Criticizing others is safe in the sense that it directs your attention away from yourself. As long as you are focused on what others are doing wrong you don’t have to feel the discomfort of your own fear, disappointment, and unmet needs.
Criticizing others can also give the illusion of control. That is, if you are able to tell someone what’s wrong with them, you not only think you see more than they do, but you might also imagine that your criticism will cause them to change their ways.
Sometimes criticism is sneaky and comes in the form of philosophical stances and complex psychological analyses. This can be hard for you to catch regardless of whether you are on the speaking or receiving end.
For example, I was recently working with a couple who was offering an event together. As they entered the marketing stage, Jon began to criticize by stating his philosophy, “The right people will come. We should just let people find out organically. We are offering something important and people will either see it or they won’t. This isn’t about making money. We just offer with no strings.” Jon’s partner had worked hard on preparing to market their offering, and heard Jon as criticizing his efforts.
Looking underneath Jon’s philosophy we found that he was feeling nervous around his needs for authenticity in the context of offering something from his heart and receiving money for it. I coached Jon in expressing this and making requests to keep him and his partner in dialogue around staying in integrity with their offerings and being able to support themselves and their child at the same time.
In working with another couple, a woman offered her partner criticism through analysis, “I think you have a low self-concept in our relationship. You seem to have an okay self-concept professionally, but with us you don’t.”
If she were to offer honest expression rather than analysis, she would risk more vulnerability in sharing her heart. It might sound like this, “When I hear you ask me if I am going to leave you, I feel sad and deflated, because I am longing for trust and acknowledgement. Would you be willing to tell me three things you see me doing that lets you know I am committed to this relationship?”
This week notice when you are directing your thoughts or words towards criticizing others. Take a moment to reflect on what’s in your heart in that moment. What feelings are there? Is there a value you want to protect? What are you longing for?