Having one or more critical parents can put a sledgehammer through your childhood confidence and leave effects lasting long into adulthood. If your father or mother responded with criticism and judgment instead of joy and delight when you did what came naturally, you may have felt as if there was something wrong with you and internalized their critical voice inside your head. You learned to hold back and now every time you step out of line or go to express yourself naturally, you rebuke yourself first instead. This will seriously undermine your self-confidence and your relationships with other people... especially women.
But there is hope. Here's how to recover from a critical parent:
Understand That Criticism Is About Projection and Loneliness
Critical people are stuck in a perpetual vicious cycle of projection, pain, loneliness and disconnection. They've been hurt at some point in the past when they felt vulnerable and they're still carrying this wound in their psyche. Often they're afraid of facing the pain they feel around this and don't know how to deal with the unpleasant emotions involved, or perhaps they aren't even consciously aware of it. The criticism that pushes people away further prevents them from experiencing the deep connections with others that would reduce their loneliness and heal the very hurt they are avoiding by criticizing others.
Our criticisms and judgments of others are really just projections of unhealed, unaccepted or unacknowledged parts of ourselves. Parents can't help but see themselves in their children, so when you started acting in ways that triggered your mother or father's shame, hurt, sadness or loneliness they are likely to have felt their unhealed pain particularly deeply. So it's not surprising that a critical parent's most common victim is their own children.
The cycle of judgment, pain, criticism and loneliness works like this:
A critical person has some unhealed and often denied emotional wound from the past. The deepest wounds are about loneliness, rejection, abandonment, separation and disconnection.
When other people do what comes naturally, it inadvertently triggers this pain
The overwhelming pain from the unhealed wound is too much, so they deflect it with an internal judgment about the other person
The judgment is projected outwards onto the other person as a criticism
Criticism is painful and destroys the empathic connection with other people, causing the person encountering the criticism to either become defensive or to retreat.
Defensiveness and retreating lead to further loneliness, rejection and abandonment of the critical person. This reinforces the pain of their original wound, further hurting and isolating them. Over time, criticism becomes their default defense against what feels like a hostile world.
People who criticize others have a fierce internal critic aimed right back at themselves too. When you understand that the parent who criticized you was actually hurting inside as a result of the way their judgments and criticisms shut down their own self-expression and isolated them from other people, you can start to feel more compassion towards them.
Understand That The Criticism Was Never About Us
Your parent's criticism of you was never about you. It always came down to some unhealed and often denied emotional wound from their past which they projected onto you. When your natural behavior reminded them of their unhealed pain, it was easier for them to criticize you and get you to stop acting in that way than it was for them to heal their pain. Unfortunately this taught you that your natural way of behaving was somehow bad and wrong as a side-effect, undermining your natural confidence in who you are.
A self-aware parent will realize that their children are their best teachers precisely because children know exactly how to trigger a parent's unhealed emotional pain, and triggering the pain is necessary in order to heal it. However, a parent that lacks self-awareness or who is simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of their unhealed issues is likely to do anything they can to stop you reminding them of how hurt they are inside. Hence such parents can become the harshest critics of the very children they love so much.
If a critical parent has wounded you deeply it's helpful to remember that the criticism and the wounding were never really about you. It was always just a projection of something your parent hadn't dealt with in themselves.
Allow Yourself To Get Angry
I'm feeling a little angry at the injustice of this situation as I write this. It is grossly unfair that many children bear the burdens of their parent's unhealed wounds. This is what the Christian Bible means when it talks about the sins of the father being passed on to the sons for many generations. Insecurities get passed on from parent to children by critical, judgmental parents who are too scared to really own and deal with their own issues. If you've been on the receiving end of this, it ought to make you angry too.
Anger is one emotion that my parents were especially uncomfortable with. I don't remember ever being explicitly criticized for being angry myself, but I do remember believing that it was a bad emotion because I saw the destructive force it caused in my parent's relationship. I developed a great deal of shame about being angry and learned to repress it pretty solidly. Yet I now realize that the problem wasn't that my parents got angry: the problem was their attempts to deny their anger, and the resulting destructive way they ended up expressing it.
Being angry with a parent is frightening because as infants we were totally dependent on them for our survival. Alienating a parent through anger could lead to abandonment, and that would mean certain death in our childhood thinking. If your parents continue to criticize or humiliate you as an adult and you never find yourself feeling angry with them, or never express your anger towards them, now is the time to start allowing your true feelings of anger to surface. Learn to say:
“I feel really angry when you criticize me”, in response to their criticism.
On the other hand, if you readily express anger towards your parents it could be time to move on to the next step and go deeper into what's happening for you.
Learn To Express Your Feelings
One of the most damaging forms of childhood criticism is when we were criticized for how we feel. Our feelings represent our deepest experiences and if you encountered criticism when you expressed them as a child, you may have learned that it just wasn't OK to express yourself, or even to be yourself. Shutting down your expression of feeling is the first step towards restricting who you are from showing up in the world.
Being able to express unpleasant emotions freely allows us to accept our experience of life and of ourselves much more deeply. It also frees us to feel the pleasant emotions more deeply including love, peace, happiness and joy.
