Living Blame-Free, Complaint-Free, Indictment-Free and Judgment-Free
Many folks have written about the negative consequences of blaming, complaining and judging others. I want to add “indicting” to this list of criticisms. My goal is to develop a single approach for living so much happier and freer than we have been by applying the same strategy to each aspect of criticizing, effectively combining them into one program for changing how we relate to ourselves and others.
People criticize for two main reasons. 1) Criticizing is a way of bonding with others by sharing misery. Think about conversations you have, even daily, in which you and others share their suffering or criticism. You ask someone, “How are you?” They respond by complaining about some ache or pain. Then, you respond with your tale of woe, perhaps your last visit to your doctor. You go back and forth, perhaps even trying to convince the others that you’re suffering more than they. 2) Criticizing is a way of demonstrating that you know more than others. If you give the sharpest critique, you show that you’re more insightful than others. It is, in a sense, a way of boasting. I can think of several political figures who boast by being critical.
I’ll start with some definitions and consequences of each of these negative behaviors — blaming, complaining, indicting and judging, then move on to how to change our behavior and live a positive life. I want to make clear that when I say “behaviors,” I mean both thinking and speaking. Often, we think in one or more of these ways without actually saying anything out loud. When we keep the criticizing inside our heads, that may be because we’re directing the criticism at ourselves. Most people do this… a lot.
When we speak of blaming, it’s important to understand that we’re talking about accusing someone of causing our emotional reaction to something that happened. This is different from blaming someone for what happened. We’re not talking about the effect of someone’s actions; we’re talking about how we react to what happened.
Some examples will clarify this distinction. “You broke the glass” is a statement of fact. So is, “I’m angry [about the glass being broken]” because it describes one’s emotional state. However, if we say, “You made me angry [because you broke the glass],” we’re blaming the person who broke the glass for our emotional reaction.
Honestly, we do this all the time; we blame others for how we feel. Our emotional state depends hugely on what others say and do. Being dependent, we surrender responsibility for our feelings to others. This leaves us at the mercy of events and others’ behavior, and that makes us vulnerable to being manipulated by others.
Though we tend to assume that emotional responses are natural, innate responses, in fact, emotional reactivity is learned behavior. I want to repeat this point: Emotional reactivity is learned behavior! We start learning emotional reactions in infancy. As a baby, if we smile, we get smiling back. This feels good, so we learn to smile to get good feelings in return. If we cry, we either get soothing or we get frustration. Frustration doesn’t feel good, so we learn not to cry. When we’re toddlers, if we do certain things, people get angry at us. They may even hurt us physically. We learn to avoid making people angry because their anger hurts us, it’s dangerous. As we grow older, people use that programmed avoidance of others’ anger to manipulate us. They raise their voice in hopes of eliciting that avoidance response, and thus they exert control over us.
The same is true for other emotions. I’ll share a personal example. When I was young, there were several deaths in my family. These deaths resulted in great sadness in adults in my family. Thus, I learned that death causes so much sadness that it actually hurts. To this day, even though I understand death and grieving, when someone dies, I feel enormous heartache. My experience is not unusual. In fact, it’s so common that we assume that loss of a family member causes painful sadness. But intense sadness is not automatic. It’s not “natural;” it’s a learned behavior.
Over the course of our lives, our emotional reactions become programmed (fixed). A certain kind of thing happens and that triggers a certain emotional response. For example, if my computer runs slowly, I get angry at it. I blame it for wasting my precious time. The same thing happens if I’m caught in traffic because someone is driving too slowly for my satisfaction.
Programming decreases our ability to respond with flexibility to the nuances of specific situations. We get locked into a trigger-response behavior pattern and cannot make appropriate responses to specific contexts of situations. For example, my mother was very good at dealing with service people. She would sit down with a service person, explain what she wanted and ask politely but firmly what the service person would do to fulfill her desire. This was programmed in her brain. I saw this programming demonstrated in her declining years when she was already rather senile. She would ask for things that she wanted even when she might have known that they were impossible to get, broke some rule or made a significant imposition on the person waiting on her. I remember the look on the face of one waitress in particular. The poor woman didn’t know what to do. She understood that my mother’s request was utterly unreasonable. However, after some discussion, she decided to preserve Mom’s dignity and reestablish tranquility by agreeing to break the rules and just give Mom what she wanted. I gave her a significant tip just to reward her graciousness.
Depending on the nature of the triggering event and our programming, we feel hurt, angry, frightened, sad, envious, powerless, etc. or just totally overwhelmed. Indeed, we can feel any uncomfortable feeling. The feelings may be so intense that we loose conscious control of our actions and do things we could be ashamed of. For example, we might curse, throw or break things, even assault people. “Overwhelmed” is a state of confusion (bewilderment) that resembles shock. When overwhelmed, we don’t understand what happened, don’t know what we feel and cannot formulate an effective plan of response. We may just have a meltdown. We see these behaviors in children. Perhaps these childhood reactions get reinforced, that is, triggering events get associated with specific responses, so, we become programmed.
