Readers of my previous column about how much criticism damages relationships requested guidance about what to do if criticism has already invaded a relationship. Therefore, in this article we will focus on what to do if you are the victim of criticism, and what to do if you are the perpetrator.
Criticism is a form of emotional abuse and it makes the victims feel small. They feel wrong and stupid, like they can’t do anything right. They view the criticizer as superior, smarter, and better than they are. Just as a bully makes his victims cower because they fear being hurt physically, critical people make their victims cower because they fear they will be cut down or emotionally belittled.
A victim of criticism must realize in his/her heart that the abuser (the critical person) is not necessarily right. The abuser thinks he/she is right. The abuser acts like they know everything. They particularly act like they know more than the person they are criticizing, but they don’t. All they have is an opinion. They may think they are the resident expert on everything, but they aren’t.
Once I did an experiment with a group of young women. We placed seven pair of shoes on a table, shoes of all sorts: high heels, flip flops, casual shoes, etc. We then asked the room full of young women to choose the best shoe, their favorite. Without discussing it with their neighbor, they were to vote, and turn in their ballot. When the votes were tallied we discovered that every single shoe got votes, and no one shoe got more than a single vote more or less than any other. All the shoes were favorites! No shoe was the “best.” Every young woman in that room had an opinion of her very own. Her opinion wasn’t right or wrong. It was simply hers.
Just because someone has an opinion, even if they are adamant about their opinion, even if they express their opinion with vehemence, it doesn’t mean they are intrinsically “right.” Therefore, the person with a different opinion is not intrinsically “wrong.” They are merely different. Even if we had the world’s foremost fashion designer voting for his favorite shoe, he isn’t necessarily “right.” He is merely expressing his opinion.
A victim of criticism must remember that her opinion is as valid as any other. She does not need to feel like she has bad judgment or poor taste simply because someone has a different opinion than hers.
Once a victim of abuse accepts the fact that she is not necessarily wrong, she will be less likely to internalize the criticism. She won’t think she deserves it, or that the abuser has a point. Once she recognizes the criticism is NOT valid, then she can more easily put a stop to it.
Without causing contention, the victim of criticism can begin by pointing out that the criticism is a valid opinion. The criticism isn’t a valid fact. It isn’t law. The person offering the criticism is entitled to his or her opinion. But no one is obligated to agree with that opinion. A victim might gently say to the criticizer, “I appreciate your opinion. Thank you for sharing your opinion with me. I’m not certain I agree, but I am happy to hear your point of view.”
A critical person may be incredulous that all of the sudden his viewpoint isn’t being accepted without question. He might want to force his viewpoint on the victim. He might want to argue his point. He might provide evidence to back up his viewpoint. That still doesn’t mean he’s right.
Years of training in competitive speech and debate taught me that there are two sides to every story. I can argue both sides equally well. Mothers come into my office who believe they should be easier on a child. Fathers think they should be tougher. I can make a case for both points of view. Neither is right. Both have merit. I get husbands in counseling who believe they should invest the family savings in secure stocks, or mutual funds. Their wives believe it is best to spend in the present, to use the money to further business ventures. Neither is right. Both opinions have merit.
We can’t force someone to accept our point of view because all have our agency. Nobody can make another person believe/do anything through intimidation or bullying or shaming or arguing or providing evidence. The only way to change another person’s opinion is through love.
Sometimes the criticism seems so obvious that the person offering the criticism can’t accept that everybody doesn’t embrace his point of view. For example, he thinks it’s obvious that getting too little sleep will impair your performance. Eating too much sugar will make you fat. Using marijuana will harm your health. Marriage should exist only between a man and a woman. Lip piercings are ugly. Pants that hang below your derriere are ridiculous. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It’s easy to claim basic Judeo-Christian values shouldn’t even be the subject of debate. We want to roll our eyes, and use words like “crazy” or “insane” to describe those who don’t embrace these values. Nevertheless, there are those who can make a case for everything we don’t believe in. It doesn’t matter how right you feel, or how right you are, if someone refuses to take influence from you because of you’re too dogmatic, you might as well scream into a cell phone with no service.
While it’s true that some people refuse to take influence simply because of pride, it’s also true that pride is what causes a critical person to force his opinion on others. I once mustered the courage myself to disagree with a critical person. I really liked a particular movie, and he didn’t. I explained that we just had different taste in movies. He responded (critically), “Your taste is all in your mouth.” That opinion….. was none of my business. I’m the one who gets to swallow what I put in my mouth.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida. Her books on relationships can be found on amazon.com.