Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

R Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin
Dealing with Criticism


Recently, I read that Adolf Hitler's minister of propaganda stated that the secret to having any lie believed was merely to repeat it often enough.

Many years ago, comedian Tommy Smothers did a skit about the impact of negative, toxic messages. In the first scene, he is seen holding a grocery bag. From the side of the room, he hears statements about what he is doing. Each time he hears a message, he puts it into his bag. One of the messages he hears is: "Tommy, you are lazy. How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?" (Translation: You must really be stupid because I have to tell you so many times.)

As children do, Tommy internalizes the statements and believes they describe who he is. In the next scene, Tommy is older, and when he hears a positive message—"Tommy, you did a great job on this!"—he rejects it by bringing out a contradicting message from his bag. He rejects any message that does not agree with the ones in his grocery bag.

The skit illustrates that there is something in us that keeps a certain self-image alive—either by doing the things that reaffirm the beliefs we have about ourselves or by discounting the messages that do not agree with the ones in the bag. This process is called cognitive conservatism.

I'm sure Tommy's parents would be surprised to know how he translated and internalized their messages. Perhaps they believed they were motivating him! Unfortunately, criticism can feel more like manipulation or bullying than empowering or encouraging.

Criticism can be especially painful
if it hits us where we do not accept ourselves

The criticism can be especially painful if it hits us where we do not accept ourselves—where there is already a lot of self-criticism, denial, and avoidance. We can feel angry when our partner or someone else criticizes us in an area where we feel vulnerable and insecure. We strike back with anger to protect ourselves and to get them to back off. Our anger is really ignited when the criticism is presented as the only interpretation and when it is presented as truth or fact rather than an opinion.

Behind every criticism is a desire. We would have a better chance of meeting our needs if we turned the criticism into a request. Instead of complaining, "You never have time for me," say rather, "It would mean a lot to me if we spent some time together tonight." The challenge with requesting our needs is maintaining a healthy response if our partner does not do it. It feels like rejection. It seems safer to criticize than to be vulnerable by requesting a desire to be met.

Turn your complaint into a request and your criticism into an expression of what you want from the other person.

Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through

Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700