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
- 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:
- Expression of disapproval on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes
- 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.
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
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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
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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
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