Almost everyone complains… a lot. It’s so much a part of our culture that we don’t usually notice that we’re doing it. We complain about the weather, the cost of food, our job, our spouse and, well, anything we don’t like at any moment.
When we complain, we vent our displeasure with some situation. A situation may be external, concerning something in our environment, or internal, something we think or do. We might complain about our ill-health, how we look, about our lack of intelligence or understanding, about our lack of success or motivation, or even about how we feel.
Complaining, expressing displeasure, creates sourness within us and in those who hear our complaining. Sometimes we complain in the mistaken belief that venting our displeasure will make us feel better. Sometimes, we complain to gain secondary benefits, to gain sympathy or support from others. We may also complain in order get recognition or status. Family or friends may even compete to claim the greatest unhappiness with a situation or just with living. Surely you have heard people say: “You think that was bad, just let me tell you how bad my situation was.”
The thing about complaining is that it infrequently changes a situation for the better. With the possible exception of situations in which we complain to someone serving us and that yields remedial action, as, for example, when we complain to a waitress or waiter about some food they’ve served us, complaining simply does not improve our situation.
If complaining is so ineffective in removing our displeasure and generally only creates sourness and more unhappiness, why do we do it? I think there are two reasons. The first is because it’s what we’ve learned to do by observing others as we grew up. Like so many other behaviors, it’s a well-established habit. The second reason is that we don’t know what else to do. The obvious solution is to learn to recognize when we complain and then to utilize skills for managing the feeling of displeasure. We’ll get to how to recognize that we’re complaining and to developing those skills shortly.
“Indicting” means accusing someone for something we believe they did. “You did that to hurt me” is an accusation concerning someone’s intention to cause you pain. The phrase could be used as a way of blaming someone for one’s discomfort or of complaining about how one feels, but here, it’s being used as an accusation of intention.
The example above illustrates the similarity of blaming, complaining and indicting. Indicting differs by offering an accusation. The accusation itself often cannot be proven or disproven. It’s something we believe to be true. One approach to letting go of the indictment is to question its validity and accept that we don’t know and cannot know whether it is true or not. Another approach is simply not to accuse people of ill-intent and to accept events on the basis of just the facts — something happened — without attributing intention, hurling blame or just complaining.
If indictment is an accusation, judging places one in the elevated role of a judge or of God. Judging involves deciding that someone or something is right or wrong, or good or bad. Our judge doesn’t need facts. It requires only feelings and beliefs. Feelings serve as evidence and beliefs provide the code by which we judge people and events.
For example, if we say, “You’re a bad person,” we mean that we feel offended by things you did because they violate our personal code (beliefs) about how a person should act. If we were being complete when we offered this judgment, we might say, “I find you guilty of not conforming to my expectations for personal conduct.” I emphasize the word “my” in this statement because when we make a judgment about someone, we reference our own code, our own set of beliefs about how people should act or how things should be. Others may hold the same code of conduct, but a personal judgment is always on the basis of one’s own code.
We live in a judgmental world. In daily life, we judge almost everything. We judge, ultimately, on the basis of whether we feel good or bad about someone or something. Our codes of conduct serve as a way to evaluate our experience intellectually, but the internal process isn’t rational, it’s emotional. For example, sounds (birds chirping, music, etc.) that we hear are judged on whether they evoke a good feeling (happy, excited, soothed, etc.) or a bad feeling (repulsive, irritated, depressed, etc.). Clothing people wear is acceptable (tasteful, stylish, etc.) or unacceptable (ugly, immodest, repulsive, etc.). We judge behavior the same way. If some behavior pleases us, we call that ‘good’ behavior. If it displeases us, we call it ‘bad.’ If music makes us feel bad, we say it’s bad music. If someone’s behavior offends us or displeases us, we say the person is bad. We might say that we have standards for judging sounds, clothing and behavior, but we actually react to the feeling that our experience of these things evokes.
This point may sound excessively analytical, but it underlies a wonderfully simple way of stepping out of our habit of criticizing everything.
Why live without criticizing?
When we habitually criticize — blame, complain, indict and judge everything — we 1) see the world negatively and we 2) fail to take responsibility for our experience. Seeing the world negatively spoils our experience and may very well spoil the experience of others. Failing to take responsibility for our experience leaves us vulnerable to being triggered by events.
What does triggered mean? It means that we react to events with strong emotions and corresponding physiology. In short, it means that we feel stressed, with sweaty palms, short breathing and rapid heart rate. When we get triggered, we feel frustrated, irritated, angered, hurt, saddened, frightened, envious, powerless, etc. We may express these feelings towards others who actually are just innocent bystanders — our family, friends, coworkers or even strangers. We may rant about what triggers us, or even about totally unrelated things. Some people throw or break things. Others numb their feelings with alcohol or other recreational chemicals. However we react, it takes a toll on ourselves and, often, on those around us.
