How can I stop being so critical?
by Paul Lohkamp, ACSW, LCSW
[This article summarizes some of the key principles or tools that I use in marital therapy.]
When we want to create a situation or climate of intimacy or learning, we try to avoid criticizing. That is
especially hard for someone who may have grown up with critical parents. If you have little experience with
being “non-critical,” then this is for you.
You may want to practice “speaking your mind from your heart.”
The phrase: “to speak your mind from your heart,” is borrowed from the “Couple to Couple” marriage
preparation program. It says a lot. If your child, partner, friend or associate is doing something that you are
concerned about or take issue with, how do you express your displeasure or concern without criticizing – or
“speak your mind from your heart”? Criticizing leads to defensiveness, which in turn may lead to counter-
offensive remarks and escalation into an argument of fight. “Speaking your mind from your heart” is a
So how do I learn it? The first step is to learn the difference between criticism and complaining. In his
Clinical Manual for Marital Therapy, John Gottman outlines the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of
Marriage.” Research on marriage and divorce has shown that these “four horsemen” are the cause of most
divorce. They are:
Criticism often starts the negative process of failed communication that evolves into a troubled relationship.
Repairing a marriage often involves teaching a couple to recognize this process and each partner’s part in
it. Then they learn antidotes to this, which can be like this:
Antidote for criticism: complaining without suggesting that one’s partner is somehow defective.
Antidote for defensiveness: accepting responsibility for a part of the problem.
Antidote for contempt: creating a culture of praise and pride.
Antidote for stonewalling: self-soothing, giving the listener backchannels, staying emotionally
This model of failed communication with antidotes can be used in all relationships, including parent/child.
Whatever the relationship, we can practice learning to “complain rather than criticize”. Here is an example of
complaining vs. criticism:
Criticism: “You talked about yourself all through dinner and didn’t ask me about my day. How can you treat
me this way? What kind of person are you?
Complaint: “You talked about yourself all through dinner and didn’t ask about my day. That hurt my
Practicing “speaking your mind from your heart” or complaining rather than criticizing is a skill you can
practice, learn and develop. Below are samples of a “blurted out” hard statement followed by a softened
SAMPLE “HARD AND SOFTENED” STATEMENTS
[Below are “hard” statements usually blurted out because of anger, anxiety or frustration. They are
immediately followed by a “softened” statement.]
(Hard) Your mother is a wart on the back of humanity. The above list of “hard” and “softened” statements shows us examples of what we can practice. Can we
(Softened) I am worried that your mother will criticize me and you won’t back me up.
(Hard) We never go anywhere and I am tired of doing all the cooking.
(Softened) I am tired of cooking. It would be really nice if you would take us out.
(Hard) You were flirting shamelessly and I am sick of it.
(Softened) I am very shy and alone tonight. Please spend more time with me
(Hard) You are so cold to me.
(Softened) I am really missing you and want you.
(Hard) You are too wimpy to ask for a raise.
(Softened) I’d love for you to get a raise. Can we talk about a plan to get one?
(Hard) You are a workaholic.
(Softened) I really would like to spend more time with you. How about not working this weekend and
lets do something together.
(Hard) You are a spend thrift.
(Softened) I am really worried about our savings. Let’s come up with a plan for saving more.
(Hard) You are such a miser.
(Softened) I am really feeling deprived lately. How about if we surprised one another with a present
(Hard) You are so fat. You eat too much.
(Softened) I remember when you weren’t so heavy. You felt better and we enjoyed each other a lot
more. Let’s come up with a plan for loosing weight.
(Hard) You never turn off the light.
(Softened) Sometimes you forget to turn off the light. I would really appreciate it if you were more
conscious of saving electricity.
(Hard) You are always yelling at me.
(Softened) I really appreciate it when you are calm and gentle with me. I don’t mind when you are firm,
but it frightens me when you yell.
(Hard) Why are you so lazy?
(Softened) I appreciate it when you get stuff done. It shows you care and take responsibility for
learn to “stop, think and choose” a softer response?
Why “Stop, think, and choose?” Practice is the name of the game. When we recognize
that we are thinking or saying a “hard” statement, can we stop, think and rephrase it. This takes practice.
We are creatures of habit. Habits are usually a good thing. If we had to stop and think before we did things,
we wouldn’t get much done. We learn habits – how to do things without thinking. As we grow up, we learn
how to react, how to handle problems and how to relate to others. However, sometimes these habits are not
necessarily the best way of doing things. Often habits evolve into negative attitudes as well; and of course,
some attitudes are not the best way of seeing things.
Examples of negative habits or attitudes are:
- Undue Anxiety: the habit of seeing the future or a future situation as too dangerous or risky and
seeing oneself as inadequate to handle it.
- Low self-esteem: the habit of seeing oneself as inadequate, unattractive or unlovable.
