What To Do About Criticism



So often in my work with couples I see the destructive effect criticism can have on a relationship.   Criticism is a behaviour that can be toxic to a relationship.  It erodes away positive feelings over time and leads to other problematic behaviours that can destroy a relationship.

If you read on you will learn 17 ways on how to deal with
criticism to help build a healthy relationship.

The main problem with criticism is that it can pave the way for the negative attitude called contempt.

Criticism is destructive to relationships when it is:

  • About personality or character, rather than behaviour
  • Filled with blame
  • Not focused on improvement
  • Based on only one “right way” to do things
  • Belittling

Criticism in close relationships starts out, in most cases, on a low key and escalates over time, forming a downward spiral with increasing resentment.  The criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense of being controlled, and so on.

At no time in this downward spiral does an obvious fact occur to critical people: Criticism is an utter failure at getting positive behaviour change.  Any short-term gain you might get from it just builds resentment down the line.

Criticism fails because it embodies two of the things that human beings hate the most:

  • It calls for submission, and we hate to submit.
  • It devalues, and we hate to feel devalued.

While people hate to submit, we do like to cooperate.  Critical people seem oblivious to a key point about human nature: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists.  If you want behaviour change, show value for the person whose behaviour you want to change.  If you want resistance, criticize.

Critical people are certainly smart enough to figure out that criticism doesn’t work.  So why do they keep doing it in the face of mounting frustration?

They keep doing it because criticism is an easy form of ego defence.  It’s isn’t that we criticize because we disagree with a behaviour or an attitude.  We criticize because we somehow feel devalued by the behaviour or attitude.  Critical people tend to be easily insulted and especially in need of ego defence.

Critical people were often criticized in early childhood by caretakers, siblings, or peers.  Criticism can be especially painful for young children.  They cannot distinguish criticism of their behaviour from rejection, no matter how much we try to make the distinction for them, as in the well-intentioned, “You’re a good boy, but this behaviour is bad.” Such a distinction requires a higher prefrontal cortex operation, which is beyond most young children.  To a child under seven, anything more than occasional criticism, even if soft-pedalled, means they’re bad and unworthy.

How to Tell if You’re Critical

You’re likely to be the last to know whether you’re a critical person.  As the joke goes, “I give feedback; you’re critical.  I’m firm; you’re stubborn.  I’m flexible; you’re wishy-washy.  I’m in touch with my feelings; you’re hysterical!”

If someone tells you you’re critical, you probably are.  But there’s even a better way to tell: Think of what you automatically say to yourself if you drop something or make a mistake.  Critical people will typically think, “Oh you idiot,” or, “Jerk,” or just curse or sigh in disgust.  If you do that to yourself, you most likely do it to others as well.

Criticism vs.  Feedback

Critical people often delude themselves into thinking that they merely give helpful feedback.  The following are ways to tell the two apart.

  • Criticism focuses on what’s wrong. (“Why can’t you pay attention to the bills?”)
  • Feedback focuses on how to improve. (“Let’s go over the bills together.”)
  • Criticism implies the worst about the other’s personality. (“You’re stubborn and lazy.”)
  • Feedback is about behaviour, not personality. (“Can we start by sorting the bills according to due date?”)
  • Criticism devalues. (“I guess you’re just not smart enough to do this.”)
  • Feedback encourages. (“I know you have a lot on your plate, but I’m pretty sure we can do this together.”)
  • Criticism implies blame. (“It’s your fault we’re in this financial mess.”)
  • Feedback focuses on the future. (“We can get out of this mess if we both give up a few things.  What do you think?”)
  • Criticism attempts to control. (“I know what’s best; I’m smarter and more educated.”)
  • Feedback respects autonomy. (“I respect your right to make that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.”)
  • Criticism is coercive. (“You’re going to do what I want, or else I won’t connect with you or will punish you in some way.”)
  • Feedback is not at all coercive. (“I know we can find a solution that works for both of us.”)


Warning About Feedback

If you’re angry or resentful, any “feedback” you give will be heard as criticism, no matter how you put it.  That’s because people respond to emotional tone, not intention.  It’s best to regulate the anger or resentment before you try to give feedback.

To give feedback from your core value:

  • Focus on how to improve.
  • Focus on the behaviour you would like to see, not on the personality of your partner or child.
  • Encourage change, instead of undermining confidence.
  • Sincerely offer help.
  • Respect his/her autonomy.
  • Resist the urge to punish or withdraw affection if he/she doesn’t do what you want.


