Criticism is the first of the well-known Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) by John Gottman which predict divorce and are more than 90% accurate. It may also be the most predictive of disaster in romantic relationships since the other three follow from it.
Criticism can ruin happy relationships when it is:
- About personality, rather than behavior;
- About accusing;
- Not focused on improving the other person;
- Based on just one ‘right way’ to behave;
- About belittling.
Criticism often starts out on a low key and increases over time. It forms a downward spiral with mounting resentment. The criticized partner feels controlled, which frustrates the critical one, who can then steps up the criticism, making the other’s sense of being controlled even bigger, and so on.
Critical people cannot think of the simplest thing: Criticism is the worst way of getting positive behavior change. Any short-term gain that you may get from it will only build resentment down the line.
Also, criticism fails as a result of that it represents two of the things which humans hate the most:
- It calls for submission, and people hate to submit;
- It devalues, and people also hate to feel devalued.
While a lot of people hate to submit, they like to cooperate. Critical partners seem obvious to a vital point about the nature of humans: those that feel valued cooperate and those that are devalued, resist. If you want a person to change his/her behavior, you should show value for that person. If you also want their resistance, you should keep on criticizing.
Critical partners are smart enough to understand that criticism just does not work. Therefore, why do they keep behaving like that in the face of escalating frustration? The reason may be because criticism is an easy way to defend their ego. Also, we do not criticize because we disagree with an attitude, but as we somehow feel devalued by a particular attitude. Critical partners also tend to be easily and especially in need of defending their egos.
Several critical people were frequently criticized in their early childhood by their families, as well as teachers or friends. Criticism can be especially painful for kids. They cannot distinguish it of their attitude from rejection, even when some adults try to help them to make the distinction. Those distinctions also require a higher prefrontal cortex operation, which is beyond most kids. To a kid that is under 7, anything more than occasional criticism, even when it is soft-planned, means that they are wrong and unworthy.
The only thing which children can do to survive criticism is to attach to those that will take care of them emotionally.
By early adolescence, young teenagers start to “identify with the aggressor” and emulate the more powerful criticizer. Later on, self-criticism will expand to criticism of others. By young adulthood, it seems to be solely the criticism of other people. But, most critical people stay primarily self-critical. As hard as they are on other people, most of them are at least equally hard on themselves.
To tell you if you are critical, you will have to be listening to what your partner or close friend, or maybe a family member is telling you. If they tell you that you are, maybe it is true. It is really hard for you to understand that you are critical, that is why you have to listen.
You should remember that criticism is different from feedback. Critical individuals usually delude themselves into believing that they simply give helpful feedback. Here is the difference:
- Criticism focuses on what is wrong;
- Feedback focuses on how to improve;
- It implies the worst about the character of others;
- Feedback is about certain behaviors, not personality;
- It devalues;
- Feedback encourages;
- It implies blame;
- Feedback focuses on the future;
- Criticism attempts to control;
- Feedback respects autonomy;
- It is coercive;
- Feedback is not at all coercive.
Also, you will need to keep in mind that you should avoid trying to give feedback when you are angry, as, no matter how you put it, it will be heard as criticism. That is as people will respond to your emotional tone, not your intention. You should try to regulate the anger or resentment before you give any feedback.
Here are some good ways of giving feedback:
- You should focus on how the other person could improve;
- You should focus on the behavior that you like to see, not on the personality of your partner, as well as family member or friend;
- Encourage change, rather than undermining confidence;
- Offer your help sincerely;
- Respect the autonomy of another person;
- Do not be resentful if they do what you want.