Why is it that people are so quick to criticise? You see it most on social media, of course, where the disinhibition effect allows people to be a lot more… shall we say, unfiltered than they often are in real life. I say that, but then there are people who are very critical in real life as well. As Mark Twain once allegedly said, ‘nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.’
People love to criticise. If you disagree with someone, that’s wrong. You should educate yourself. Then you do, and change your mind as a result, and that’s wrong too. If you express a view that isn’t in line with the one prevalent in that context, you’re wrong; but not just wrong. You’re stupid, evil, laughable.
I called someone out on Facebook the other day for posting a joke about neurodiversity. I was nice about it. I said that I realised it was a joke meant harmlessly and I didn't want to be that person. But as a matter of conscience I felt I needed to say that it was inappropriate and also misleading, and that could cause harm. The first comment in response told me I had to get over myself and develop a sense of humour, which was no more than I expected.
There are a number of psychological theories and behaviours in play in situations like this. The one being displayed here is called deflection. That’s when we use other people’s perceived shortcomings to detract from our own - or as in this case, deflect attention away from our own failings (and associated feelings of guilt and discomfort) by pointing out actual or perceived shortcomings in others. We all have shortcomings, and people with healthy self-esteem know this and are ok with it. They realise they can’t be perfect and settle for doing the best they can, with a healthy eye to improvement along the way. People with low self-esteem can’t cope with the fact that they have flaws, and more importantly they can’t cope with the possibility of others knowing they have flaws. So they point out everyone else’s problems to make sure nobody notices theirs. Sometimes they do this on purpose, sometimes it’s sub-conscious. Either way, in the privacy of their own heads they’re probably way more critical of themselves than of anyone else.
Sometimes this presents as egotism. There are people in the world who genuinely appear to believe they’re superior to everyone else, and are eager to prove it. Unless they’re actually a psychopath, you can bet there’s some self-esteem issues going on behind all that; they just might not be aware of it themselves and if they are, they'll try even harder to hide it.
Criticism is also a form of self-praise. ‘Did you see what Sarah was wearing this morning?’ Sub-text: I have better taste than Sarah. ‘Chris really made an idiot of himself yesterday.’ Sub-text: I am more intelligent than Chris. While this might be because of low self-esteem, it could also be a temporary situation brought about by feeling bad about yourself for some reason. Maybe you got yelled at by your boss or your partner and your confidence has taken a bash. Better build that back up again pretty fast. Criticising someone else is a great way to get a short-term boost for yourself.
Then we have jealousy. You have something I don’t have, whether that’s wealth, success, fame, or a fresh donut; and that makes me sad. So to protect myself from that, I criticise you and what you have in order to fool people – and myself – into thinking I don’t want it anyway.
Another big one is self-preservation. Our brain’s primary job is to keep us alive and on our legs, which means we need to avoid dangerous things. So when we hear about someone having a car accident or developing a serious illness, our brains need to believe that couldn’t happen to us. If shit just happens, it could happen to us as well and that’s unacceptable. So we look for things the other person did that we wouldn’t do. That car accident must have been because you were going too fast or not paying attention. Your illness is obviously because you don’t exercise enough. The critic might go too fast as well, and spend their life on the sofa; but that’s not relevant. You caused your ill fortune, which means I don’t have to face the fact that one day it might happen to me.
The final item on the list is distraction. This is a bit like deflection, but more around what you’re doing than who you are. If you’re doing something that you know is dodgy, but which you’re getting something out of – let’s say you’re pilfering stationery from the office (because everyone does that, right?) – you don’t want to be caught. So the easiest way to avoid being caught is to criticise anyone who wants any stationery. By making a huge fuss about a new biro (that’s the fourth she’s had this week!!) you subliminally present yourself as someone who takes stationery use very seriously. You probably even bring in your own pen from home. When it’s noticed that stocks are falling more rapidly than they should, nobody is going to look at you because everyone knows you are so serious about using stationery.
(Incidentally, I once worked with someone who ran their own stationery business, stocked entirely with supplies pilfered from the office we worked in. Of course we didn’t know that at the time. But this stuff happens.)
So criticism always says more about the critic than the subject of the criticism, which is important to remember if you’re on the receiving end of it. It may make the critic feel better for a short period but it doesn’t last, which means they have to keep on criticising.
If you find yourself being overly critical, being aware of the possible reasons for it might help you stop. If criticism is genuinely deserved then try to focus on what the person has or hasn’t done, rather than who they are as a person; and include ways in which they could improve. Calling someone an idiot is just rude, while politely suggesting they might like to increase their knowledge by reading this really good book is potentially helpful.
But ultimately people criticise because it makes them feel good, albeit only temporarily, and until they find another way of getting that feel-good dopamine hit they're going to carry on. So if you have the option of filtering a very critical person out of your life, it might be worth doing.
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.