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The adverse effects of criticism on people is a huge area of psychotherapeutic endeavour. The effects of criticism frequently arise in individual therapy, couples counselling and family therapy.

For individuals, the effects of criticism from others are associated with a number of different psychological problems, including and not limited to:

  • Difficulties in psychological coping1
  • Psychological distress2
  • Depression3, 4, 5, 6
  • Anxiety5
  • Social anxiety7
  • Panic disorder8
  • Eating disorders9
  • Some personality processes, so-called ‘personality disorders’10
  • Difficulties in romantic relationships11, 12
  • Difficulties with child-rearing4

Sometimes the effects of criticism from others become internalised13, an ‘internalised critic’, a part of a person’s psyche that turns against themselves. This self-criticism is a well-recognised pathway to a range of psychological problems, including distress2, depression4, 5, 6, anxiety5, eating disorders9, personality processes10 and difficulties in romantic relationships11,12.

The evidence is that it isn’t just what happens to us but also how we criticise ourselves for what happened to us that leads to adverse psychological effects2, 5, 11, 12.

Becoming less self-critical and more self-compassionate are associated with:

  • Greater perceived ability to cope with life1
  • Improvement in distress2
  • Improvement in wellbeing and reduced psychological distress3
  • Improvement in depression6
  • Improvement in social anxiety8
  • Improvement in panic disorder9

Furthermore, some research has shown that it is the reduction in self-criticism that predict the improvements in distress2 and improvement in personality-process symptoms10.

For couples, criticism of one another ‘if you’re going to criticise me, then I’m going to criticise you back’, is technically known as a Negative Interaction Cycle and destroys the secure attachment both are seeking14.

This also plays out in families too, eroding the attachments between family members. As described above, criticism from family members, especially parents, can lead to psychological problems as a child, teen and later in life, even after having left home. Leaving home doesn’t necessarily mean the internalised critic is left behind.

In couple and family relationships criticism of one another destroys intimacy, attachment and emotional safety.

Googling ‘criticism’ yields two related definitions:

  1. Expression of disapproval on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes
  2. Analysis and judgement of the merits and faults

Seemingly the word ‘criticism’ comes from the Latin word Criticus, for ‘a judger’ or ‘decider’. This in turn is believed to arise from the Greek Krites, meaning ‘judge’.

In his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People series, Stephen Covey wrote how in his view judgement and understanding were opposites; understanding someone removes judgement of them and judging them shows a lack of understanding.

People like to be understood. People don’t like unfair judgements being made of them. Being judged unfairly by self and others leads to a wide range of psychological problems.

Clinical experience is that harsh criticism by parent(s) and other caregivers when young can lead to a harsh internalised critic in later life. Internalising the critic can serve to bring some predictability to being criticised; and maybe a way of avoiding being criticised by the other. The cost can be a lifetime of self-criticism and risk of a wide range of psychological difficulties.

Some ‘high intensity’ criticism can be easy to spot. This is the kind of criticism that observers might think of as abuse. Even so, to the person receiving this kind of criticism, it may not appear to be abuse or even criticism. It might just be what we are used to. Familiar. Just how life is.

Criticism of a ‘lower intensity’ might be more difficult to spot, even to an observer. Telling people what to do and giving advice when not requested are both subtle forms of criticism. It can tell the recipient ‘you don’t know, I know better than you’.

At an even lower level, some forms of praise can even constitute a form of criticism. Telling a child, the painting they have done at school shows they are a wonderful artist can set up what psychologists’ call ‘conditions of worth’16. This can tell the child ‘I’ll love you provided you produce what I deem to be ‘the works of a wonderful artist’. Anything less means you are unlovable.

Some of the antidotes to criticism can include trying to listen to, understand and accept the other person. Not name calling. Not belittling. Not setting up conditions of worth that create fear of failure in the other person. As much as possible providing a secure and unconditional attachment free from the threat of being ignored, rejected or abandoned.

Sticks and stones is an English children’s rhyme that tries to persuade that: ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me’.

The research is in. It’s just not true. Criticism, including name calling, is hugely harmful and detrimental to lifetime psychological wellbeing.

Sources:

Keng, S.-L., Choo, X., & Tong, E. M. W. (2018). Association between trait mindfulness and variability of coping strategies: A diary study. Mindfulness. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-0885-4

Campos, R. C., Holden, R. R., Caçador, B., Fragata, A. S., & Baleizão, C. (2018). Self-criticism, intensity of perceived negative life events, and distress: Results from a two-wave study. Personality and Individual Differences, 124, 145-149. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.12.004

Sommers-Spijkerman, M. P. J., Trompetter, H. R., Schreurs, K. M. G., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2018). Compassion-focused therapy as guided self-help for enhancing public mental health: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86(2), 101-115. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000268

Shimizu, M., & Teti, D. M. (2018). Infant sleeping arrangements, social criticim, and maternal distress in the first year. Infant and Child Development. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/icd.2080

Kopala-Sibley, D. C., Klein, D. N., Perlman, G., & Kotov, R. (2017). Self-criticism and dependency in female adolescents: Prediction of first onsets and disentangling the relationships between personality, stressful life events, and internalizing psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 126(8), 1029-1043. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000297

Chui, H., Zilcha-Mano, S., Dinger, U., Barrett, M. S., & Barber, J. P. (2016). Dependency and self-criticism in treatments for depression. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(4), 452-459. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000142

Rose, A. V., & Rimes, K. A. (2018). Self‐criticism self‐report measures: Systematic review. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/papt.12171

Shahar, B., Bar-Kalifa, E., & Alon, E. (2017). Emotion-focused therapy for social anxiety disorder: Results from a multiple-baseline study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 85(3), 238-249. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000166

Chambless, D. L., Allred, K. M., Chen, F. F., McCarthy, K. S., Milrod, B., & Barber, J. P. (2017). Perceived criticism predicts outcome of psychotherapy for panic disorder: Replication and extension. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 85(1), 37-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000161

Lowyck, B., Luyten, P., Vermote, R., Verhaest, Y., & Vansteelandt, K. (2017). Self-critical perfectionism, dependency, and symptomatic distress in patients with personality disorder during hospitalization-based psychodynamic treatment: A parallel process growth modeling approach. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 8(3), 268-274. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000189

Lassri, D., Luyten, P., Cohen, G., & Shahar, G. (2016). The effect of childhood emotional maltreatment on romantic relationships in young adulthood: A double mediation model involving self-criticism and attachment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 8(4), 504-511. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000134

Lassri, D., Luyten, P., Fonagy, P., & Shahar, G. (2018). Undetected scars? Self-criticism, attachment, and romantic relationships among otherwise well-functioning childhood sexual abuse survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 121-129. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000271

Elliott, R., Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Learning emotion-focused theapy: The process-experiential approach to change. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10725-000

Fraser, J. S. (2018). Couple problems. In J. S. Fraser, Unifying effective psychotherapies: Tracing the process of change (pp. 191-222). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0000078-010

Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY, US: Free Press.  ISBN 0-7432-6951-9OCLC 56413718

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centred framework. In (Ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

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