The Trap of the Critic


It’s easy for me to be a critic.  I grew up in a family that prided itself in finding what’s wrong with the world and each other. It was sort of a sport around the dinner table to see who would outwit the rest and deliver the best put down. We all laughed, but someone always got hurt.

Now I’m a professional critic whose livelihood is partially funded by my ability to discern what’s wrong or what’s not working and help organizations move to the next level. This is a dangerous profession, and I’m very aware of the insidious negativity that can creep in and suck the life out of every experience. I have to work hard on being positive because cynicism and negativity are the first ones at the gate.

When the critic in me starts to take over my heart, I go back to the words of Henri Nouwen. He taught at Harvard and Yale and gave up his career to work among those who were severely physically and mentally challenged. This is what he writes about an angry man:

He sat in front of me. He was in his early sixties. The deep lines in his face, his unkempt hair, but mostly his burned-out eyes showed he was a very unhappy man. We talked about the weather, “It’s hot” he said, “Much too hot, I can hardly breathe, the humidity kills me.” I tried to cheer him up a little by saying, ‘We can use a little sun, and the humidity, well think of it as a free sauna.’ But he did not hear me. No smile came to his face. He began to talk about a colleague who left him many years ago. About a friend who had not called or written to him for two months, and about his neighbors who kept him awake during the afternoon when he wanted to take a nap. My presence was little more than an occasion for him to pour out his many complaints.

He pointed out to me the corruption in our government, the war in Bosnia, the hunger in Somalia, the violence in South Africa. “The world is falling apart all over the place”, he said, “the television, the radio, the newspapers, they all show it. And they don’t even show the full truth.” I felt a sensation of darkness creeping around me. Where is this darkness coming from, I wondered. I am face to face with an angry man.

I don’t want to end up like the angry man and those whose lives are dedicated to criticizing, denouncing, exposing, and judging people…whom most often, they don’t even know. Sadly, the internet has given all of us a perfect dark place to hide and hate.

I don’t want to be a cynic. I don’t want to see the glass half empty.

I fight the tension of seeing what needs to be improved and of becoming the critic who cannot find good in much of anything. This post is mostly for me. I need to be reminded from time to time the reason for what I do, and that regardless of all that still needs to be done and improved, I need to find the heart inside of the critic, the altruistic purpose for the change.

My prayer is that I don’t become the angry man Nouwen encountered and that my words would propel people forward instead of steal the joy out of what they do.

How have you been impacted by a critic in your life?

  • Jeff

    I grew up with a very critical father. Nothing was good enough and I always felt I didn’t measured up to his expectations. It’s affect me in every area of my life. 

    •  Jeff, that’s a tough place to be whether it’s your father, mother or someone you look up to.

  • Sally Smith

    I worked for woman who could never find the positive in any situation. She was a fundamentalist Christian, bitter woman who took joy in pointing out what was wrong with the world and with you as well. I could only stay there for a few months. She literally took the joy out of my entire life. 

  • Steven Shantz

    Professionally, I have been helped by critics – those with whom I have some sort of  relationship and whose words I can trust.  Angry people focused on the negative are a drain and it takes emotional energy to fight off the effects of their words. 

    • There’s a big difference from those who want to help and those whose agenda is to point out everything wrong you do. 

  • Anne

    I love Henri Nouwen…when I read his work it is as if he is speaking to me. I feel like I’m praying while I read….Reminds me of constructive criticism.

    •  Love Henri Nouwen. He’s one of the few people that I have to read very slowly.

  • John

    I find it very easy to criticize, denounce, expose, and judge people that I don’t even know.  For me, this a much easier than the hard work of actually getting to know and understand them. I have recently learned to assume the best about people and lead with love. I probably won’t agree with them on everything once I get to know them but I believe I will get a different perspective and an understanding of their heart. My initial opinion of  you (Maurilo) was very critical and suspicious. I followed your blog and Twitter with my mind made up but soon found myself agreeing with you on leadership and business topics.  God is at work and I thank Him for all of the people, including you, who he has used to help me learn these valuable lessons.

    • John

       Sorry for the misspell of your name Maurilio

    •  Thanks for your honesty, John. I’m guilty of that quite often. I tend to put people in categories and put the burden of changing my mind on them. I complete understand where you are coming from. I’m glad you stuck with me. Most of my critics don’t invest the time in actually understand who I am.

  • Carl

    Maurilio, thank you for your transparency here. I grew up in a very similar home, and it usually wasn’t even couched in humor – just pick pick pick at everything and everyone my father disagreed with (which seemed to be everyone).  I am working hard at using my critical nature to help things improve when they truly need it. More importantly, I’m seeking the Lord to change the critical spirit my upbringing instilled in me, so that I would lose the critical spirit completely and see Him replace it with a spirit of encouragement and love.

    It’s my job as a daddy to break the generational sin handed down to me and be a positive source of love and building up in the life of my children (and wife and friends and coworkers) lives!

    Thanks for sharing.

    •  Carl, as a dad, I struggle with this very thing on a daily basis. It’s up to us to break the cycle.

  • Anonymous

    “Sadly, the internet has given all of us a perfect dark place to hide and hate.” great quote Maurilio!  I agree that social media has given individuals their soap box to spew criticisms.  I find that I have to use extreme discipline to not do the same or to respond to someone with different beliefs. 

  • Dalene

    Wow. We have a similar background.  I have a couple angry family members & have been trained to find the negative. I am able to use it in my work & I am the go-to person in my office for proof-reading & editing! It is nice to be someone whom people will run to for help; however, I do agree with you that I need to constantly remind myself to also look for the positive, dole out honor or compliments when earned or encouragement when necessary.  I don’t want to be that “angry man” either!

  • Skidmore Nikki

    Balance. I think there is a vital role for people who can negotiate the weaknesses and convey them directly and to the point. I have the tendency to see what’s wrong. But I tend to focus mostly on what’s right. Seeing the positive. Seeing the good things. Balancing them both, and at the end of the day focusing on the positive helps keep things in check for me. Thank you for your post. I love the honesty. I think we need more of the “I’m human, I struggle with______” to help us connect and accept that we all have so far to go. All of us. Especially me.

  • It can be quite easy for me to be critical as well. I’m always looking for ways to improve my ministry and my graphic design business and it can quickly become condemning of mistakes.

    My former pastor used to tell us that we weren’t allowed to point out flaws in the church if we didn’t also bring an idea on how to fix it. It really gave us a sense of responsibility behind our criticisms, and forced us to be creative in solving problems.

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