Dear Neil: I grew up in a home where I was often criticized for failing to be what I was supposed to be. I was led to believe that I never performed well enough at anything. When I brought home a report card of all A’s with one B+, I was asked why I hadn’t worked harder. I grew up with an understanding that I was grossly lacking in a multitude of ways, and that I would never measure up.
I raised my son by criticizing him. Unfortunately, he was irreparably damaged by my hypercritical parenting. I love my son, but he does not view me as loving. This situation has further cemented my belief that I am deeply flawed and unworthy, and my shame is enormous. For some reason, I only harm those people I love—so I now stay away from them in order to protect them from me. And I have withdrawn from the world as my energy doesn’t benefit anyone most of the time.
It’s so easy to criticize a critical person. Since being criticized is what created the issue in the first place, criticizing the critical person simply feeds the problem. Few people seem to remember the adage that those that deserve love the least need it the most, but that’s exactly what people like me need. Before judging a judgmental person, please stop and realize that there’s no criticism you can level that they haven’t already leveled at themselves. Compassion and kindness would go further.
Human in Michigan
Dear Human: You have accurately summarized why some people are critical, hard to please and very judgmental. As children or teens, they themselves were judged, criticized and left feeling as if they didn’t measure up. Since they were raised with such strict and unbending standards, they are more likely to behave in adulthood and parenthood the same way they were raised, bringing low self-esteem and insecurity to a whole new generation. In essence, they are doing unto others what was done onto them.
There is also the tendency to be critical and judgmental of others because you are extremely disapproving, fault-finding and condemning of yourself. It’s hard for you to be around you because you’re so self-critical, and it is also hard for others to be around you because they are tired of (or fear) your judgement.
So what can you do about this? First and foremost, you could refocus your attention to what people do right. What’s right about other people? What do you like, love, admire, respect and appreciate about them? Why are they good people? If you refocus your attention to what’s good, your scrutiny will be taken from what’s not so good, or what you could be judgmental about. Retrain yourself to look at the positive instead of the negative—in both yourself and others.
Second, see if you can rephrase a criticism as a kind suggestion. So instead of “That outfit doesn’t look good on you,” you might say “You look so distinguished when you wear black.” Or instead of “I don’t like the food at that restaurant,” you might say “I have heard the food at this other restaurant is really good.”
Third, challenge yourself to say twice as many positive things to people—especially those you care about—than negative or critical things. And instead of being critical, ask the person if you might offer an encouraging suggestion. Encouraging suggestions are easier to hear than criticisms. And focus on behaviors instead of personality traits. Attacking someone’s personality will be viewed as a personal attack on the individual, not on that person’s behavior.
Fourth, ask instead of tell. Ask why your friend has withdrawn instead of telling her that you’re upset by her withdrawal. Ask how someone got themselves into a pickle instead of telling them you’re dismayed that they’re in a pickle. Finally, we are more prone to be critical of others when we’re not happy with ourselves. So look inward, not outward, when you’re upset. Is there something about your life you’re unhappy about? See if you can fix yourself. If you do, you’ll be far less likely to attempt to fix other people.
I liked your reply having grown up in a similar family. Fortunately, I stopped my criticism of my family before it was too late and we now have a close loving family. I feel very appreciated as a father by my two adult sons and by my wife of 31 years. What stopped me in my tracks was first, the damage I could see my criticism was doing, but secondly, it hit me one day, I thought, “what really does matter to me?”, pointing out others mistakes, or having a warm and loving relationship with my family. It probably sounds like an incredibly simple question with an obvious answer, but it really struck me to the heart. I was my own worst enemy in getting something that really mattered to me. After that I wanted to be a different person and I actively went about becoming that person. It wasn’t always smooth, but I never wavered in what I knew really mattered to me. Anyway, your column reminded me of my story, and I thought I would share it. Thanks for all you do to help us live more sane and better lives.