Criticism is a not-so-silent destroyer of relationships: relationships with your partner, friends and family or even with yourself. Destroyer is a pretty bold way of describing what criticism can do to relationships but in my work with individuals, couples, and families, I have yet to see a positive outcome from criticism.
Some people may think if they don’t share criticism with their partner that nothing will ever change for the better in their relationship. This is when the meaning of criticism versus feedback gets mixed up.
Why is criticism destructive?
Criticism is when you are clearly showing your disapproval of something or someone due to perceived faults or wrongdoing. I think of it as when someone just wants to pick apart a person or a situation with a tone of “I’m picking you apart because I disapprove…”
Maybe it is due to anger, insecurity, sadness, loss of hope, or a tendency to always be critical of one’s own self and others. People who are more critical in their relationships have often been surrounded by criticism their entire lives (their upbringing, friendships or work group). Criticism becomes the way in which they try to give what they think is feedback to others.
There's really no such thing as constructive criticism. We don't have different parts of our brains that take things personally and parts of our brains that don't. We have one brain. That brain goes with us to our business meetings, when we have sex and when we argue. So basically, that means everything is personal. Positive feedback, offered compassionately and carefully is much better, especially intimate relationships.
What's the difference between criticism and feedback?
Feedback feels different. Even the word feels better to me- less attacking. Feedback is different from criticism in that you’re offering information about reactions you have to someone or something. And I think you may naturally be more compassionate with feedback because it is you offering your feelings versus pointing fingers immediately to someone or something else.
To give good feedback, you have to turn inward and asking yourself what it is you need (maybe more of the same or something different) and then express this to your partner, or friend, colleague, or family member. It’s vulnerable.
How do I overcome criticism?
I struggle to recognize when criticism isn’t destructive. Maybe you can relate: I’m most critical of myself when my relationship and my surroundings aren’t the way I want them. It can be a vicious cycle when you pick yourself apart for not meeting expectations, and nothing else in your life seems to be going right either. Beating yourself and your relationship(s) up doesn’t feel good to anyone, and self-esteem and relational strength can suffer. So any time criticism starts knocking on my door I have to tell it to go away and focus inward on what I need- feedback.
Maybe this feedback is just for myself. Like, “Hey Mandi, you’re doing good enough. You got this.” Maybe all I really need is to recognize what I am doing versus what I’m not. Maybe offer myself a little compassion.
In my work I look for where more compassion is needed. It may be some clients need more self-compassion and others need more compassion from the people they love. Sometimes people get into a rut where the world seems really negative and they’re only aware of when things go wrong. And sometimes, after years of history and experiences, the tone of a relationship has evolved into just a critical one.
Criticism can become the default to how one communicates with him/herself but also with his/her partner. It’s like an infection in the relationship that has now taken over and the fever isn’t fighting it, but feedback can.
So, look inward for some feedback.
Ask yourself: What is it that you are feeling? What is it that you need- from yourself or from others? What is a realistic expectation for yourself and others? This inner dialogue can help you slow down a rapid-fire critical response to a more compassionate one.
Ask your partner the same questions and ask your partner to do the same. Look inward some feedback. Criticism can go away now.
To schedule an appointment with Mandi Roarke, LMFT-Associate, call 512-537-0995.