A Short definition of criticism, by Roberto Assagioli:
“We will now examine another of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of spiritual development: the tendency towards personal self- affirmation, and the aggressive ways in which this manifests itself. It can take various forms: some impulsive in nature, others of a more calculated type. We will consider them together because it often happens that emotional and mental elements coincide within us in a complex fashion.
Among the manifestations of aggression we might mention antagonism in its various forms: anger, rage, resentment, condemnation, reproach and criticism.
Anger or rage is the reaction brought about by any obstacle or threat to our existence or to our sense of self-affirmation in a given area. The fact that it is a ‘natural’ reaction does not of course mean that it is an appropriate one, nor even that it serves any useful purpose for those selfish goals of self-affirmation that it seeks to promote. Quite often in fact it only serves to cause damage: anger is the worst of counsellors and if it is not brought under control it will result in violence and all manner of excess. Anger, like the Australian boomerang, returns to the one who launched it. This is so obvious it hardly needs stating, but unfortunately we often forget the most obvious and basic things in life!
Another harmful effect of anger is that it plays a pivotal role in the production of poisons in our system. These poisons are also produced by resentment, which we might regard as a chronic irritation.
I think it appropriate, however, to focus our attention on one aspect of the fighting instinct, which is so subtle and insidious, so widespread, and which, because of its seriously harmful effects, deserves special attention. That is the area of criticism – the tendency (indeed I might even call it a universal mania) to blame and belittle our fellow human beings at every opportunity.
Let us try to understand why this tendency is so widespread and so powerful, why it is that people who are in other respects morally strong devote themselves with a passion – it could even be described as enthusiasm – to criticizing others, and in doing so experience heartfelt pleasure – as shown by the inflection of their voice, the animation of their gestures and the twinkle in their eye.
A brief psychological analysis will readily reveal the reason for this state of affairs. Indeed, we will see that many basic human tendencies find considerable satisfaction in the exercise of criticism. In the first place, criticism satisfies our self-affirmation instinct: discovering and pointing out the shortcomings and weaknesses of others gives us a pleasurable sense of superiority, as well as nicely bolstering our pride and arrogance. In the second place, it provides an immediate outlet for our aggressive energies: it gives us all the satisfaction of an easily won victory with no danger to ourselves (because the enemy is not present), and it seems a harmless pursuit – often, in fact we feel it our duty to criticize – so it is not subject to any check or inner censure, and our moral conscience is taken in.
We might add that for many people who have to suffer domination by others without being expected to fight back, or who have to put up with situations and circumstances they find disagreeable but can do nothing to change, criticism is the only way in which they can give full vent to their hostility and to their repressed resentment. It is the only safety valve they have for reducing their inner tension. This fact also helps to explain why criticism has become more highly developed in women than in men. (This finding is not my own.) Men have other, often worse, ways of expressing their fighting instincts and make frequent use of them.
Finally, and curious as it may seem, criticism serves to satisfy the desire for communion with others, though it is only partially successful and is destructive in effect.
This apparent paradox should not surprise us too much. Indeed, what can most readily unite and reconcile individuals and groups of human beings is having a real or assumed enemy in common. We should not be surprised therefore that people are all too eager for the pleasurable fellowship and harmony that results from sharing their criticism of others! This is not true fellowship or union, however; it is merely a temporary, superficial coming together, because it is based on separateness and not on unity. For this reason such negative bonds are usually severed without much difficulty. With regard to criticism, then, it is not unusual for Tom and Dick to speak ill of Harry, and then for Tom and Harry to speak critically about Dick – nor will this prevent Dick and Harry getting together to talk about Tom behind his back!
The mental attitude of the systematic critic, with all his ridiculous arrogance, is well portrayed in a story from Britain. Two elderly Scotsmen are having an enjoyable time running through the follies of their mutual acquaintances. When they have completed this demanding task, one of them makes the concluding remark, ‘Well, my friend, you could say that everyone is mad, apart from you and me … but I’m not sure whether there might not even be a trace of madness in you!’
One particular form of criticism is ridicule or mockery. All innovators and pioneers have been laughed at and regarded as cranks. It is important to note that there is a fundamental, often unappreciated, difference between ridicule and humour. The first is antagonistic, lacking in understanding and often cruel, whereas the second is characterized by indulgence, kindness and understanding. Humour consists of seeing human weaknesses from above, in their right perspective. Indeed true humorists smile primarily at themselves.
How can we escape the inclination to criticize? There are a number of effective methods.” (See Transpersonal Development, p. 179, 2007)
“Criticism is one of the most insidious of the glamours which goodwill can eradicate because it is a double-edged glamour, that is, it affects both its originator and its object. To think of someone critically builds a thoughtform through which we then see that person whenever we look at him. Consequently, the weaknesses and failures with which we have surrounded him are the main things we see in him, while his good qualities and his real self are hidden by what we have built. But not only do we see him through the veil of our own thinking; we are also projecting it to him and, when criticism is voiced, are clothing him in this in the eyes of others also. All this is definitely harmful and may have far-reaching and devastating effects. It produces reactions in the person we criticise which—according to his type—may be of a depressive nature or of counter-criticism and active hostility against ourselves.
But the harm we inflict on ourselves by our critical attitude goes even deeper. Not only are we affected by the “ boomerang-reaction ” of others (which is an aspect of the Law of Cause and Effect), but our criticisms evoke the same faults and negative aspects in ourselves and thus stifle the opposite good qualities. This is our self-inflicted—and well-deserved—punishment!
We often criticise thoughtlessly, without recognising that we are being harmful, but it has been said that criticism lets in more glamour than we ever realise. We should beware of the temptation of “ sitting in judgement ”. We may be under the delusion that we are seeing people as they really are, but this is rarely the case.
To criticise is a particular temptation for those with an active mind. The outstanding characteristic of the intellect is to analyse, dissect and separate; therefore the more people are becoming mentally polarised, the more the cultivation and expression of goodwill is needed. It is a first expression of the love of the heart which balances the mind. Yet goodwill is more than a quality of the heart. It also entails a rightly directed will—a will for good—and it carries with it an inner orientation to reality and the good of the whole.” (Meditation for the New Age, Year Three)