While anger is a useful defense mechanism, it's often a cover for fear, hurt and sadness. When a stranger who you'll probably never see again threatens you, anger can do an effective job of motivating you to protect yourself. But in long term relationships like those in a family, it's more helpful to be able to express the underlying emotion beneath the anger.
The best way to express your true feelings is to be direct about them. Avoid passive-aggressive or indirect expressions of how you feel. Don't just assume that other people should know how you are feeling: learn how to be direct and tell them. Learn to say:
“I feel really hurt when you say that” or
“I feel sad when you criticize me” or
“I feel afraid of your judgments”
Acknowledging your true feelings in the face of criticism helps to break the vicious cycle that critical people find themselves in by triggering their compassion and lessening their emotional isolation. I'm still learning to do this, and it can be heavy going at times.
Parents do not generally like the idea of hurting their children (even their adult children), so when you make them aware that what they are doing is hurting you they may back off and become less critical. However there is no guarantee of this; they may even become more aggressive. The important thing isn't how they respond, it's how authentically you express yourself. When you express your true feelings in the face of criticism you exercise courage, and exercising courage builds your confidence.
Take Time Out If You Need It
Some parents are so deeply wounded that even a true expression of hurt and sadness in the face of their criticism may trigger their defensiveness instead of their compassion. For a parent like this, you may need to take some time out and learn to express your true feelings in a more supportive environment first.
Personally, I've found group therapy to be tremendously valuable in learning to express true feelings that I suppressed for many years after growing up with a critical mother. I was tremendously afraid of expressing my feelings towards her and receiving criticism in return for my vulnerability. So I used my therapy group to practice on first. Over time I learned to express rather than repress how I felt when being criticized. At first I got angry, which was really new for me. I'm still learning to express the hurt and sadness underneath the anger.
Don't Listen To The Critical Voice In Your Head
We often internalize our parent's criticism as a voice in our head that's constantly monitoring and judging our every move, and everyone else’s. Everyone has a voice in their head chattering away at them to some degree, but we often don't reveal it to other people because the things it says to us are so shamefully horrible. The voice of my inner critic sounds a lot like my critical mother mixed with a little of my under-confident father.
The volume with which our inner critic speaks to us is directly proportional to the amount of pent-up unhealed emotional baggage we have hidden in our subconscious. The job of the critic is to try and contain this emotional stress so that we can avoid experiencing the pain associated with it. So long as our inner critic keeps us in line, we don't have to deal with painful criticism from other people.
Unfortunately this is a recipe for ongoing stress, depression and misery. To free yourself from the tyranny of your inner critic, you need to stop taking it seriously. You can't just ignore it, or it will just ratchet up the volume to get your attention. But once you learn to express the emotions that you've been holding in for many years, you'll start to dissipate some of the fear, sadness, pain and anxiety that keeps the critic vigilant. Over time you'll find the voice of your inner critic getting softer and softer until you eventually forget that they were ever there.
Notice When You're Being Critical Yourself
As hard as we might try to never be like our critical parents, we can't help but take on to some degree the world view and the relational and coping strategies of the parents who raised us. If you had a critical parent you'll more than likely have a strong critic in you as well. Perhaps you recognized how damaging this is and turned it against yourself to avoid hurting other people, or perhaps you formed a cynical world view. Maybe you keep other people at a distance because you find faults with them when they get too close, or avoid intimate relationships because you discover things about people that you don't like. Or you long for the world, the people in it and yourself to be perfect. All of these are symptoms of a critical nature inherited from a critical parent.
The first step towards dropping your own critical nature is to acknowledge it. Stop hiding the fact that you are critical and perfectionist towards yourself and other people. Start revealing your own dark side that you're afraid people will reject you when they discover it. Quit pretending to be a righteous man and let the world know about your own inner struggles and conflicts.
The sheer weight of carrying an internal critic is exhausting, whether you focus the energy out on the world as cynicism or in on yourself as perfectionism and low self-esteem. Either way, resolve to drop your inner critic. Start noticing when you are critical of yourself and others, and take your own internal criticisms less seriously. Just notice them and let them go.
Get the emotional healing you need to heal your internalized anger and accept yourself and the world exactly the way it is without projecting your old pain onto everything. Rebuild the confidence that was stolen from you by having a critical parent so you can get to a place where you are grateful for the lessons that they taught you instead of recreating their flaws in your own life.
Get Professional Help and Support
Recovering from the damage done by a critical parent is one of the most challenging tasks we can face because the emotional scars can go deep into our nervous systems. Often other members of the family have also been affected but may be too afraid to face the truth; which is why your siblings are more likely to side with your critical parent than to support your recovery, despite the negative consequences of the critical parent's behavior on them too.
In some cases it may be necessary to cut contact with your critical parent for a period of time, which is likely to incur the wrath of siblings who are in denial of the impact that parent's behavior has had on them, and too afraid to take such action themselves. As a result, the first person in a family to stand up to a critical parent tends to feel very isolated.
I highly recommend getting professional advice, help and support on this journey. The step-by-step action plan I used to recover from my critical mother is in The Confident Man Program. Since I've personally been there myself, I now specialize in helping people recover from the devastating emotional impact of growing up with a critical parent and offer emotional healing sessions via Skype wherever you are in the world. If you're still suffering the effects of growing up with a critical parent and want to set yourself free, contact me about coaching.