Criticism: Why name-calling is more painful than a broken bone.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Rose, A. V., & Rimes, K. A. (2018). Self‐criticism self‐report measures: Systematic review. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Advance online publication.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Daffodils and psychological wellbeing


two daffodils

Sunny weather this weekend gives a sense winter will come to an end. In the garden daffodils are starting to open.

Daffodils belong to the plant genus Narcissus, with about fifty different species.

The Roman, Pliny the Elder, claimed the Greeks named Narcissus for the effect of the plants’ fragrance on anyone smelling them, narkao is Greek for ‘I grow numb’; from which we also get the word narcotics.

In Greek mythology Narcissus is a young male hunter who seeing his own reflection in a pool of water falls in love with his own good looks, passes out and ultimately dies. According to myth Narcissus grows into the plant of that name next to the pool.

At the start of the 1900s, around the time of Freud, psychoanalysts began using the term ‘narcissism’, derived from the myth of Narcissus, to describe someone filled with self-admiration. This term continues to be used to describe someone who has a need to be admired by others.

There can be down-sides to having too much ego (ego is Latin for ‘I’). The idea of a ‘shrink’ is someone who helps us ‘shrink our ego back down to size’.

Yet there is also a need for sufficient ego (sense of self) to be able to take care of oneself, to tolerate difficult feelings such as hurt, sadness and disappointment. And to work towards important goals over a period of time, to take care of loved ones and to have a sense of meaning in one’s life.

Around the start of the 2000s psychologists began to consider what they called ‘the psychological immune system’. The physical immune system is what helps our body fight off infection. Similarly, the idea of a psychological immune system is a sufficiently strong ego or sense of self, helps us overcome adversity and keep on going in pursuit of what is important to us.

In addition to the idea a ‘shrink’ helps us get our ego back down to size, a therapist can also help us develop a robust and realistic ego that helps us get things done.

Somewhat like Goldilocks, of Three Bears fame, when it comes to ego, too much ego is problematic and too little ego is also problematic. Ideally, we could do with just the right amount of ego to help us stay in touch with reality and get important things done.

My Inner Scorecard

lyndale snow

Born in 1930, Warren Buffett made himself one of the world’s richest people. At the time of writing his net worth is estimated at $91.6bn .

In later life Buffett focused on philanthropy. Much of his wealth will pass to the foundation of his friends, Bill and Melinda Gates.

He devotes time to supporting young people achieve success, including passing on something he observed in his father, Howard, the idea of ‘an inner scorecard’

Many people have ‘an outer scorecard’, they measure success in how others view them. Do others approve of me? Are they impressed by my car? My house? My partner? My money?

In contrast ‘an inner scorecard’ accords with one’s own values: Am I being honest? Am I happy with how I treat people? Am I living in line with my own values?

The idea of the inner scorecard has a basis in academic and clinical psychotherapy.

Also born in the US, Carl Rogers (b1902) was President of the American Psychological Association 1946-7 and one of the first to use the scientific method to study the processes of therapy http://psychclassics Rogers was the one of the first to use voice recording of client sessions to analyse therapy sessions in detail (Freud used subsequent handwritten notes of his recollections). From his research, Rogers created theory and practically tested his theories, applying the scientific method.

Rogers’ detailed statement of his theory was published in 1959, although written much earlier in the 1950s. Rogers described what he called ‘an external locus of evaluation’. He meant, the place a person stands to evaluate themselves was outside of themselves, or to use Buffett’s term ‘an outer scorecard’.

Rogers’ idea was developing babies, children, teens, adults, were subject to pressure to conform to the ideas and expectations of others. Conforming to the wishes of parents, the developing child won and retained parental love, was taken care of and felt safe in the world. Rogers called these parental wishes ‘conditions of worth’, for example ‘I’ll love and care for you provided you do well at school, provided you don’t fight with your sister’ and so on . The antonym of this would be so-called ‘unconditional love’.

There are many different ways in which therapy works. In this context, some of the ways in which therapy works include: 1. Increasing awareness of some of our conditions of worth, previously held below conscious awareness, and 2. Becoming aware of our tendency to view ourselves through the evaluations of others and instead of this 3. To relocate the position of evaluation within ourselves, rather than in others, so that 4. We live according to our own interests and values; living outwardly in-line with who we are on the inside.

Instead of an ‘external locus of evaluation’ (Rogers) or an ‘outer scorecard’ (Buffett) this becomes an ‘internal locus of evaluation’ or an ‘inner scorecard’.

Rogers (1978) later wrote the book ‘personal power: inner strength and its revolutionary impact’. The notion of an ‘inner scorecard’ and specifying what goes on the scorecard gives a person a sense of inner strength. It is this kind of inner strength that Buffett has so effectively use in his investment approach, often going against the crowd, and enabling him to succeed, as he would define success. Being honest, decent, patient and hard-working are values Buffett has sought to live by

Many people, on hearing about Buffett’s wealth say ‘sure, I could succeed if I had all his millions’. Whilst Buffett did have some advantages in life, his father served four terms in the House of Representatives, his mother Leila was described as harshly critical, seemingly evoking feelings of fear and shame in Warren.

Growing up with a harsh and critical mother there are many paths a person could follow. Some people might get angry, project their anger outwards onto others, turn to drink, live a life of shame and so on. Using the analogy of a snowball, Buffett’s biographer, Alice Schroeder describes how young Warren channelled his energies into money-making, from an early age, and created an ever-growing snowball of money

In some ways it is simply the size of the snowball he created that has brought Buffett to public attention. Perhaps the real triumph in the life of Warren Buffett is of a man who, despite a harsh interpersonal beginning, followed his interests and enthusiasms and created the life he wanted for himself. Buffett is reported as saying ‘I’m so happy I tap dance to work’.

Life challenges us to follow our inner interests, enthusiasms and values, to be who we are, and create the life we want for ourselves, that is congruent with who we are.