"Do you have to wear that outfit? You look so dowdy."
"You're probably counting on your puffed-up resume to get this promotion."
"You've been to graduate school--why can't you get a decent job?"
Ouch! Why is it we criticize others when it does nothing but cause hurt? That's the question asked by Doris Wild Helmering, psychotherapist and self-described "former criticizer," who tackles this and many other bad habits in her book "Sense Ability" (Morrow, $23).
Inappropriate criticism is negative, uninvited feedback that does nothing but alienate people, Helmering says. "When you criticize someone, I guarantee he or she is going to pull away from you emotionally. And if you continually make critical comments, eventually other people won't feel safe or close with you."
According to Helmering, critical people are typically pessimistic, rarely satisfied and always expect others and themselves to be perfect. Oddly enough, the critical are usually very responsible and can be counted on to get a job done.
Not every critical person, however, shares the same origin for his negativity. It may be a genetic disposition to react more intently to stimuli, Helmering says. Or it may be rooted in an upbringing where competitive comparisons were routinely made: "I know if you try, you can play soccer as well as your older sister."
Critical parents also serve as role models to their children. If you always heard your mother or father complain, you may find yourself doing the same thing, like it or not. According to Helmering, some people criticize because they think it will gain them a form of intimacy. That is, they complain about a friend to another friend in order to form an alliance of dislike.
Criticism can also grow out of bad times--after a death, divorce or job loss, or with the onslaught of old age. Little wonder, Helmering says, that many older people who are lonely, financially strapped or in bad health vent their frustrations in a host of criticisms.
Anyone who's been buzzed by criticism knows it doesn't have to be direct. It often comes thinly disguised as sarcasm or bleak humor: "Did you bring your other chin?" Or, in a question: "Why would you ever buy that kind of computer?" Or, in the twist of a compliment: "You sang that rather well. I'm amazed!"
Watch your body language, Helmering says. You may be criticizing without saying a word--by rolling your eyes, tapping your foot or tightly folding your arms across your chest. The message: "This is lousy."
No matter what mode of faultfinding you use, it's not going to make things better. "Criticism does not get people to change, even if the criticism is valid," Helmering says.
So how can you break the habit? Try writing down every criticism you make during the day, for two or three days. "It's work," she admits, "but it makes you more aware and able to change." She gives the example of the battle between a mother and her 24-year-old daughter, who moved back home because of financial difficulties. Once they wrote down their daily acerbic comments, Helmering says, they were convinced they should find a better way. Among the list of complaints from the mother: "Stop watching television and do something constructive." And from the daughter: "Why don't you just chill out, relax, calm down?"
Another trick from Helmering: "Every time you get ready to criticize, ask yourself, 'What is my higher value, my ultimate goal?' If it's to have a closer relationship with your spouse or your child or boss, you're less likely to have negative thoughts. You can move on to choose love."
And if all else fails, Helmering says, "ask which epitaph would you like on your tombstone: 'Here lies Lucy: a highly critical woman.' Or, 'Here lies Lucy--a woman who knew how to love.' "