| Family Reflections |

Cut Criticism

We can break the cycle of constant criticizing

Criticizing comes naturally to many parents and spouses. “That’s not how you hold a knife,” or, “Why don’t you ever hang up a towel after you’ve used it?” seem like normal, natural comments on the wrong behaviors that family members engage in. Fast, efficient, easy to give (albeit hard to receive), criticizing those we love and live with is quite the addictive habit for many of us.

So what’s the problem? Well, those who grew up with liberal parental criticism can tell tales from the trenches:

“By the time I left home, I had no confidence left. My mother made it clear that I was too fat, too lazy, and too stupid to get anywhere in life. She never said that directly, of course. It was just the endless criticisms: ‘I don’t know why you can’t just follow the simple instructions on the package!’ or ‘Is this really the best you can do? It looks to me like you’re not even trying...’ and on and on throughout my entire childhood. I don’t even think she realized what she was doing. If you ask her, she’ll tell you we had a great relationship.”

“My father never saw the good in me. At least, if he did, he never mentioned it. But he had lots of other stuff to say. ‘Your coat is on the chair.’ ‘Your shirt is dirty.’ ‘Move your shoes out of the way.’ I know I was a bit of a slob, but it seemed my father had nothing to say to me other than pointing out what I needed to clean up. It was one criticism after the other. I learned to avoid him most of the time and even today, I can’t say that I look forward to spending time with him.”

The Vicious Cycle

In addition to damaging relationships, criticism has plenty of other negative effects. It can harm the self-esteem of developing human beings, and even that of adults. It can actually worsen behavior. It can impede progress in improvement. And it can imbed itself as a program in the brains of innocent youngsters, causing them to default to this style of communication in adulthood. It’s the “gift” that never stops giving (grief).

And yet, the desire to criticize is extremely strong. Indeed, the urge to criticize rivals any addictive process. Let’s slow down the critical process for a moment, to examine it in detail so we can find out why that is.

Let’s imagine that Mom is criticizing her daughter for taking a second helping of potatoes. Mom says, “You don’t need more potatoes. You shouldn’t have so many carbs at one meal.” What happens next (in addition to her daughter silently going through a rollercoaster of emotions and storing the scene in a special inner drawer to share in a couple of decades with her therapist)? Typically, Daughter will stop taking the potatoes. It’s clear that Mom’s criticism “worked” — and Mom’s brain records this fact enthusiastically. (Brain to Mom: “Take note. Issued criticism, received payoff. Use criticism strategy again.”)

Our brains are constantly rewarded for the act of criticizing others. Every time we score a “hit,” feel-good chemicals are released into our bloodstream. This is what causes our criticism addiction.

Breaking Free

As long as we continue to criticize, we will receive feel-good chemicals. As long as we receive these chemicals, we’ll continue to criticize. Unless, of course, we modify the cycle. We can do this by adding some unrewarding chemistry immediately following our criticism. If you really want to stop your habit of chronically criticizing loved ones try this: Immediately following your criticism, go do something you don’t want to do (clean something, exercise, make a difficult or annoying phone call, pay a bill, write out lines — anything you aren’t in the mood to do).

If you prefer, you can just immediately apologize to the person you criticized, saying something like, “I’m sorry. I want to retract that statement. I’ve made too many criticisms lately, and I am trying to stop this annoying habit. I know I’m hurting your feelings when I criticize so often. I’m very sorry and I’m going to do better, I promise.” A lengthy, remorseful statement like this is hard to give, so it will usually do the trick as far as your brain is concerned.

After all this, you’ll still be able to offer the occasional necessary criticism. You’ll simply have broken the habit of using this tool excessively.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 718)

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