Before introducing the technique that I have found most effective in dealing with this I need to clarify exactly what I mean by criticalness. Perhaps the easiest way is to describe my experience when I was trying to quit smoking cigarettes in my 30s. Each time I succeeded in stopping smoking I would be extremely critical of other people who were still smoking. I would find the smell of cigarettes objectionable and I would mentally be criticising and denigrating the people who were still smoking. After many attempts to quit, with an equal number of relapses, I finally reached a point where I did cease smoking. One day I became so angry with the whole thing that I just destroyed a packet of cigarettes in a rage. Since then I have not had the remotest urge to ever smoke again – for which I am grateful. But more importantly I lost my criticalness of other people who were still smoking cigarettes. I still thought that they were behaving foolishly, I still did not like the smell of cigarettes, but rather than being critical of them I felt a level of compassion for their predicament. I remembered how hard it was to really stop smoking and the grip of nicotine addiction. So I still judged their actions as unhealthy and wanted to support them in stopping – but I was no longer critical of them. This is a key distinction for the exercise that I want to describe. One can consider other people to be misguided, wrong, acting in poor taste or deranged, but these judgements are all distinct from a state in which one is critical of the other. The criticalness is something in addition to the judgement and makes one intolerant, negative and generally unpleasant. So criticalness is a judgement (which may be correct or not) overlaid with a negative emotion.
So what changed when I really gave up smoking? Why did my attitude towards smokers shift from one of criticalness to one of compassion? What changed was something inside me. What changed was that I finally accepted the part of myself that was addicted to smoking cigarettes – hence the rage at the cigarettes themselves, I felt they had imprisoned me. This may sound bizarre, but until I accepted that part of myself and came to terms with it every attempt to stop smoking was doomed to failure – because I was trying to force myself into a way of being without accepting myself.
The criticalness exercise that I now want to discuss has the aim of making that transition possible under a wide range of circumstances. The principle on which the exercise operates can be stated quite simply. It is that you are only critical of things in others that you have not yet accepted about yourself. There are no exceptions to this principle! Everything about which you are critical is pointing to something about yourself that you are not accepting. And when you do accept it, whatever it is, then your criticalness will change. You may still evaluate what the other person is doing negatively, you may still want them to cease doing it or thinking it or whatever – but the negative intolerance will have gone and been replaced by something different, usually compassion.
Let me give you some further examples to illustrate how this works. I have one good friend who regularly used to wind me up and I become extremely critical of him. A couple of years ago I was staying with this friend for an extended period and my criticalness towards him became a serious issue – so I decided to use the criticalness exercise. The first step was to figure out exactly what it was that he was doing that I was critical of. After a while I twigged that it was that he always wanted to be the centre of attention. He would come into a room and immediately override the conversation and ‘take over’. The more I noticed what was bugging me the clearer it became – but I did not really get what it was in me that I was not accepting. A short while later I had to give a presentation to a group and suddenly noticed how much I enjoyed being the centre of their attention whilst I was making the presentation. When I am in a social situation I do not allow this part of myself much space – which is a key way in which I was not accepting this in myself. But I could not deny that it was an aspect of myself that I was not accepting. I am still in the process of accepting this about myself, but already my criticalness towards my friend has disappeared. I still do not like the way he grabs attention, but I can now just say something about it in a kind way, rather than being intolerant.
I want to give another personal example that illustrates how subtle this exercise can be. I am normally a very tidy person. I have found this is an effective way to cope with a busy life. By being tidy I know where to find tools, pens, cellotape and so on. My wife, on the other hand, is an untidy person. It is not unusual for people who live together to polarise on this issue. From time to time her untidiness would really get to me and I would become critical of everything she was doing, or failing to do. Every time her clothes were on the bedroom floor, or the hairbrush moved from its established place, or all the pens disappeared from my desk drawer, I would rant and rave and become extremely intolerant. After a while I would relax and the issue would subside, but only until the next time. So I resolved to use the criticalness exercise to sort this out. The trouble was that I could not find a part of myself that wanted to be untidy. I explored several different aspects and came to the conclusion that if there was indeed a part of myself that wanted to be untidy then it was deeply buried in my unconscious – and that the criticalness exercise must therefore be flawed.
One day I was teaching this exercise to a group of Open University tutors and after explaining the process I did the exercise with them. That very morning I had blown up about untidiness soI felt obliged to work on this issue once more. As I did so I suddenly saw that what was involved was not the untidiness in itself, but what I took the untidiness to mean. When my wife was untidy I took that as indicating that she did not care about me, that she did not care if I could not find my pen to write with, or a particular tool to work with or if I tripped over her clothes. So what I was critical of was not the untidiness – but my interpretation that she did not care for me. This changed everything. I had no trouble identifying the part of myself that could become uncaring about other people – and my faith in the criticalness exercise was restored. This all took place more than 15 years ago and in the intervening time I have learned to care a lot more for other people. Indeed one of the ways that I demonstrate my deep care for my wife is by tidying up after her. I understand that her untidiness is in part forgetfulness and in part being more strongly focussed on people than things. It is now very rare for me to become upset about untidiness – indeed I cannot think of the last time it happened. Which is a sort of miracle considering that it used to happen to me several times a week! The other outcome was even more of a surprise to me. I explained all this to my wife and after a while she started to tidy up a lot more. When I asked her “why?” She responded “because I want you to know that I care for you”.
So the steps of the criticalness exercise are as follows:
1. Start by noticing when you are critical of another person.
2. Figure out exactly what it is that you are critical of, noting that it may be what they do or how you interpret what they do.
3. Once you have identified precisely what it is that you are critical of, then reflect on this with the aim of discovering what it is about yourself that you are not accepting. It may be that you do something similar, or want to do something similar.
4. Once you have recognised what it is about yourself that you are not accepting then you will find it much easier, in the moment, to not be critical of the person. You will notice that although you may still judge what they are doing negatively, you will feel differently towards them.
5. However this issue will remain as a source of criticalness until you find a way of fully accepting the associated aspect of yourself. This may take time.
This is one of the most powerful tools I know for increasing one’s self awareness. And it produces immediate benefits in terms of being able to listen to others and have a deeper appreciation of their perspective.
An aside on acceptance
When I first read books by Carl Rogers I failed to understand how his approach to therapy worked because I did not understand what acceptance was, nor how it worked. Some of the readers of this web site had a similar difficulty and also wanted a distinction between acceptance and fully accepting something.
Acceptance is a willingness for something to exist just as it is. Wanting something to be different from how it is indicates non-acceptance. In relation to aspects of myself, acceptance is characterised by tolerance and ceasing to deny or conceal that aspect of myself. Note that acceptance does not mean that I have to like what I find about myself, but I do have to acknowledge it exists and that it affects how I act or think.
Fully accepting something about myself involves a deeper appreciation of whatever it is. Rather than just tolerating it I am willing to take responsibility for it. Rather than just ceasing to deny its existence I fully own that it is an aspect of myself. And rather than just be willing for it to exist I understand how or why it exists in me.
One of the key paradoxes on which Carl Rogers built his therapeutic system and reputation was the recognition that until something is fully accepted then nothing can change – and that as soon as it is fully accepted then spontaneous change was very likely to occur.