Does Criticism Do More Harm Than Good to People?
A Yoang Woman Who Fears Compliments
Marya, a brilliant graduate student in her early
twenties who came for consultation, insisted that she could improve only
with criticism. Her reasoning was that she knew the good qualities but
that she did not know the bad ones. To have more knowledge of her negative
qualities, she believed,would add to her self-understanding and thus
enable her to see herself more completely. Marya, in effect, refused to
acknowledge and to understand her strengths. She had assembled detailed
lists of her negative qualities which she used daily to support an
extremely negative view of herself . But they were either exaggerated or
Despite her attractiveness to others, she convinced
herself that she was ugly. When her family bought her new and
well-designed articles of clothing (she seldom. bought any herself ), she
left them hanging in the closet for weeks before wearing them once. When
someone complimented her on what she wore and asked whether it was new,
she could honestly answer no. She did not "deserve" to wear new
clothes. She could not bear the pain of hearing compliments, of seeing
herself as intelIigent, pretty, or worthwhile.
As a child, Marya had received little or no criticism
from her parents. She was prized by them. Their major disappointment in
her apparently was that she often rejected their overtures of kindness and
appreciation, not in anger but in embarrassment, as though she were
undeserving. This seemingly mild-mannered young woman, exceptionally
courteous and considerate to others, held onto her own negative
selfjudgment with tenacity. Finally, friends and interested faculty
members quit acceding to her persuasive requests for criticism that they
could not honestly give. Instead, they gently but firmly confronted her
with her own blindness to what she truly was like.
II . Read
Read the following passages. Underline the important
viewpoints while reading.
l. Unfair Criticism
Stuart is a typical sixteen-year-old boy who
experienced and suffered from the criticism of an alcoholic parent. It
seemed to 5tuart the only thing his father ever had to say to him was,
"You haven't got a brain in your head. ?Stuart was a sophomore in
high school. It was true he was a poor student, or what his dean called an
Stuart knew he was an underachiever, he would have liked to hear his
father say, just once, something else when he brought home his report card
other than his usual, "You haven't got a brain in your head."
Stuart was determined to prove to his father he did have a brain in his
head. Stuart studied very hard. Some nights it was difficult for him to
concentrate on his homework because he could hear his parents bickering in
the next room.
"You forgot to pay the mortgage again. The bank is
"How many times can a person smash up a car? I , m
sucprised they haven't taken your license away! "
"If you wouldn't drink so much . . . "
Stuart didn't like the bickering, and wondered if his
parents might separate. He wondered, too, because his father was so
forgetful about paying the bills, if they might lose their home.
He kept telling himself that if he studied hard, maybe,
by some miracle, things would get better at home.
Stuart's determination to concentrate on his school
work, in spite of the bickering and worries at home, paid off. His next
report card showed a marked improvement. There was even a
personal note of praise from his dean written on the report card.
Proudly Stuart put the report card on his father's
desk. Stuart felt happier than he had felt in a long time. He knew that
his father could only be pleased with such a report, but more important,
maybe now his father would realize that he was intelligent and would start
paying some attention to him.
could remember when his father used to go to ballgames and movies with
him. Who knew? Maybe things would go back to the way they used to be.
Stuart would offer to get a part-time job to help pay off some of the
bills. He thought that might lessen some of the arguing at home and keep
the family from breaking up. He would lat his father know that he was old
enough to understand things weren't always easy at the office.
When Stuart's father came home and saw the report, he
said without any hesitation, "Well, well, who did the work for you? I
know you don't have the brains to do it! "
Stuart was stunned. All that work for nothing! He
wouldn't be surprised if his father not only thought he was stupid but
hated him, too.
Stuart would not have been as hurt if he had only known
his father was tied up in his own miserable feelings. This kept him from
recognizing what Stuart had accomplished in school.
2. Uses of Criticism
While some of us have a tendency to disbelieve or to
minimize the good things people say about us, others among us have a
tendency to hold a protective web around ourselves in defense against
criticism. One workshop participant said, "I confuse the issue by
getting logical in the face of threatening reactions. Sometimes I act
helpless so others will stop the criticism. ?Early in the workshop
experience he had received more negative than positive reactions. While he
was fearful of criticism, he found that he had courted it, hoping that he
could learn how to handle it and overcome his fear.
