeating the criticism you’ve heard and buying into it, or investing energy arguing with the critic, spend a few moments evaluating what is working well, what needs more attention, what is a strength and what is an area of weakness. Each of us is unique and that uniqueness brings certain abilities. We call this a critical assessment, using the word critical in the sense of importance- not in the sense of criticism.
When you make this shift, your entire perspective about trying new things changes as well. From this perspective there is no failure, instead there is an endless supply of learning opportunities this is the term used in our home. And, as you explore these opportunities; unafraid to be criticized or of the critic, you free yourself to be more of yourself- and that’s a good thing!
There are both effective and ineffective ways of communication, and criticism is ineffective. Even if the critic believe their criticism works, there is damage done to the relationship. There are more effective ways of getting content to a person without a personal assault on the value of a person (which criticism often consists of).
Remember, the list of people who have proved critics wrong is inexhaustible. History is filled with people who have had to endure the criticism of “experts” stating how people would “never be successful” in their chosen field because they were “too stupid, not talented, not right, too lazy, etc.”
A coach is someone who believes in you, who has the ability and experience to make an unbiased assessment, who has the ability to convey this to you in a frame of reference that is not psychologically damaging, who is able to self-reflect and use new information as it appears, and most importantly, realizes that there is a possibility their personal assessment can be affected by their unrecognized biases. So critical assessment is not solely an examination of the person, but is also an assessment of the person in the evaluation position. When there is this balance, a person is much more apt to take a suggested correction and take ownership of implementing the change. The intrinsic motivation, to change, improve, correct, and grow become a part of their process and the attempts at making the desired change come without the emotional damage that criticism brings with it.
We have found that asking a person, “how is this approach working for you, is it effective or ineffective?” conveys we care about their outcome while not investing our ego in their outcomes. Once a groundwork of trust has been developed as a foundation, corrections can be made in the approach and not by attacking the worth of the person or implying that in some way they are “less than” another. This approach is much more effective in helping people moving towards their goals.
The criticism we have been exposed to is driven into our psyche- down to the cellular level. Without being aware of, or taking the time to actively fend off the critic, we assimilate the criticism into our mind and our self-concept of ourselves. If the critic and criticism is from your family of origin be aware that your critical faculty for protecting yourself from this type of criticism doesn’t develop until seven or eight years old. You have been absorbing this criticism, and believing it as a “fact” without ever having the opportunity to reject the assumptions and presumptions of others.
When you notice the self-critic in your life, create a mental picture of something you know. Many clients like a picture of a life-sized teddy bear. Imagine this as your critic-as you feel it now, the critic is as big as you. Then, in your mind’s eye, shrink this to the size of a toy. The feeling of wanting to criticize yourself may still be there, but when it’s the size of the small teddy bear it’s nonthreatening and now you see the internal critic as a size you can handle. For me, I like to say to myself “hey, I got this, I’ll pay attention to you later.” This often is all I need to move past the self-criticism that I carry and this technique works for many of our clients.
The next time you notice the critic or self-criticism take a breath and take time with the teddy-bear. You’ll be moving into a new part of your beautiful, enough, wonderful self.
You cannot have true emotional connection between two people when one takes the role of the critic and the other is the target.
This is a domineering/dominating type of relationship and dominating relationships are not emotionally close. This emotional distance is another way the critic can justify their actions.
When we address the subject of criticism, we always hear this statement: “If I don’t criticize them, they won’t be good enough to__________ and they’ll never be good enough at _______________.” This statement illustrates the problem–the belief that their personal criticism is necessary for the “success” of the other. A more reasoned approach realizes that we have to look at the context of the situation, what is being corrected, why is this an issue, who is this an issue for, what is the hoped for outcome, and do both parties desire the same outcome? And, have they agreed to these roles represented in this manner (critic and target). As we note above, using critical assessment is a positive way to provide feedback and evaluation in family, school, work, theater, teams, allows one to assess strengths (what you do well) and weaknesses (what you need to work on).
A student who is performing poorly in an area can be “coached up.” An athlete can perform at a higher level, more consistently, a business can improve the quality of its products and we can learn and grow in all areas. With determination almost anyone is capable of almost anything and if a person is capable of the desired outcome and they have the motivation to achieve, will all the criticism the critic provides ever improve upon that?