Why We Criticize and What to Do about It
By Chuck Gallozzi
What do you think of people who descend on their friends like vultures, criticizing, maligning, ridiculing, scorning, blaming, insulting, and belittling them? Actual vultures feed on carrion, but these human vultures pick their friends apart while they are still alive. Our family members are supposed to be our closest friends, yet even they may engage in the same malicious tactics. It’s time to impose a cease-fire, and the best way to start is to become aware of our actions and to accept responsibility for them.
When we criticize others, we do not expose them, but expose ourselves. We broadcast our own weakness and smallness. For as an unknown author wrote, “The most censorious are generally the least judicious, or deserving, who, having nothing to recommend themselves, will be finding fault with others. — No man envies the merit of another who has enough of his own.”
What would you think if I were to tell you that I’m brilliant? Would you be impressed? Not at all, you would think that I’m vain or delusional. For this reason, rather than boasting about our imagined greatness, we disguise what we wish to say by criticizing others. In other words, when we speak about the supposed inferiority of others, it is just a clever ploy to announce our own superiority. Yet, those who are genuinely superior don’t speak about it, and those who believe they are inferior, pretend to be otherwise.
This being the case, aren’t our criticisms misdirected? Don’t we need to redirect our energy? Our time would be spent much more productively if we would practice self-criticism (self-improvement) instead of attacking others. How can we see the faults of others so clearly, unless we share the same weaknesses? Let’s take advantage of this clarity of vision by eliminating our own faultsWhen we do so, we will no longer need to pretend we are superior, and we will, therefore, stop criticizing others.
The Pain of Criticism
Imagine stabbing a friend in a fit of anger. As the knife blade sinks into his chest, your friend gasps in astonishment. Bewildered, his face contorts in excruciating painLosing blood and succumbing to shock, he collapses. Fortunately, someone called an ambulance, which quickly arrived and rushed your friend to the hospital. Although he recovered, his chest is marred for life by an ugly scar.
Hard to imagine you would do that, isn’t it? And if you did, after realizing the harm you have done, I am sure you would never repeat such an act. Yet, many of us, almost daily, stab the ones we love. We use invisible knives that do not draw blood. The weapon of choice is criticism. The harm we do is just as vile as that produced by a real knife.
Our criticism tears down their self-esteem. They feel unloved and experience self-doubt. Before their wounds have time to heal, we stab them again and again in the same place. How can we be so cruel? Perhaps we are deceived because our weapon and the victim’s wounds are invisible. Why are we so vicious? It is because of our own insecurities.
How can we improve? The next time you feel like butchering someone with caustic words, pause for a moment, and in your imagination, make your knife visible. Once you realize the harm you are about to inflict, I’m sure you will stop.
The Story of Bobby
I was in the Humane Society, in the adoption room for cats. As I peered through the bars of the cage in front of me, I saw vacant, yet beautiful, blue eyes. They belonged to a six-year-old stray cat named Bobby. He had reddish-brown and black stripes and his front paws were enormous, reminding me of a tiger. When I spoke to the attendant about him, she warned me that he did not like to be handled and he should not be adopted by anyone looking for an affectionate cat“Good grief,” I thought, “who’s going to adopt an unfriendly six-year old cat?” I figured I’d better rescue him from an almost certain death, so I adopted him.
Bobby was declawed. He probably escaped from the home of his owner and roamed the streets. One day, however, he was brutally attacked. Someone hacked off most of his tail and smashed his pelvis with a baseball bat. Because the stub of his tail made him resemble a bobcat, the attendants at the Humane Society named him, “Bobby.”
His damaged pelvis caused his rear end to taper and instead of walking gracefully, he would hop. Poor Bobby was traumatized. When he first arrived in his new home, he hid under a bed for a day or so. But hunger pangs finally persuaded him to come out from his hiding place. Whenever we picked up the broom to sweep the floor, he fled in terror. It took a long time for him to realize the broom was an instrument to clean the floor, not a weapon to beat him with.
After two years, Bobby was finally confident enough to come of his own and jump into my lap. Whenever he would do so, I would gently pet him. But, after a few minutes, he would suddenly bite my arm, drawing blood, and then hop away as quickly as he could. Though the bites were painful and messy, I never did get angry. After all, I understood. Bobby was experiencing a traumatic flashback and defending himself the only way a declawed cat could, by biting.
Why am I writing about Bobby? Because many of us, like him, have been injured psychologically to one degree or another. Perceiving an imagined threat, we snap at others. The difference between Bobby and us, however, is that his injuries were clearly visible: a missing tail, tapered rear end, and an inability to walk gracefully. Not so with those we meet daily. Their injuries are psychological and hidden from view. As a result, we usually don’t realize their attacks are not due to viciousness, but to pain they have experienced.
So, the next time your boss, spouse, or anyone else unfairly attacks you, don’t get angry. Instead, pause, and imagine it is Bobby biting you. If it were, you wouldn’t get angry, would you? If we would treat others as well as we would treat Bobby, it would be a much better world. Besides, sometimes we are Bobby, attacking others for no clear reason. At such a time, let’s hope our victims will recognize us as Bobby and forgive us.
