why parents criticize their children

The selfish catharsis of criticising others

“Rare are helpful speakers, rarer still are good listeners, but rarest of all are words that though unpleasant are helpful.”

– Nàgarjuna

The concept that we criticise others for what we dislike about ourselves is met in Buddhist writings and is popular amount (pop) psychology publications. I was wondering if there is any basis to it.

The inspiration comes from criticism I kept receiving from my grandmother. It always came down to competence with her: I was criticised for being incompetent in its various incarnations. Over little things. Leaving the light on in the corridor. Not leaving the light on in the corridor when guests are over. Forgetting to buy something in the shop.

Then there were big things. Any time I defended myself against her criticism over big things, it inevitably transpired that her accusations were based on erroneous assumptions. She didn’t realise how hard I was working or what I was trying to do. Mostly though, it was over small things, especially for not complying with her idiosyncratic world view.

She wasn’t even that tyrannical: she would say to me that I am my own person and I make my own decisions. According to her, what I heard from her wasn’t oppressive and unsupportive, no, it was just her opinion – and she is entitled to one, right?

Naturally, her approach showed a lack of understanding of human emotion, relationships, empathy…

Furthermore, looking back on her life, it’s easy to see why she might see herself as the very thing she is accusing me of, of cautioning me against seeing as how she doesn’t actually mean harm: “incompetent”. Her life was so full of endless challenges: stagnation and lack of opportunity under Brezhnev, hopeful but troubled times under Gorbachev, then turbulent and Darwinian fighting to get by under Yeltsin.

All of the above have left her with no real tradable skills, just the knowledge of how to adapt while not getting accused of something she didn’t do, swindled or killed. By today’s definition of success she’s not all that “competent”.

So was she just trying to counsel me so that I avoid her fate? That may be what she told herself, but I believe the real motivation isn’t quite as selfless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Knowing that she isn’t the picture of competence and success as it is understood in today’s culture, she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.

Any time I would ask her if she has her phone before leaving, she would snap at me: “Stop asking me such nonsense!” It’s not that I felt that she wasn’t independent or indeed was trying to be in some way offensive. However that obviously hit right where it hurt the most: competence and independence.

Obviously, this extends beyond issues like competence and independence. It can be anything at all.

Interpersonal criticism and rejection always come down to the same main point: it’s far less about the person being criticised or rejected, it’s about the needs of the person doing the criticising and the rejecting.

I am not writing this to simply hate on the critics and tell them to get out of here “with their negativity”. The really interesting part is the following. Next time when you feel like criticising someone, ask yourself: is there something about me that makes me criticise this person? It can be fascinating what you find out 😉

Is there any mysticism to this? I don’t think so at all, even though these kind of theories often arise from the more spiritually inclined. I believe this phenomenon arises from recency/attention bias. If something is on one’s mind, e.g. competence, one is more likely to find issues with it in others.

If we were to try and be scientific about it, I would design an experiment like this: interview a person about things that bother them the most about themselves, then interview those closest to them in a random population, without directly letting them know the hypothesis. 

I think an intervention-based trial would be less than ethical, but that could be tried too! For example, criticise person A about trait X and then ask them to find faults in people in a prerecorded video. Thoughts? 

“If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”

-François de La Rochefoucauld

36 thoughts on “The selfish catharsis of criticising others”

    1. How interesting. I get this a lot. I was talking to a few friends of mine today about managing others, work, etc. They told me (and they are not the first to tell me this) that I come across very formal. In my head, I am a big messer! Not in the least bit formal.

      It definitely pays to listen to those around us


      1. It is my thought that if a characteristic is described by a number of people then it is time for reflection…once, on the other hand, may mirror the other than I.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I completely agree with what you write. In my own life, I am continually discovering that I learn more about myself each time I wonder why I am angry or frustrated with another person. I think this is where learning about oneself begins, and maybe ends.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed! It’s also one of the reasons I became interested in mindfulness: it helps you notice the emotion rather than just act based on it. By noticing it, you then have the option of asking – hey, wait a minute, why am I so angry/upset etc…

      Great point and thanks for stopping by! I appreciate the feedback


    2. Me too. I often stop in mid-criticism and laugh at myself, because this is so true. Not necessarily of others — but that’s me all over.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I think you are right. We dislike in others the things we see in ourselves. I had sudden realization of this some years ago after criticizing a co-worker. I did much of the same thing! I was shocked and embarrassed, but I learned a lot from that moment. I have tried hard not to be critical of others since.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “In truth we talk only to ourselves, but sometimes we talk loud enough that other may hear us.” — Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam.

    In my world I’ve always added a little something to this phrase:
    In truth we talk only to ourselves, about ourselves, and sometimes we talk loud enough that other may hear us.