- Unresolved anger: the habit of seeing others or the world out of anger or resentment.
- Unresolved guilt or shame: the habit of blaming oneself for something beyond that which is ordinary
- Addictions: habitual, unhealthy ways of handling stress.
Changing negative habits or attitudes is difficult, but we can do it with effort and practice. First comes the
recognition and acceptance that we can and want to change. Then we must arrive at a way to stop, think
and choose a different way of acting, reacting or thinking.
LEARNING TO EXAMINE OURSELVES IN SITUATIONS:
[ See Mind Over Mood; Christine Padesky, 1995, pp 1-14.]
We can learn to examine ourselves in situations as they occur or after they occur. When we find ourselves in
a difficult situation, we can stop and examine our “thoughts, feelings, behaviors, physical reactions and
environment”…in other words, what are we doing, how are we reacting, what are we thinking, how is our body
reacting, and what’s going on in the environment around us? This gives us the model for learning and
practicing to stop and think and choose.
Another useful tool is to imagine that we are watching ourselves as if through the eyes of a video camera.
We could play it back, watch ourselves, analyze our behaviors on TV and decide on an improvement plan.
This is what professional sports players do all the time now. Albert Puhols, as do most MLB players, spends
hours each day looking at videos of himself and others batting and pitching. If we can even pretend that we
are watching ourselves in this way, we program ourselves to make changes.
Another useful help is to let our family members, associates, etc., know that we are trying to practice these
new behaviors. We can make them an attractive stop, think, choose sign to hold up when we don’t do our
In summary, in this chapter we have talked about stopping criticism and learning to “speak your mind from
your heart.” We gave some examples of doing this along with some useful tools for being more objective in
situations. Stop-Think-Choose is a skill that can help us change any habit or unwanted behavior.
In the next chapter we will talk about why we sometimes “blurt out” hard statements.
Turning “hard” statements into opportunities for intimacy.
Sometimes you might be really tired and irritated and just lash out: “You always…., you never….you hate
me….” and other such frustrating and angry statements. But does your partner, child, parent or friend ever
realize that you might be suffering something you might have been feeling all your life.
In his chapter titled “Collaborative Couple Therapy,” (pp287-290, Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy; Alan
Gurman, et. al. 2002), Daniel Wile talks about “solving the moment rather than solving the problem.” This
means we focus on the moment or process rather than the problem we are arguing about. What’s important
is how we are talking, not what we are talking about. Can we recruit our partner to help “create the inner
atmosphere and quality of life within the relationship.” Can we learn to turn moments of conflict into moments
One way of doing this is to try to recognize our partners “family of origin issues.” Can we turn the problem of
the moment into a way to reach out? Here is an example:
Ethel has been working overtime lately and brings home a lot of work.
Tom snaps out; “You’re a workaholic.”
This turns Ethel into an enemy. She retorts; “Look, I’ve got all this work to do.”
He snaps back; “You’ve always got this work to do.”
She answers; “Don’t be such a nag.”
He says; “You’ve turned me into a nag. I didn’t used to be a nag.”
Both leave angry and hurt and take up some “stonewalling.” Tom and Ethel are both feeling “stung.”
Blurting out “You’re an workaholic,” provides Tom with a certain satisfaction. He would get even more
satisfaction, however, if he were to tell Ethel, “I’m ashamed of how lonely I get these evenings when you bring
work home.” He would be exposing the inner struggle out of which his “You’re an workaholic!” has emerged.
Let’s say that Ethel is moved by Tom’s willingness to reveal his tender feelings in this way that is not blaming
her. Her heart goes out to him. She says, “Yes, I have let this grant completely take me over; it has made
me lonely, too.” Tom’s confiding would elicit confiding from her, leading to a collaborative cycle.
Tom’s father left the family abruptly when Tom was five, sending his mother into a deep depression and
leaving Tom essentially without either parent. Tom has a “family-of-origin’ based sensitivity to
abandonment. When Ethel abandons him, he looses his voice just like he did as a child. In frustration he
blurts out… Or he might stop and think and say, “Ethel, when you brought home all that work tonight, I felt
just like I was right back there when my father left and my mother immediately disappeared on me too and I
got into this kind of lost, hopeless state.”
The problem is not that Tom feels hopeless, but that he has trouble saying it. He has lost his voice. He
becomes tongue tied, abandons himself and blurts out, “Workaholic…” Of course, if Ethel knows this, she
can stop and think and say something to stop the cycle. She can turn the moment of hardness into an
opportunity for intimacy.
In conclusion, can we learn and practice the “stop, think, choose” method or model of change? When we
think “hard” or harsh thoughts or hear them coming out of our mouth or out of the mouth of our loved ones,
can we stop and think and choose an opportunity for intimacy or learning.