Think about what this means. Do you like being around people who are constantly complaining, blaming, indicting and judging others? Family? Friends? Politicians? Service people? Are you one of those people that you complain about? Are you triggered by the “stuff” that happens every day? By the weather? Traffic? Your computer running slowly or needing a software update? People being late for appointments? To put it simply, are you miserable most of your day, day after day?
Why do you live like this? Pause for a moment and consider this question. If you aren’t happy, perhaps the reason isn’t what others do. Maybe it’s you, your negative attitude about life and your vulnerability to being triggered by events. Wouldn’t you be much happier with a positive attitude and freedom from automatic responses to daily challenges?
Living without Criticizing
In order to live without criticizing, one first has to recognize how easily and how often one gets triggered and criticizes — blames, complains, indicts or judges. Try a simple exercise. Put a rubber band on your wrist. It should fit loosely so that it’s not uncomfortable. Then, every time you notice that you’re triggered and criticizing, move the rubber band to the other wrist. Keep moving the rubber band from wrist to wrist throughout the day. You don’t have to count how many times you move the rubber band. By the end of the day, you’ll have a sense of whether it’s frequently or infrequently. If you think that you may have missed some instances of criticizing or being triggered, do the exercise another day.
Once you feel that you understand how much you criticize, you’re ready to begin retraining yourself.
Retraining yourself is like updating software in your computer. It’s easy to do but it does take time. It takes time because you’re changing habituated behavior. Your responsiveness to events is so habituated that it’s like you’re programmed to criticize. In order to update your software, you just learn to recognize when you’re criticizing and reprogram the behavior.
Now I’ll explain how to reprogram your brain’s system software so that you stop criticizing and see the world with fresh eyes.
There’s a wonderful question that I learned when studying The Option Method. The question is: “How do I know?” I use it like this. Suppose I say to myself, “The weather’s bad today.” I ask myself, “How do I know?” Just asking the question shifts my awareness from the judgment I’ve made (“the weather’s bad”) and makes me realize that I don’t like cold, damp, rainy weather, which is a fact. When I recognize the fact that there’s rainy weather, I can deal with it appropriately — wear a raincoat and hat — without getting upset. If I learn to do this every time it rains, I just might find that I like rainy weather.
The rubber band on the wrist can also be used for retraining. Wear the rubber band every day. Whenever you see yourself criticizing, ask yourself: “What is it about this situation that bothers me?” and move the rubber band to the other wrist. This question takes you out of your reactivity and opens you to seeing things objectively.
A third trick for retraining one’s reactivity is called Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT. EFT is sometimes called “Tapping” because one taps on acupressure points while reciting affirmations. I use a specific form of EFT called FasterEFT, developed by Robert Smith. The basic technique of EFT is accepting your negative reactivity and then reprogramming it with a positive reaction. You start by saying (while tapping), “Even though I feel _______ whenever I think of, remember or encounter _______.” You follow this with statements that reflect a positive response to the situation. For example, you might start with: “Even though I hate my boss and resent his criticizing me,” and turn it around with: “I appreciate that he wants me to do my best work.” You’ll use whatever phrases feel right for you. In this example, you would probably do it a second time starting with something a little more specific: “Even though I hate being criticized by my boss and resent his picking apart everything I do for him.” Doing it a third time might be necessary, starting with another specific issue: “Even though my boss is demanding and nothing I do is good enough for him.” You could reprogram this with something like: “My boss’s criticisms reflect his own needs for perfection and have little to do with me and my abilities.” You’ll keep doing the technique until you have reprogrammed every trigger in the situation, in this case, all the reasons you hate your boss. This is just a quick overview of EFT. I can teach you this technique in a private session.
Benefits of Living without Criticizing
The immediate benefit of giving up criticizing is a profound relaxation in mind and body. It’s like setting down a heavy load that you’ve carried for ages. The load that you have felt is the physiological stress response. When you stop criticizing, your body gradually learns not to respond to those triggers with stress responses. It remains relaxed and comfortable.
The second consequence of living without criticizing is that others enjoy you more and even trust you more. This happens because you’re more fun to be around and because others stop wondering what you say about them behind their backs. This change in attitude towards you reinforces your positive behavior and strengthens the happy and healthy physiological functioning of your body.
The third consequence is finding that you have much more energy. Being a critic takes a lot of energy. When you cease being a critic, all that energy becomes available for productive activity. Having abundant energy feels good. You’ll also have more enthusiasm. Those around you will appreciate that too.
Some people worry that if they cease criticizing, they’ll have nothing to say. If you’ve built your life around criticizing others, that’s not unreasonable. Who are you if you’re not pissed about something? You could use the tapping technique (EFT) on that: “Even though I’ve always been a critic and am afraid I’ll be nothing if I give it up,” and then turn it around with phrases like: “I’m excited to discover who I am when I’m not being negative,” and “I want to feel good about myself and others.” When you give up being negative, being positive comes naturally, which brings many rewards. You’ll want to do more and enjoy people more. Are you ready to give it a try?