When we look at an iceberg, we see only a small part of it. Similarly, when we look at others, it is rare indeed that we see any deeper than the surface. Isn’t this one of the reasons why it is so easy to criticize? If we can penetrate the heart of others and feel their pain, fear, and loneliness, how could we be critical? Instead of judging others, let’s appreciate them. For as Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Does this mean all criticism is bad? Not at all. But it should be used in two cases only. First, parents, teachers, supervisors, and others in authority have an obligation to correct the faults of those they are responsible for. Second, we can offer our advice to friends and others who ask for it. But don’t offer it unless they request it. Whether it’s those we are responsible for or our friends, we must always frame our suggestions in a positive or helpful manner. What is the difference between constructive and destructive criticism? We seem to believe that when we criticize others, it is constructive, and when they criticize us, it is destructive. But that is not what I mean here. To clarify, I offer the following guidelines for constructive criticism.
1. Be particularly careful when your friends ask for advice. Before offering any, be sure that is what they really want. Often, when friends ask for guidance all they want is someone to listen. They may want to arrive at their own solutions by bouncing their ideas off you. Or, they may have already decided on a course of action and would like to hear you agree that they have made the right decision. In other words, they’re not looking for advice, but looking for support. So, be sensitive to their needs.
2. Use a carrot, not a whip. Use praise, not criticism. Here’s what Charles M. Schwab had to say on the subject, “In my wide association in life, meeting with many and great men in various parts of the world, I have yet to find the man, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”
3. Be a coach, not a critic. Offer support, not criticism. Edmund Burke explains, “Applaud us when we run; Console us when we fall; Cheer us when we recover.”
4. Before beginning, think of your own weaknesses. This will help you to frame everything more gently. Follow the sage advice of the Chinese, “Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead.”
5. Start on a positive note. First explain what they are doing right and what you like about their behaviour. And follow this with suggestions on how they can do even better. Assure them that you are confident in their ability.
6. Don’t expect others to do what you are not willing to do.
7. When people complain to you about others, get the viewpoint of the person they’re complaining about before criticizing him or her.
8. Take special care before criticizing those who lack the power to defend themselves.
9. Evaluate those under your care not by their present level of behaviour, but by the progress they have already made and can continue to make.
10. Consider your counsel unsuccessful unless those you advise leave feeling they have been helped.
11. Judge others’ actions not by what you think, but by what they thought at the time. It is not the action as much as it is the intention that needs to be considered. Use the same standard that you use to judge yourself. Too often, we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our ideals, aspirations, and good intentions.
12. Offer them an opportunity to save face. Don’t trap them in a dead end. Give them an escape route.
13. Follow the advice offered in the Native American proverb, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
What to Do when You Are Criticized
What should you do when you are the victim of criticism? Here are some tips:.
1. Use the criticism as a learning experience. That is, remember the pain you feel, and vow not to do the same to others.
2. Remember they are using invisible weapons, so are unaware of the pain they are causing. Forgive them.
3. Remember their pain. What do I mean by that? Here’s an explanation by someone who’s used to getting criticized, the singer Boy George, “When folks is mean, it ain’t that they hate you personal. It’s more likely because they are miserable about something in their inside. You got to remember how most of the time when they yell at you or get after you, it ain’t you they are yelling at but something inside themselves you never even heard tell of, like some other person has been mean to them, or something they hoped for didn’t come true, or they done something they are shamed even to think of, so they get mad at you just to keep their minds off it.”
4. Remember not everyone is equally enlightened, or as John Wanamaker said, “I learned 30 years ago that it is foolish to scold. I have enough trouble overcoming my own limitations without fretting over the fact that God has not seen fit to distribute evenly the gift of intelligence.”
5. After being criticized, thank them for their advice and promise to take it into consideration. By thanking them, you are disarming their antagonism and ending the conversation peacefully.
6. Consider the source. The person criticizing you may be incompetent or envious. If so, after thanking them for their advice, just brush it off.
7. Evaluate the criticism. Although the complaint is subjective, there still may be some truth to what they say. Try to use this as an opportunity to grow. Remember, you are imperfect and others may see your flaws more clearly. Learn from them whenever you can, but don’t return the favor by criticizing others!
It is natural to make mistakes, including the type that hurts others. And when we do so, we may dismiss our mistakes with a simple, “Whoops, sorry about that, I’m only human, you know.” Yes, we’re only human; that’s why pencils have erasers. But have you noticed that when we are the victims of the mistakes of others, we may become angry and hold it against them? In other words, if we make a mistake, it’s because we’re only human, but if “they” make a mistake, it’s because they’re stupid! Not rational, is it?.
If we catch ourselves becoming angry by someone’s carelessness, why not stop and forgive them? It’s an opportunity to transcend our humanity and act in a divine way. The purpose of forgiveness is not to absolve others, for who are we to judge them? Rather, the purpose is to free ourselves from the toxicity of resentment, animosity, and bitterness. Those who hold a grudge are held hostage by fear, guilt, and anger. It doesn’t make sense to shackle ourselves to negative feelings and limiting beliefs. Isn’t it much better to choose forgiveness, or the path of peace, understanding, and acceptance? .
Chuck Gallozzi lived, studied, and worked in Japan for 15 years, immersing himself in the wisdom of the Far East and graduating with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Asian Studies. He is a Canadian writer, Certified NLP Practitioner, Founder and Leader of the Positive Thinkers Group in Toronto, speaker, seminar leader, and coachChuck is a catalyst for change, dedicated to bringing out the best in others, and he can be found on the web at: