Couple's Therapy * Trauma Therapy * EMDR * Problems of Addition

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Criticism

I want to say a little about criticism.  The ideas here and some of the wording come from Walter Brackelmanns’ Inter-Analytic Couples’ Therapy, to whom, and to which, I am deeply grateful.

A criticism is an emotional statement that contains a judgement and a demand.  I once had a client whose partner would leave cupboard doors open in their kitchen.  It happened that this drove him to distraction, and we had a conversation about how this might be addressed in an effective way and express his feelings in the best way.

The critical way is not difficult to imagine: “You are so lazy!  Shut these damned doors!”  We can imagine how this statement would be received.  I’ll leave it to you to come up with his partner’s response.  This is what we in the therapy-business would describe as ineffective communication.  It is harsh criticism, and will inevitably elicit a strong defensive response. The goal instead is, ideally, expressing your feelings when you are hurt, or angry, or simply bothered without hurting the other person.  The judgement “You’re lazy” followed by the demand “Shut the doors!”  is very likely to lead to a fight, and quite a bit of unhappiness, and, indeed so it did with my client

If we take a broad view of the meaning of the words judgement, and demand, we can probably find many, many criticisms in our daily interactions, not just with intimate partners, but with friends, family, co-workers, everyone we with whom we come in contact is a potential source of, or target for, a critical judgement and demand. 

One of the more diverting forms of this communication is the passive-aggressive kind, along the lines of “You always want to go out and leave me alone on Friday night.  Well, go ahead, I’ll be FINE!”  Where is the judgement and demand?  Easy to find, if we restate it a bit right?  “You jerk! You shouldn’t go out and leave me behind.”  Of the two statements, certainly the latter has the benefit of being more direct at least.

Now, imagine for a moment if we could all simply dispense with the judgement and demand, and instead talk about our own, inner response to whatever stimulus that disturbs us.  What if I could say “When you leave the cabinet doors open, I am angry, and I feel ‘less-than,’ I feel alone, and far from you.”  We might state this in a few different ways, I’m not suggesting this is even the best way, but the idea here is that I must know what’s going on inside of ME.  If I can talk only about a behavior, leaving the doors open, and my feeling when it happens, I’m angry and I feel alone, there is a high probability that my partner will not become defensive, but may even care about what I’m saying and what I am expressing.   

And, in fact this is what happened in my client’s situation.  He was frank with his partner about what was bothering him, and how he felt inside himself, without reference to her.  And she was finally able to begin to hear him.

This is crucial.  If I talk only about my responses and my feeling states (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201601/what-are-basic-emotions) my partner will usually be willing to hear about it because they care about me, and equally important, I am not attacking my partner with a judgement and a demand.

Such a communication is quite appropriate with those close to us, in more formal relationships of whatever kind, we can usually find a way to say this sort of thing without presuming too much closeness.   The fundamental task we all face is to know what is going on inside of ourselves.  Our inner experience and our feelings.  I will admit, that is often far more difficult to know than it sounds.  But it must be done, if we are to cease criticizing, and start communicating and expressing ourselves in a more effective and caring way.

 

Charles Andrews