If you’re a critical person, you must get a handle on your impulse to criticize before it ruins your relationship.




  1. Focus on what you CAN control. If you like to be in control, remind yourself to look at the difference between what you have control over and what you don’t.  Remember the serenity prayer?
    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change; 
    courage to change the things I can; 
    and wisdom to know the difference. 
  2. Learn to practice acceptance. Fighting for what you cannot change or control will only cause more struggle and pain.  If you can learn to accept the things you cannot change, you will be more likely to put your energy into more positive and constructive outcomes.  You will have more strength, depth, resilience, and flexibility than you think you have.
  3. Challenge yourself to share. You and your partner are creating a dynamic together.  If you are dominating the relationship and your partner is not getting what he/she wants, then your partner is probably not going to be in the happy long-term.  If your partner is unhappy, then your relationship will not be happy and healthy.  Wouldn’t you rather have a mutually rewarding and beneficial dynamic, where both of you are happy and fulfilled?
  4. See the value in having different opinions. If you think your way is right, then you probably value your opinion and your thinking.  Wonderful! Now, try to see the merit in your partner’s perspective and preferences.  As an exercise, try putting the quality of your relationship bond as the priority above being right.  Ask yourself, what is more important- being right or being happy?
  5. Learn the significance of your reactions. If you are having a strong judgment or criticism of your partner, then take a moment to reflect.  Ask yourself, “How come this issue is so important to me? What meaning does this concern have for me? How come I am so sensitive to this issue? Am I making my partner’s shortcomings my problem?”
  6. Give yourself support.  If you are anxious and trying to control the world around you (to feel more comfortable), you may not even realize how you are feeling.  Pause.  Breath.  Ask yourself, “What am I really feeling? What am I worried, anxious, or fearful about?” Be there for yourself.  Attend to your needs.  Practice self-care (i.e.  set limits on your amount of giving, get good rest, nutrition, activity, etc.).
  7. Learn to appreciate you. Do you struggle with feelings of inadequacy or insecurity? Learn to develop a more acknowledging inner voice.  Acknowledge three things you appreciate about yourself every day.
  8. Learn to value what you have to offer. Create a list of 10 ways you bring contributions to others.  Stay with it until you get 10 or more.  Sometimes it is hard to generate ideas of self-appreciation because you are not used to thinking in this way.  If you stay with it long enough, you will begin to recognize more ways you bring value to the world.
  9. Learn to have a constructive inner voice. A critical inner dialogue constantly critiques and corrects in ways that are undermining to your self-esteem and self-confidence (i.e.  “You idiot.  You are so stupid.  You fool.”).  How do you reframe your critical statements? What would be a kinder, more gentle statement? Focus on how to improve.  Be encouraging.  Believe in yourself.  Build your self-esteem and inner security.
  10. Focus on the relationship. If you are in the habit of criticising, try pausing before commenting.  Think and consider what you want to say to your partner.  Reframe your original judgements.  If you were to put your judgments into positive language, then what would you say? Create a climate for learning, patience, and kindness.  Focus on behaviours that foster a healthy, happy, rewarding relationship.
  11. Practice forgiveness.  Can it be forgiven? If not, set-up a time to address the concern constructively.   Create an attitude of generosity.
  12. Learn to reveal what is true.  Learn how to be more open, transparent, and present.  If you take a risk to be open and present to the people you trust, you will increase the likelihood of being received, loved, and appreciated for being yourself without any pretence.  By doing this, you will build healthy trust from your partner.
  13. See the value in your partner. Shift towards an appreciation.  List three positive aspects of your partner or the situation.  Catch your partner doing something good.  And sincerely offer appreciation to her/him.
  14. Let your partner be them.  Let you be you.   Acknowledge to yourself, “If it were me, I would do things differently.  However, it is not me in this situation.” Respect your partner’s autonomy.  Would you feel different if you knew you were not responsible for what your partner is thinking or how they are behaving?
  15. Try a 7-day fast of no criticism to break old habits.  Be in the practice of looking for the good in others and within your life.  This will help retrain your mind.
  16. Choose criticism free times or zones. Make an agreement with yourself and/or your spouse to have times where you will not engage in critical comments.  For example, an hour before bedtime, in the morning, or after dinner.   Arrange to make a playful forfeit whenever you slip up.
  17. Practice gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal.   Bringing your attention to something you are grateful for is one of the quickest and most powerful ways to shift your mindset.  Try to identify a few things that you are genuinely grateful for.
Categories : Relationships

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