Do you ever suffer an uncontrollable urge to criticize someone?

I’ve been having some unkind thoughts lately. A few people have crossed my path who have inspired me with a terrific desire to gossip about them, to talk about their faults.

So far, I’ve resisted, but I can feel my resolve crumbling.

It’s not nice to talk trash about other people – even to say accurate things. These aren’t situations where discussing their faults could lead to any kind of improvement. It would just be satisfying for me.

Now, if I had the greatness of soul to emulate St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I would try hard to feel love for these folks. One of my favorite St. Thérèse stories is that in the convent, Thérèse disliked intensely one of her fellow nuns, confusingly named Teresa of Saint Augustine. In her spiritual memoir, Story of a Soul, Thérèse described this fellow nun as “a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character.” But instead of avoiding her, Thérèse sought out this nun at every turn and treated her “as if I loved her best of all” – so successfully that the sister once smugly asked Thérèse, “Would you tell me…what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see your smile?” After Thérèse’s death, the disagreeable nun said with great complacency, “At least I can say this much for myself: during her life I made [Thérèse] really happy.”

Teresa of Saint Augustine never suspected that she was the disagreeable sister described in Story of a Soul until thirty years later, when the chaplain, in a fit of exasperation, told her the truth.

But I’m not around these people often enough to be dear friends with them, even if I could muster up the love.

But I will not to gossip about them! My lips are sealed! I’m not going to say a word!

If I can’t feel the love, I can change the subject.

One concrete cause of unhappiness is rumination. Studies show that by dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes, you amplify their power in your mind. So after I write this post, I won’t allow myself to think about these annoyances anymore.

I wrote this post but delayed posting it, so if you happen to know me, and you saw me recently, and you worry that you’re one of the people described, don’t worry, you’re not. Anyway, it wouldn’t occur to these people that anyone might find them annoying – which is part of what makes them annoying.

Look! I did it! I said something critical, right there. It just slipped out. Zoikes, I’ve got to change the subject NOW.

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  • Alli

    Gretchen — I’m having the exact same conversation with myself these days (except, unfortunately, the annoying person is someone that I am around often and that I should muster up the love for). It hit me the other day that the passage from Corinthians that you hear at weddings… Love is patient, love is kind, etc. doesn’t just apply to great romances. It applies to everyone I love. And about halfway down the list: love keeps no record of wrongs. Sigh. No record, no repeat.

  • Ella

    One thing I’ve found effective in dealing with certain people is to avoid the topics as to which I know they will drive me crazy. Thus, if I know that a particular friend will irritate me by treating child-rearing as a competitive sport, I will try to avoid discussing children with her (which can be challenging, of course, but therein lies the fun).
    Your observation about rumination is right on the money. A second bonus of refusing to dwell on these slights and irritations, real or imagined: it stops me from driving my husband crazy by rehashing them.
    Your second-to-last paragraph is hilarious.

  • http://www.patentlystupid.com Richard Ahlquist

    Wow great blog post. I can soo related to the uncontrollable urge to criticize.
    Matter of fact it got to the point where I would come home from work on a regular basis and fuss for hours to my wife about how stupid people were at times.
    Bless her heart she finally told me to take it elsewhere and eventually did. I now blog about most things that just infuriate me and the relief is tremendous!

  • http://adorita.spaces.live.com/ adora

    I agree, dwelling on the negative does not yield improvements. This is hard to resist, however, especially when criticizing ex-boyfriends with the girls.
    Sometimes when I hear criticism about others, I can’t help thinking less of the criticizer. “He/She might have been criticizing me behind my back.” This is how I remind myself not to criticize, it can destroy my own character.

  • http://www.olehoegh.dk Ole Høegh

    When I meet people I for some reason or another dislike I try to find one positive thing about them. Focusing on finding a positive thing takes the focus off the negative thing which otherwise take center stage in my imagination – and as you say amplifies from the focus of attention.

  • http://sugarmouseintherain.blogspot.com/ Sugar Mouse In The Rain

    By dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes, you not only amplify their power in your mind, but eventually people will associate those irritations with you.
    What we say affects how we feel and how we feel affects what we say, so it is better to avoid falling into this circle.
    I personally try to love such people and give them excuses at least for being imperfect human beings as we all are. When I fail, I say I am different and try to drop it.
    I am a recent reader of your blog though I learnt about it a long time ago.

  • phquaryn

    Yes, complaining does not fix anything… and on the other hand. Your feelings are valid and you have a right to feel the way you feel, even if you think it is “wrong”. Gossip is considered bad because it can hurt people. What about unburdening yourself with a trusted friend? That could be a positive.

  • http://bineblog.wordpress.com bine

    i differentiate between different kinds of gossip. there’s the kind that’s just plain bad talk, intended to put people in a bad light, that goes along with a smirk or a sneer. but i’ve experienced situations where i find gossip can be like some kind of … emotional hygiene.
    for example – me, my partner and our neighbor have a friend in common who annoys all three of us frequently by not showing up for appointments. ever so often when this happens we have to vent about this, complaining how he did it again, how he’s unable to get organized, lacks respect for our plans and doesn’t even apologize afterwards. we lament about this for a few minutes, then laugh about how he gets us mad every single time, and forget about it. we love him, we can’t change him, but we don’t want to lose him. we just need to vent sometimes.

