Dear Neil: I strongly dislike how critical I am of others. I look for things I could label as annoyances—how someone eats, how they talk, how they dress, whether they are being lazy, etc. I know I need to chill out, but how do I do so?
Critical in Sweden
Dear Critical: We tend to judge other people about those things we feel insecure about, or when we feel that we are not measuring up. We want to compare ourselves favorably to others, because so often we are internally fighting our own inner critic who tends to be highly judgmental of us—the way we look, the way we talk and the way we act. So feeling better than other people is one way of reassuring ourselves that we really are all right, and that nothing is wrong with us.
You can change being critical of others by learning to go easy on yourself, and therefore toning down your own inner critic. It’s not that your inner critic is wrong, it’s that your critic is so harshly and unmercifully judgmental that it frequently doesn’t afford you any benefit of doubt. Yes, you may have misspoke, or handled a situation poorly, or were unprepared, but there were extenuating circumstances you hadn’t anticipated, and isn’t this how we all learn to be better? Hopefully, after you learn what doesn’t work, you will make it a point to handle a similar situation more effectively next time.
We are not perfect and all of us make mistakes. So see if you can embark on a quest for self-betterment. That’s how we all learn to become more skilled and adept at handling things we once didn’t know how to handle. When we make a mistake, we learn what doesn’t work, and we gain skills, competence and hopefully a better idea about what will work. Focus on how you’re learning and improving; that’s the antidote to your inner critic.
And other people are learning the same way we are. Maybe she dresses poorly or he eats with poor table manners, but do you think she or he will always be that way? Is it not likely that someone will be openly critical and that therefore she will be more motivated to dress more smartly, or that he will feel embarrassed by someone calling attention to his eating habits and therefore hold himself accountable for doing better? This is how we all develop, progress and improve.
I’m saying that you are being critical of others because you are critical of yourself, and therefore you are attempting to reassure yourself that, by comparison, you are not all that bad. Here’s what you could do that would be more constructive: Push back against your inner critic. Yes, you may have erred, but tell your critic how you will handle the situation better the next time. That’s the best any of us can realistically ask of ourselves.
And when you find yourself critically viewing others, you might consider doing two things. First, ask yourself: “How would it feel if somebody said or thought that of me?” Second, see if you can rephrase the criticism (even if it’s not spoken) as a kind suggestion. So instead of “That looks terrible on you,” you might change it to “Yellow would look really attractive on you.”