Anxiety and critisicm

Oscar Wilde once said, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography." It tells you more about the psychology of the critic than the people he or she criticises. Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone's criticisms.

Put another way, the critic is projecting their own beliefs, attitudes and world view on to others. So, it can tell you more about the person being critical, than it does the person being criticised. 

This is not to say that the comments made towards another may not unfounded, but there is something about fault finding and destroying a relationship through destructive criticism, or in early years, not being sensitive around helping young children learn good behaviour.  

None of us is perfect, we all have our faults and foibles and part of the psychological maturation process is to allow these imperfections to be as they are, and not make it your mission to change the person, or to change yourself in line with how others want you to be. As said in the bible, “take the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove a speck in another.” 

And of course, there is the monster of our own inner critic which is directed towards ourselves. This is the demon that will try to undermine, rule and derail our lives and sense of peace. 

Criticism and fear

Criticism can be a way for people to feel better about themselves. If they perceive that others are wrong, then they will feel they are right and justified. It is a way of defending the ego, which for many critics, comes from a deep place of insecurity.

Critical people will often have been criticised themselves in childhood from parents, caregivers, siblings, friends and school teachers. They themselves received the message, “I am not good enough” or “I am not lovable”, “people don’t like me".

Young children are not able to process the distinction between behaviours being unacceptable, but they themselves are still loved. Unfortunately, the way parents or school teachers or other significant adults impart criticism or punishment for bad behaviour is not always done in a kind way. The child hears, “You are a bad boy,” not “I love you, but what you did was not good behaviour”. And often, criticism is given with a tone of voice that delivers displeasure or anger, leaving the child the only option to hear it as “Mummy doesn’t like me” or “I am a bad person".

Young people sitting together talking
In psychological terms, the child internalises these criticisms, developing the sense of unworthiness and turning it in towards themselves; the inner critic is born. It is better to tell yourself you are no good, not lovable or stupid than have feelings of rejection and hurt when others criticise you.

By the time these children turn adolescent they may have become highly self-critical and either turn this outward towards others and/or more firmly inwards towards themselves. Every mistake or wrongdoing will be evidence that they really are no good, stupid or incompetent, constantly feeding the inner critic voice. 

One of the things I have noticed as a counsellor is that the strength of the inner critic is an indicator of the level of anxiety a client is experiencing. I hear it in the language the client uses towards themselves, “I am so scared of getting things wrong”, "I want to get it right”, “awful things keep happening to me”, “trouble follows me around”, “I don’t know why they bother with me”, “I hate myself”.

The tone is one of self-loathing and lack of self-trust and kindness. Clients can feel so scared to try anything new or meeting the world openly for fear of failure or providing further evidence for the inner critic. Life becomes narrow, unfulfilling, fearful and anxious.

           

Through counselling you can discover yourself afresh by looking at these negative thoughts and beliefs... learn to be kind and compassionate towards yourself and towards others.

    

Fear of living is like being locked in an inner prison. Always on the alert for comments from the inner critic or from others; a word, a look, an attitude, an event, things going wrong etc. Each forms evidence that the world and the self is unsafe. 

The reality of the fear

It comes from the past, through the conditioning received as a younger person and growing up. It is the resulting emotions that make the body feel uncomfortable and closed up; muscles become tense, the heart beats faster, the throat feels closed up, the mind is scrambled, the stomach cramps, thoughts make up stories to fit the belief pattern, there is single-focused attention on the problem and a loss of peace and stillness. This is the embodiment of fear; a barrage of neurological reactions in the mind and body. 

Does it have to be this way? Do we have to be controlled by the past? Do we have to believe the thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves? I firmly believe not.

Experience has shown me in my own personal life and those of my clients that we can change the inner critic and negative belief patterns. Through counselling you can discover yourself afresh by looking at these negative thoughts and beliefs, discovering how they developed, how they have played out in your life, learn some tools and methods to deal with the inner critic, learn to be kind and compassionate towards yourself and towards others.

I see people change and go on to have fulfilling, brave and resilient lives, with the tools they need to deal with difficult times, the inner critic and old belief patterns that destroy peace, happiness and acceptance.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Gina Howard. MBACP reg.

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Written by Gina Howard. MBACP reg.

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