  • http://www.issueswithknitting.blogspot.com LaurieM

    How does it help the annoying nun to never learn that she is annoying? Does she not loose a growth opportunity when she is buffered from the consequences of her behavior?
    I agree for the most part, I certainly need to learn to be more charitable, but I do think there are occasions when one should speak up.

  • Clayton

    So perfectly timed – I read a passage in a book last night related to this subject. . .”you have to stop dividing others into categories of good and bad. Everyone lives in the same light. A simple formula may help here. When you are tempted to judge another person, no matter how obviously they deserve it, remind yourself that everyone is doing the best he can from his own level of consciousness.” I found this to be very profound and very helpful and very much in line with this entry. . .

  • Kate

    I had the exact same thought as LaurieM.

  • http://www.gretchenrubin.com Gretchen Rubin

    St. Therese REALLY took this to the extreme — allowed herself to be splashed with water by a careless nun while they were doing laundry together (which, I have to say, struck me as pointless), also was driven nuts by a fellow nun who made a clicking noise with her teeth during prayers, but never said a word. You don’t get to be a saint without being a bit extreme about such matters!
    In my situation — and probably in the case of the annoying Teresa, too — how do you tell people you find them annoying? or that you don’t like their values? I don’t want to get into revealing details about my acquaintances, but my criticisms weren’t things that I could address with these folks. They were characteristics that ran too deep.

  • http://www.gretchenrubin.com Gretchen Rubin

    A reader asked me to post this comment for him, because he couldn’t post through a firewall:
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    Nice post.
    The Chofetz Chaim – one of the saintly men of Judaism was known for his legendary refrain from gossip.
    See here: http://tinyurl.com/2yr6y9
    There is a wonderful book (http://tinyurl.com/ywep9t) that imparts daily lessons on the Jewish laws of gossip and other improper speech. It really helps me to “bite my tongue”

  • http://mrsmicah.blogspot.com Mrs. Micah

    Well, you tried. Today when I got off the metro, I asked Mr. Micah if I could have about 15 seconds to complain. He said sure. I did so and then switched the the positives of being squished in a metro car which was filled to capacity–gratitude, plot ideas, etc. I just had to let enough out that I hadn’t liked the situation and then I was able to take a distance and say “but…..”
    Perhaps you needed to do so too. Maybe now you’ll be able to see some good points of these people–don’t feel guilty, hopefully expressing the sentiment that there were people you didn’t like freed up your mind enough to be happy.
    This isn’t quite catharsis, it’s more like a gentle unloading of frustration.

  • marianne

    Great post. This is something I need to work on. A couple of people at work really drive me nuts, why don’t they get it? Why are they so hard to get along with? I am trying to be a big person and let it go, I realize vocalizing about it and even letting it take up space in my mind, I am making it worse for myself and not for them. A sort of double-edged sword, if you will. I try to instead remember all the many more positive interactions I have with coworkers during the day. And if I count them up, they always outnumber the negative interactions. And then I say to myself, it’s been another good day… and I work on it again the next day.

  • http://slowdownfast.com/blog David B. Bohl at SlowDownFAST.com

    Gretchen,
    I will never be confused for being a Saint, but I can, have taken, and hope to take many more lessons from St. Thérèse of Lisieux. These are well illustrated through “Story of a Soul” and from “Her Last Conversations.”
    As St. Thérèse pointed out, all we can do is look toward and reach for a time and place in our lives when we’re able to approach what we desire to be.
    The best we can do, today, is to take responsibility and take action. It sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. Good for you!

  • http://www.cynthiaclinton.com/blog Cynthia Clinton

    What I’m about to tell you is the list of my personal commandments that you inspired me to write. I’m still working on the list, but I can tell you about this one…
    When you feel the urge to judge or criticize another, start your phrase with “just like me”. If you know someone who is a total drama bucket, for instance, then say, “Just like me, this person is stuck and can’t see her way out of the dark,” then, even though you are not currently stuck, you know there was a time where you were and you know what that feels like. What made you better? What got you unstuck? Immediately mentally send the same help for to this person who is stuck – don’t put it off. Make it follow your comment. Make it a habit.
    If you want to criticize or judge a person who is insecure, say to yourself, “Just like me, this person is afraid…” Again, you may not be afraid right this minute, but you know what you’re afraid of and can recall times you’ve been afraid in the past. What did you need to feel better? Mentally send what you needed to feel better to the insecure person. Again, make it follow your “just like me” statement.
    It creates more compassion for the other person and reminds you that we are all just different expressions of the same cosmic energy. We are all one and to judge another is to judge yourself.
    Hope it works for you as well as it does for me. Just about moves me to tears sometimes!