Are you better at criticizing or caring? Could your attempts at criticism actually be a misguided attempt to communicate your caring? The two are uniquely intertwined, and, in my experience, you can't really criticize unless you actually care in the first place. However, very few people will receive criticism as caring. Perhaps you have noticed.
As we began exploring last week, Self-Talk reflects the conditioning, belief systems and judgments we have accepted as normal, as the way things are or are meant to be. If you grew up with "enough" criticism, you may have learned a critical form of Self-Talk as an indirect expression of caring. Your more naturally caring and compassionate self is found in the quieter voice of your Soul-Talk.
If you have a natural bent toward criticism, I'll bet that your favorite target is most likely your own self! If you are your own worst critic, then what you dish out to the rest of us probably doesn't even register as criticism to you given how harsh your own Self-Talk can be. That has certainly been true in my life.
For me, growing up was a constant dose of "good enough never is." Whether it was my mom criticizing my dad, my dad criticizing me, or school teachers who were more prone to point out what was wrong than what was right, criticism seemed to be the language of the realm. With a steady diet of criticism all around, I began developing a very critical internal Self-Talk. By becoming increasingly critical of myself and others, I was trying to harmonize with the disharmony of my family, to become accepted by the critics who seemed to be everywhere.
When I was in my late 20s, my spiritual teacher helped me see that in my family criticism and angry voices had become our version of loving and caring. Surely my mom must have cared in order to even notice before she could move to criticism. And when she really cared, she might have felt that she needed to raise her voice to show how just much she cared. Along the way, my Self-Talk learned that criticism was the way to express caring.
Twisted? Perhaps. However, in the work I have been doing on myself and with thousands of others over these many years, I have learned a basic truth about anger and criticism: You can only criticize when you care. The sharper the criticism, the more deeply you must care. The challenge, of course, is that very few of us are starved for more criticism, especially the angry kind.
Criticism, especially when wrapped in anger, tends to drive people away and very few of the criticized are likely to respond like this: "Wow! He really must care for me? Why else would he be so critical all the time." Somebody somewhere must have recognized this simple conflict and tried to make criticism more palatable by calling it constructive criticism. Now that's different, right? Constructive criticism? Kind of makes you want to stand in line for a second helping, doesn't it?
In order to criticize, you need at least three things going on at once: First, you need some kind of standard that you find important around which to compare your object of criticism, and then you need to actually care about the issue and/or the person. Again, if you didn't care, you probably wouldn't even notice in the first place. Surely, if you didn't care, you wouldn't even bother to say anything.
The standards and objects of your criticism are the domain of your Self-Talk. It is the programming of your Self-Talk that drives you to seek comparisons and demand change. Caring, however, comes directly from your soul, which is naturally compassionate, accepting and patient. Your soul recognizes the grace and beauty in all, regardless of the inelegant attempts at expressing that grace and beauty in daily life. While the soul may recognize the opportunity to improve, your Soul-Talk tends to be kinder, gentler and infinitely more patient and understanding as you walk the path of improvement.
It's pretty interesting to note that when someone does care, but doesn't know how to express the caring, Self-Talk might say something like: "I could care less." Of course, that misstatement is pretty telling: By saying that you could care less, you are actually saying that you do care. Even "I couldn't care less" suggests that you just don't care, except for one small fact: If you didn't care, you wouldn't even bother saying anything at all because you just don't care. I mean really: How much time do you spend observing and criticizing things you just don't care about?
The next time you find yourself about to criticize yourself or someone else, ask where that criticism is coming from. Are you noticing from the level of your programming, from your Self-Talk? What does your soul notice instead? What would your Soul-Talk have you say? From that deeper place inside, you may find that some part of you, the part I am calling the Soul, would have you simply observe, rather than criticize. It would have you bring some compassion to the situation in the form of acceptance or understanding, rather than judgment or criticism.
If you find that you are criticizing your own self, you need to pause and allow a little acceptance, understanding and compassion to take hold toward your own self. I know that as hard as I can be on myself, I never once went out of my way to screw something up on purpose. As much as I may call myself an idiot or some other self-deprecating term, the real truth is that my "screw-up" was simply something done less well than I might have. Criticism is what I don't need. Instead, I need the wise counsel of my Soul-Talk in the form of loving, compassionate acceptance.
How could the loving, compassionate and accepting nature of your soul help you through these challenging times? How could you access your Soul-Talk to gain greater wisdom and insight? How could you more directly and effectively express your caring?
I'd love to hear from you so please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.
If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your own life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.