We may court negative reactions for other reasons. A
therapy group member regarded criticism as more useful than compliments,
and criticism is what he often got-not because he asked for it directly,
but because of his detached manner, as though he were sitting in judgment
of others. Moreover, his tendency to qualify and hedge his opinions and
feelings until they had no meaning often brought down the ire of others
upon him. He gave the impression of accepting their displeasure stoically,
as though it strengthened him. He never openly criticized other members,
Still another member, who claimed that"criticism
is the stuff that we grow on? gave others criticism galore so they could
improve and, in his words, "not appear in a negative light in the
future." This member came across as using his ostensible concern for
the growth of others as an excuse to criticize and attack them.
3. Is It Right to Withhold One's Reactions to Others?
It is not uncommon for us to withhold our reactions to
others. We may hold back compliments for fear of embarrassment to them and
to ourselves. We may hold back criticism for fear of being disliked or
considered unfair, or for fear of hurting another person. Reactions given
inconsiderately may indeed hurt others. On the other hand, some of us are
inclined to withhold our reactions from others while at the same time we
honestly prefer that they not hold back theirs from us.
We may have two
different rules. The first one may be: If we ask others for candid
reactions to our behavior, to something we have done or plan to do, we
want them to tell us straight, including the negative with the positive.
The second rule may be: If someone else asks us for similar reactions, we
are inclined to hold back or gloss over the negative and embroider the
4. Criticism Is a Kind of Demand on Those Criticized
As children, many of us got a great deal of criticism
and, as a result, learned a variety of patterns for coping with it. Marya
had apparently received little criticism, but, knowing that she was not
perfect and deserved what other children got, developed her own patterns
of selfjudgment and censure. Being judged, whether we are underestimated
or overestimated, usually implies a demand, subtle or direct, that we
change. If others do not demand change, we may feel the need to demand it
Reactions that are relatively free from attempts
to change or discredit us, given by someone who cares for us, and with the
intention of letting us know what impressions we are making, may be easier
to take. If, however, our usual reaction is to defend ourselves, even mild
criticism or impressions given gently without demands that we change may
play havoc with our defensive structure and beccnne difficult to handle.
5. How to Handle Criticism
The surgeon reached over and jerked the syringe out of
the nurse,s hand. "Jane, that's the sloppiest injection I've ever
seen!" he snapped. Quickly, his fingers found the vein she had been
searching for. Cheeks burning, Jane turned away. ~Ten years later, Jane's
voice still trembles when she relates the experience.
Some of our male co-workers have it easier. They grew
to play team sports, and they had to handle a coach's yells when they
droppped the ball. Now they can see that a goof on the job is like
dropping the ball in football; the fumble is embarrassing, but you take it
in stride and go on.
But for most women, the path to success was different.
As girls, we grew up wanting to be popular; we were praised for what we
were, not for what we did. So our reaction to criticism is often,
"Someone doesn't like me. I failed to please. I'm a failure."
"I get defensive," says Rhonda, a teacher,
"When someone criticizes me, suddenly I'm a little girl again, being
scolded, and I want to make excuses. I want to explain that it's not my
fault-it's someone else's, or I want to hide and cry."
6. Take a Tactful Approach
How about giving criticism? The old
"I-want-to-be-liked" syndrome can make it as hard to give
criticism as to take it. Karen thinks she's found the answer.
"Two weeks after I was promoted to first-line
supervisor," she remembers, "I had to tell a friend that she was
in trouble for not turning in her weekly reports on time. My boss
suggested that I tell Judy I didn't want to fix the blame-I just wanted to
fix the problem. That was wonderful advice. It allowed me to state the
problem objectively to Judy and she olfered the solution."
Criticism in the workplace, whether you're giving it or
getting it, is always more effective when you focus on the task rather
than on the person. Fixing the problem, not thc?blame, means that nobody
has to feel chewed out or chewed up. We can still feel whole and learn
something in the process.