I do my fair share of criticising others. Its almost too easy, there’s no shortage of morons about. It feels good, often even fun, and I know people whose whole personalities revolve around being critical. But its all because of feelings of shame, and I’ll prove why.
When you gossip, bitch, or criticise someone, whats the goal, whats the motive? There must be some benefit somewhere, or else you wouldn’t do it. Why does it feel good?
An innocent answer might be that it feels good to let of steam. If someone has made you angry, talking about it feels like decompressing.
But people rarely talk about their feelings in a situation like that, or the behaviours or actions that led them to be triggered.
Instead, its normally an attack on a person’s personality, identity or physical features.
Often, it can be without any provocation at all.
It feels unconsciously comforting to bitch, because you’re trying to reduce your shame levels for that moment.
You’re feeling better about yourself, by drawing direct comparison to someone else.
If I really get in touch with how I feel whilst criticising someone, its not a position of strength. Strength would be empathising, understanding that people all have their own reasons for doing the things they do, which might be borne out of shame in just the same way.
No, I feel weak.
I feel like my self-worth is eroding gradually, the more I try to feel better about myself by comparing to others.
“I’m frightened of being broken, not good enough, and unloved – so I’ll throw that same punishment at someone else. That way I deserve the feelings of shame I have”.
The conscious feeling of comfort is like eating a whole cheesecake, knowing that really, its not actually doing too much good.
There’s a terrific book called Points, by David Gustafson. It turns the shame situation into a maths dynamic – doing good things (loving, empathy, kindness, self-discipline, learning, exercise) gives you positive points, whilst bad things (bitching, criticising, laziness etc) give you bad points. Overall, the points you accumulate during your average day (i.e. when you’re not really thinking about it) tells you a lot about whether you’re on a vicious, or positive cycle. Really, I can’t recommend it enough. Its a great system, and a brilliant way to remind yourself of the present moment when you find yourself about to embark on some negative points.
There’s always an explanation
Have you ever been misunderstood, or hurt someone, and then explained yourself back to neutrality? In that situation, the person might apologise for taking it the wrong way, or being overly sensitive to something that wasn’t meant to cause offense.
Where you’re the one being criticised, of course then its always a different story – they just don’t know the real reasons behind something.
You were tired – you were depressed – you weren’t thinking – you’re not normally that way – you just didn’t know – it was an accident – they misunderstood.
If you read the page on defensiveness, you’ll see how people can react in all kinds of irrational ways when their shame levels are rising and feeling threatened.
Or the page about how the primal brain is activated with shame – making people behave in ways that they never would normally. “I don’t know what came over me”.
What if someone is the way they are, because of shame?
Shyness and being withdrawn can often be mistaken for being aloof – as if you’re too good to be involved.
Sometimes its our own feelings of shame that make us overly sensitive to something.
Sometimes we feel hatred towards someone for not giving us the approval we want from them – and launch a hostile, rejecting attack in return.
The more I’ve learned and realised about shame, the more I’ve noticed it underneath many behaviours in people. It really does help to build empathy and understanding rather than feelings of hatred and hostility.
Of course, it doesn’t turn me into a calm, enlightened being – my own shame levels still rear their ugly head once in a while. Its a journey for sure.
The other effect of being critical
When you’ve heard someone ripping into someone you know, maybe a mutual friend, does it ever cross your mind that you might be a target for them in some other situation, with someone else?
People sometimes even say “present company excepted, of course” when blanket-bombing a whole group of people that you might even belong to. Deep down, you know that you’re not really excepted.
People who criticise often may be funny, sarcastic and even witty – but they’re also frequently given a wider berth by people. Its not attractive. Its not warm. It doesn’t evoke feelings of caring or empathy. They’ll surround themselves with so-called friends, any of which will be fair game for criticism.
It projects anxiety, and nastiness, and fragility.
Practice not being critical
Try and spot the next time you’re about to say something critical, and try saying something positive instead.
If that’s difficult, try saying something understanding, like “maybe he’s afraid of …” or “it can’t be nice, knowing that you’re…”
If you’re with someone who’s being critical, try asking them why they think the person might be that way. You might also want to ask if they’ve ever done the thing that’s being criticised themselves, or would ever be afraid of doing that themselves.
Often, its exactly a fear of having something in common with the target of criticism that creates the hostility.
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