    After the analysis of hundreds of individual, through the practice and principles of Analytical Hypnotherapy, I’ve only ever found this to be a beautiful truism. It is impossible to see anything in others that doesn’t first exist within ourselves. These aspects are often buried and repressed within our minds, far beyond our conscious awareness, only to surface in our criticism of others.

    I imagine your grandmother had great fear of being seen as the person she believed herself to be.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Sure, and from my comment it also follows that self awareness is a prerequisite to empathy. If we don’t know ourselves how can we ever presume to know others.

        Empathy is a curious thing is it not? My world view is certainly governed by my beliefs and experiences; empathy – lets say with a terrorist – enables me to add to those personal experiences, expanding my world view.

        That said, can we ever really know what’s going through the mind of a suicide bomber? With the philosophy mentioned, if we can, does this empathy also make us suicide bombers? I doubt it, however, given the same set of experiences and beliefs we all have the potential.

        Have you had time to read Yuval Noah Harari’s’ new book yet? It would be interesting to read your thoughts. AF

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it’s a conundrum. Just from observing people at work, I think that the people who make the best psychiatrists/doctors of whatever other specialty are the ones who can pass these problems somewhere close to their hearts. Unless you have a decent idea of what it’s like to be hopelessly sad, dealing with a depressed patient will feel like outright punishment.

        This analogy extends somewhat to suicide bombers. The people who deal with them usually will have participated in real military interventions. When you strip away our contrived rules as to who is and isn’t allowed take another’s life – aren’t the army officer and the suicide bomber psychologically similar?

        A lot of people have mentioned that book to me – I guess I will read it. I don’t feel Y.H. is a very high quality writer, so I am a little apprehensive!


  4. Damn Doc, you sure know how to make a guy feel small. Now I can’t even hate on others without realizing I’m just hating on myself.

    (Not that I do any hating… The word just fit to make the point.)

    “she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.”

    Insecurity — the goblin of little minds? Damaged minds? Incomplete minds? Unreflective minds? Maybe suppressed and unsupported minds…

    Here’s a question for ya: How is insecurity (and its counter-acting faultfinding) an evolutionary trait? Or is it? Such a self-preservation dimorphism appears to be rampant in society. But is it an evolutionary trait, like altruism?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it’s that people find it difficult to accept that they aren’t perfect. Our parents and school systems punish mistakes and discourage any kind of “imperfection”. So if a person realises that they could be accused of such a thing, they will fight it – often very dysfunctionally. It’s not that we have to always accept our imperfections and leave it at that, but without acknowledging them first, it’s impossible to make any progress with them. Acknowledging them can be very scary and we are taught that society will shun us for them and not give us a second chance. It’s a short-circuiting loosely based on reality… I think! What do you think?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Faults vs failure. More I see failure as being something that is embraced. You should and must fail in order to succeed.
        Faults? If we could see them as failures (of a kind) then we might be encouraged to understand them and mold and alter them (if we’re so inclined.)
        But faults, like insecurity, I think are treated as defects in personality that are irreparable. And only those who can truly self-reflect can hope to examine their own defects (which is no doubt scary – “hey, I’m broken”) and have a hope of modulating said faults.
        But how many people are truly self-reflective?


      2. Here’s another thought: how often in our lives should we have no doubt told ourselves “it’s not about me,” but didn’t?

        “I haven’t heard from Thomas for a month, did I do something to offend him?”
        “You know, there’s no more milk.” (Oh, dear did I forget to buy milk?)
        “Sarah stopped liking my posts on facebook, does she not like my opinion about Drumpf?”
        “Bill hasn’t sent me his daily joke since last Friday…”
        “Dad, didn’t send me a holiday card last year…”
        — You get the picture —

        How many of us have developed these insecurity complexes? And are these sentiments part of our cooperative nature. Are they checks on a smoothly running society? Have we taken them too far? And, did your babushka ever experience them?

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I must admit that I once caught myself doing this to others, if only in my head. “Why am I so critical of that person’s behavior, even if just in my head?” I asked myself. And I realized it was because they were reflecting back something that I didn’t like about myself. I like what was said earlier in the comment section about empathy being the way to true understanding — and in turn, compassion for others can help us increase compassion for ourselves!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post!

    Since I learned about mirroring, I am forever checking if I am mirroring. To make up for what I say to and/or about others, I’m always quick to admit to being not so different or I’ll say that I’m aware I’m not better or perfect but, “I’m just saying.” I end up thinking… and I’m cursed (although a friend said I’m “blessed”) with a restless spirit and a wandering mind. I do tend to over-ponder. Over-analysis can be included, too.

    Liked by 2 people

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