What Does Criticism Say About You?

Criticism hurts. It hurts even when it is supposedly done to help you better yourself. It hurts when others criticize you and when you criticize yourself. It hurts because it is a destructive judgment.

Criticism is defined as the expression of disapproval of someone based on perceived faults or mistakes. This definition is key to understanding what criticism really says about you.  When someone criticizes you it is a reflection of their perception. They have experienced something that you said or did and, based on a perception, reacted to it and voiced a judgment against you. Their perception does not inherently mean that you are at fault or that you made a mistake.

Receiving criticism primarily hurts because we all seek approval from others. We want to be understood, loved, and accepted. When someone criticizes us it can feel very vulnerable because we are not getting what we most want. It can feel isolating instead of creating a warm connection that could come from a different form of communication. Often when we feel the most outraged by a criticism it is because the other person is pointing out our own perceived faults about ourselves and we fear that our unworthiness has been revealed and judged.

For example, if you are worried about how you look and are criticized for wearing an inappropriate outfit to work, you may feel particularly offended. Whereas if you are confident in your looks and fashion sense, you will recognize that your coworker is voicing their own experience of your outfit which may be a reflection of their insecurity. Either way, they want to guide you to wear a different outfit because they perceive your outfit as inappropriate. They are using judgment to influence your behavior.

Is it possible for criticism to be constructive? Even if the intention is to help you grow, the way to do that is not by pointing out perceived errors in a critical manner. When you are judged as right or wrong, it is very hard to hear the criticism as constructive. The whole reason one criticizes another is to voice their disapproval based on their observation and opinion. Disapproval is not fertile soil for personal growth and improvement.

So what does criticism say about you when others are voicing their negative opinion? Nothing.

But, what does criticism say about you when you are the one expressing your disapproval? Everything.

When you perceive some else’s actions as faulty and feel the need to point out their wrongs to them, you are really voicing your own insecurities and vulnerabilities. When you, based on your observation, feel the need to correct their opinion or behavior through criticism, you are revealing your own experience more than you are helping them with theirs.

Therefore, if you want to be constructive, then you must voice your observation and opinion in a more authentic and honest way. They did not act inappropriately. You perceived their actions as inappropriate. How can you reframe your criticisms into a constructive conversation based on your observations?

Instead of jumping to criticism, try translating your thoughts into the observation of what is actually happening. Rather than implying right or wrong, try voicing how you feel.

Here is an example of a criticism: “You don’t help enough with the household chores. You are too lazy to even put your dishes into the dishwasher. How hard is that?”

Here is how you could reframe your disapproval into an observation: “I noticed that for the past three days there have been dishes in the sink when I come home. I feel a little frustrated because I had an expectation that you would put your lunch dishes in the dishwasher.”

The first is a judgment of what you think about the action and the fault that you see in the other person. The second is pure observation of the action, how you feel, and why.

It is important to speak your own truth, but you have to also remember that your experience of something is not always the same as someone else’s. It is important to develop a loving acceptance of the diverse values that other’s hold. We do not all need to be the same to reach for understanding and acceptance. You can share your experience without criticizing. You can also hear a criticism and recognize it as the opinion it is.

Try hearing criticism differently. Listen for the other person’s experience. Hold your own inner critic back from jumping on the bandwagon and joining in to point out every fault, mistake, or foible you have ever made. We are actually the hardest on ourselves. That inner critic also leaves us feeling vulnerable enough to point out the faults in others. Start with your inner dialogue of self-criticism and transform your judgmental relationships for good.

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