Dear Rachel,

I grew up with extremely critical parents, so I’m both hypersensitive to criticism and very critical myself. Not only do I always find things to criticize my family about, I stop people in the street to tell them to buckle up their kids or not litter. Even when I'm not speaking, I have a running critique going in my head about everyone I see on the street, on the bus, at work. Besides not making me very well-liked, it's also exhausting. The irony is that I hate criticism, having suffered so much from it myself. How can I stop the vicious cycle of being vicious?

Please, please help!

Critical Me

Dear You,

Kudos to you for recognizing this flaw! Many critical people point to others and say they wouldn't be critical if everyone just did what's right. (Now I'm being critical.) But you obviously want to bring positivity, not negativity, into the world—and so you can. Here are three suggestions to help you eliminate the criticism and bring out the goodness in others:

1. Go easy on yourself

You acknowledge that, despite your best intentions, you are repeating your parents' pattern. The external voices from your childhood have been internalized. You are probably constantly criticizing yourself, which makes it natural to criticize others. But if you practice treating yourself with more compassion and encouragement, you will also naturally “rewrite the script” that you use with others.

For example, you say that you are being “vicious,” but there is a big difference between being vicious and being critical. Being vicious is saying malicious things with the intent of hurting someone. Criticism actually comes from a good place. You want to help the other person—even if you might be going about it in a counterproductive way. You just need to tweak the method of delivery to produce the desired effect.

2. Reinforce positive behaviors

Whatever behavior you give attention to is reinforced, so ironically, the absolute worst way to get someone to change is to criticize him. If you focus on the good behavior you want to reinforce, not the bad behavior you want to eliminate, that will break the cycle. Notice the good in your family and those around you and comment on that.

Of course, if there is a clear danger, you will need to call your child’s attention to it. You wouldn't call telling a child not to put his finger in a light socket criticism. But the less criticism you use, the more your children will heed your warnings when there is true danger.

When it comes to people outside of your family, though, they may not appreciate your concern. In my experience, telling someone to buckle up her kid won’t do much good.

3. Go to the opposite extreme

The way to change a behavior, according to the Rambam, is to go to the opposite extreme. So instead of criticizing others, you can bless them, do acts of kindness for them, learn from them or inspire them. In other words, choose a positive interaction instead of a negative one.

If you see a pregnant woman, offer a prayer in your heart that she’ll have a healthy baby and an easy delivery. If you see a boy on crutches, pray that he’ll have a speedy recovery. If you see someone scowling, pray that something good will happen to him that day.

Once, while riding a bus, I realized I was mentally criticizing one of the passengers, so I decided to find something good to think about her. I saw that she had lovely nails, and I focused on that. Suddenly, she turned around, as if I had called her name. (It's a good idea not to stare at people when you're doing this.) Thoughts have tremendous power!

In Ethics of Our Fathers, we learn: "He [Rabban Yochanan] said to them [his students], 'Go out and see what is a good way to which people should cleave.' R' Eliezer said, 'A good eye.’”1

By looking at others with a “good eye”—thinking good thoughts and sending out blessings and praise—you will be making an incredible difference in changing the energy, not only in your home, but everywhere you go. In the process, you'll be inviting people to look at you with a good eye as well. And you'll start looking at yourself in a new way too, which will help heal some of the wounds of your childhood—so you can start making new, happy memories.

Wishing you only goodness and the ability to perceive that goodness,