Amanda and Janet are sisters and close friends. They spend much of their free time together and often attend events that they both enjoy. Tonight, they are going to a cocktail party thrown by an old friend and Amanda has purchased a new dress that she is excited to wear. When Janet arrives at Amanda’s house, she looks her over and says, “That dress makes you look like you’ve gained a few pounds.” Amanda is crestfallen. Her excitement about the dress and the party begins to fade away as she questions her appearance. Seeing the upset look on Amanda’s face, Janet says: “What? I’m just being helpful. You don’t want people to think you’ve gotten fat do you?”
The story of Amanda and Janet is something that happens millions of times a day between friends, relatives, lovers, and coworkers. There is one thing that these types of interactions have in common: one person is expressing a negative, unsolicited opinion to the other person. Sometimes, the person being critical truly believes that they are helping the other and other times they are intentionally setting out to damage the other person’s self-esteem, but in both cases damage is done. If you are someone who often offers advice to people and they seem to never react well to it, you should know: your criticism is not helpful. In some cases, whether you intend it to be or not, your criticism is actually emotionally abusive.
There are some relationships where constructive criticism is appropriate and expected. When you have a professor, a mentor, or a boss who offers you tangible suggestions on how to improve your performance, this is to be expected. Such criticism is instructional, it is meant to allow you to become better at whatever task the criticism is related to. Think back to a time in school when you received a paper back from an instructor. Most of the time, he or she would leave comments in the margin, some positive, some negative. Suggestions like, “your focus becomes loose in this paragraph, try editing unnecessary comments” are meant to improve your writing. Imagine if that paper instead said: “Wow, you’re not a great writer. You should try to work on being better at that.” How would you feel? Offended perhaps, or hurt, and you would have no direction in which to go, no idea of what was needed to become a “great writer” but the knowledge that you are not one.
In relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners, criticism is rarely constructive. For one thing, these relationships are not intrinsically instructive, they are mostly supportive. We look to our loved ones to provide us emotional comfort and warmth. Let’s go back to the comment that Janet made to Amanda. It is not constructive because there is nothing specific that Amanda is able to do about “looking like she gained a few pounds in that dress.” Tonight, before the party, she is not able to assess her fitness and eating to determine if she has, in fact, gained weight. You might say, “she could change her dress though, so that comment was constructive.” Unfortunately, it is not. While Janet’s comment does say “dress” the implication is that Amanda has probably gained weight. Whether or not Janet intended this, Amanda now feels self conscious about herself and her body. Simply changing into another dress won’t change Amanda’s insecurity that she does not look good enough to attend the party. Amanda will not enjoy the party as much as she would have if Janet had simply smiled and they had gone to the party. What would have happened if Janet had kept her opinion to herself?
There’s no way to know. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a few people at the party would think that Amanda had gained a few pounds since the last time they had seen her. It’s doubtful that any of them would have expressed it to her. Likely Amanda would be none the wiser and remain unhurt. Janet’s “helpful” comment served only to hurt Amanda. If Janet was seriously concerned about Amanda’s health, she could have chosen a more appropriate time to discuss it with her. Some of you might protest at this point and say something like, “Janet just wanted to spare Amanda embarrassment!” But where would embarrassment come from if no one expressed any criticism of Amanda? People are going to judge and to have opinions, but the vast majority of the time they do not express them to the person they are judging.
The one exception to this, is when one is asked for their opinion. The story would be very different if Amanda had put on the dress, felt uncomfortable, and asked Janet, “How do you think this dress looks?” Then, Janet is free to give her opinion on Amanda’s dress because Amanda solicited it.
If you notice that you are a frequent opinion-giver; if you are protesting as you read this saying that Janet was trying to be helpful, ask yourself the last time your unsolicited opinion was met with thanks. Think back over all of these “helpful” criticisms you have shared. Did the person react positively? Were they happy once you shared it? Did it strengthen your relationship? I suspect that the answer to those questions is “no.” Whether you are a frequent critic or not, the next time you feel the need to criticize something someone you care about is saying, wearing, or doing, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said right now?
- Does this need to be said by me?
I have seen this simple yet effective test attributed to spiritual leaders and writers such as Don Miguel Ruiz, author of “The Four Agreements” and Eckhart Tolle, but it was actually said by late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson. If you find yourself being criticized by a loved one on a regular basis, talk to them about it. How they respond will tell you a lot about whether or not your relationship is healthy and sustainable.