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  • Aram Tayebi

Can criticism and judgment be useful?

I find discussions around criticism and judgment really interesting, particularly because people tend to hold the belief that criticism and judgement are inherently bad, so we should avoid them at all costs. I believe this is unrealistic and counterproductive.

Why is it unrealistic to get rid of judgement and criticism?

Well, as soon as you create an ideal (and a goal to work toward) you ipso facto create it’s opposite – and judgements around what it is to not be that ideal.

For example, let’s say you want to become ‘fit’; so fit becomes your ideal/goal. (‘Fit’ in this context being defined as whatever you want). As soon as you can conceptualise ‘fit’, you immediately conceptualise it’s opposite. If fitness is strength, then lack of strength is not fit. By creating these extremes, you create binary categories. Any movement toward your goal would be considered ‘good’, and movement away from your goal considered ‘bad’.

If moving toward your goal isn’t ‘good’, then why is it YOUR goal?

Why are you moving towards it?

Why not stay where you are if moving toward your goal isn’t better?

Therefore, if moving toward it is better then, by definition, moving away would be worse.

Good/bad/better/worse are judgements; with the creation of a goal/ideal, you create a judgement, and a critic.

The only way to dispense with judgement and criticism is to have no goal…

So, can we agree that judgement and criticism are persistent elements of our world? Yes? Good. (Sometimes it’s nice talking to myself!). Now we can explore why it would be counterproductive to remove them, by removing goals and ideals.

Judgement and criticism are guides: They let us know when we have veered off course. I believe the issues we have with judgement and criticism occur because they progress to a point at which they become counterproductive, i.e., they move you further off course rather than redirecting you to your goal. One example of a counterproductive judgement is, “I used to be able to do X. Now I’m too old/fat/unfit to do X.”

This kind of detrimental self-criticism is common with ex-athletes and people whose fitness has declined after injury, pregnancy, moving away from their gym or... COVID-19. One reason this criticism is so pervasive is because it is often true: for whatever reason, these people aren’t as fit as they once were, and they’re disappointed in that new reality, because they still place value in their ideal (how they were before).

One method of combatting pernicious thoughts like this is to negotiate your way out of them. By reality-testing using questions like, “is that true or am I catastrophising?” people often realise that their negative judgement on themselves is unwarranted. However, this method doesn’t work when there is an objective measure of the past-present decline.

Take myself, for example. I am objectively not as fit as I was when I was 20, when my VO2 Max was 67.1 mL/(kg-min), and I could get 16.1 on the Beep Test. If I tried that now, I would have a heart attack! This objective fact really upsets me, and it is true (i.e. based in reality and measurable), so how am I to deal with such critical thoughts?

The smart people I have researched say that the best method is not to deny your current reality, but to accept it, and look to your immediate future for a remedy. The more disheartened you are, the more immediate your focus should be. For example, “yep, I totally suck compared to what I used to be. That’s true. But I want to improve, so what can I do in the next second to improve?” or “I’m now 50 years old, and I’m not as strong as I used to be. This is true, and ageing is a part of life. What can I do today that will offset the decline? How can I stay as strong as possible, for as long as possible?”

In those examples, you can see hope. There’s acceptance that things aren’t as good as we want them to be, and hope for improvement, because these (fictional) people have taken responsibility into their own hands. They have control over what they can control, and they’re aiming for their ideal, rather than aiming for perfection.

Once you recognise where you are and why, and you actively move toward where you want to be, you can drive yourself out of negative thought patterns and make changes that create the life you want to be living. Use your judgements to reorient yourself to your goals, not to drag yourself down. It’s that simple.

Be cautious: just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy! Simple things are often the most difficult to do (how simple is it to get 8 hours of sleep a night to maximise performance? How easy is it?). However, we get better at it when we practice, because purposeful practice moves us closer to our goals, which allows us to become our ideal.

Look at who you currently are, look at who you want to be, and think of 5 things you can do that will take you from one to the other. It’s ok to judge – it’s not ‘bad’ – but when we don’t use our judgements in pursuit of our ideals, they work against us and destroy our motivation. In order to be our best selves, we need to continually work on ourselves (just like relationships; without work, they stagnate and rot), but we can’t work on ourselves unless we have a measure of what we’re working on and the purpose we are doing!

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