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How living with continued criticism can affect us.

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

What happens in a healthy relationship

When we are in any kind of relationship there is a certain level of expectation about that relationship and what it means to us. There can be unspoken rules of engagement taken as a given, such as trusting that person to be honest, to have good intentions, and to generally behave towards us in a manner that is healthy and acceptable, supportive and loving, and not to mistreat us. This is because we don’t go into a relationship with the intention of purposefully hurting or damaging the other person and we expect the same in return. In such a relationship, we can relax, be ourselves and enjoy the pleasure and companionship we experience with most of the people we know, even with occasional differences of opinion and personality clashes, or the odd heated debate where each party airs their views and vents how they feel. This is especially true of the relationship we have with our close associates, friends, family and intimate partners. Disagreements can be settled as we talk about how we feel and come to understand each other better. Even with those occasional disagreements, the majority of healthy relationships grow and flourish because we know we are loved, cared about, considered and respected. Overall, our relationships provide a great source of strength, support, community and companionship and give us a sense of belonging.

What happens in a critical relationship

If on the other hand, we are in a relationship with a person that is critical and demeaning, things can quite easily and quickly take a downward spiral. It might start with a complaint or a criticism, and it may be true that mistakes were made. Critical and demeaning verbal attacks can start with small comments, which we can easily brush off, telling ourselves the other person is tired or cranky, and that we all have our off moments because none of us are perfect. We can find reasons or excuses for their attack: for example, they might be in a bit of a mood due to a friend cancelling plans, or they might be stressed from overwork.

Criticism can be hard to take at the best of times, even when it is given constructively and is meant to help us, as it can upset us and leave us feeling hurt by what they said or disappointed by their response. But when this kind of demeaning criticism continues beyond a single incident, a negative pattern can set in, and before we know what’s happening, we can then find ourselves under attack on a more regular basis. Initially, we might tell ourselves the person is just a nag, or they are always moaning but over time, constant criticism can lead us to absorb those comments. Repeated exposure to and build-up of those negative comments and criticisms can mean we start to believe what is being said, and the comments become part of who we believe we are: for example, someone who always gets things wrong, continually fails, is stupid and cannot be trusted. This can then transfer to how we see ourselves, for example, I am useless, I am rubbish, I am a waste of space, I am not good at anything, I don’t contribute anything, I am not worth bothering with, I don’t deserve anything, I don’t matter, my feelings and thoughts are not valid.

In time, we start to doubt ourselves and our ability, as the continued criticism erodes our confidence and starts to impact our self-image. This person is someone we have previously formed a close bond with, someone who we trust and have trusted with ourselves, a person who told us that they love us, and that they cared about us, and we have believed them and naturally we want to continue to believe them. Yet, at the same time we are now being subjected to a string of constant criticism and demeaning comments that erode our self-confidence and our sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

When a person we are emotionally attached to, or that we love and respect says something to us, it is normal for us to value that person’s opinion, especially if they hold an important position in your life and they are important to you. But this kind of repetitive demeaning and critical attitude can become demoralising and leave us feeling deflated. I mean, if there’s that many things wrong with me, and that many things I can’t do right, and so much that I am bad at and that I’m not good enough at, what does that make me and who else would want me?

If we object or complain about it, or try to discuss it, we can be accused of exaggerating or being overly sensitive, or, it is brushed off with a laugh and disguised as a joke, or worse still, we are then further accused of having no sense of humour or being paranoid – this constant barrage of insults is added to the list of other criticisms.

Criticism and demeaning are forms of abuse commonly used by abusers to keep chipping away at your self-image, sense of self, and self-esteem. Over time this erodes and lowers your sense of self-worth, instils feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, causing you to lose confidence in yourself. The more you lose self-confidence the more insecure you will start to feel and subsequently, the more dependent you are likely to become on the abusive partner. This is what they want.

It can be difficult to identify demeaning behaviour as there can be so many varied subtle actions going on which have a similar effect of reinforcing a negative self-concept. When this is happening, you might have a vague sense that something isn’t quite right, but not be able to quite pinpoint what. Subtlety and vagueness in behaviour (rather than using behaviours that are blatant to identify and interpret) are used so that it can easily be denied by the perpetrator, who will often feign innocence, or blame it on your misunderstanding of the situation.

Understanding what is really going on is a first step to moving forward. If you observed these kinds of behaviours and responses happening in your relationship and are still stuck feeling bad about yourself and your self-worth, it could be helpful to work through this with a counsellor. If you feel you would benefit from some support, please remember that our team of specialist therapists are available to help with these types of experience.

To your recovery, strength, success and well-being. 😊 Anne G

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