November 24, 2023

How to Stop being so Critical

Hyperfocused on everything that’s going wrong? If so, you may be blinded to the things that are going right in your world. And you’re certainly not alone.

Criticism comes naturally to all of us, and it’s further fueled by our modern information-overload existence. Fortunately, you don’t have to be stuck in fault-finding mode. You can learn to put the brakes on overly critical thinking.

WHY HUMANS CAN BE SO CRITICAL

We, humans, are wired to note the negative when we’re taking in external stimuli. It’s one reason we have been able to survive and thrive as a species. In today’s world, however, it can feel less helpful.

Overly critical thinking gets us stuck in negative thought patterns and leads to nonstop fault-finding with people and situations. That creates more stress and possibly other mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety.

There are various reasons for what is called the “negativity bias,” and various ways it manifests. In simple terms, the right hemisphere of the brain develops first in infancy, before the more logical left hemisphere.

Negative emotions reside in the right hemisphere of the brain. They’re helpful when warning us of danger and setting off the “fight or flight” response. But we also store any negative experiences here, including those that happen in our earliest years.

In addition, we have an implicit memory system, a nonverbal type of memory that is centered in the amygdala. It holds fast to past dangers, and these memories tend to be rigid rather than evolving over time.

So, we might have faced a danger years ago, but we still retain its lessons in the body and brain. It’s a useful adaptation in our evolution but less welcome when we can’t move past old fears. Perceived dangers from early traumas are essentially branded into the more primitive parts of the nervous system, including the amygdala. That’s why they persist and can even last a lifetime.

Much research has examined the operation of negativity bias in humans. One study pointed to a plethora of past scientific findings to explain its prevalence, including:

  • Negative reinforcement speeds up learning (compared to positive reinforcement).
  • Negative external input commands more attention and cognitive/neural processing, as it’s perceived as more complex.
  • People feel like they can judge a person or situation more quickly in the face of negative facts versus positives.

The researchers concluded “an approximate encoding of the negativity bias at the neural level.” Ultimately, they said, “Adults are far more attentive to and much more influenced in most psychological domains by negative than by positive information.”

NEGATIVITY BIAS IN THE BRAIN

Excessive criticism is rooted in brain activity, according to  Dr. Daniel Emina, a psychiatrist and Associate Medical Director at Amen Clinics. The brain SPECT imaging work at Amen Clinics shows that areas of the brain with too much activity or too little activity can contribute to negative thinking patterns.

Some of the brain regions that can influence a critical point of view include:

  • Amygdala: This almond-shaped structure is involved in emotional and fear responses. According to Dr. Emina, overactivity in the amygdala can lead to flare-ups of the brain’s “alarm system” that warns of danger. This can put people on high alert, looking for trouble at every corner.
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus: Emina also points to the anterior cingulate gyrus as a source of critical thinking. This brain area’s job is to find errors, issues, and problems, so it can leap into fixer mode.

When this area is in balance, a person can usually let problems go. When there’s too much activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus, there can be what Dr. Emina calls excessive error detection. “That’s when you’re finding too many problems, either in yourself, in others, or in situations,” he says in an episode of Scan My Brain.

WAYS TO COMBAT OVERLY CRITICAL THINKING

According to Dr. Emina, the key is to channel negative energy in more beneficial ways. This will reduce the habit of looking for problems to solve. In other words, we can transform our critical drives into a more positive experience.

Dr. Emina recommends healthy strategies to rest and disconnect. Activities such as crafting, playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, or using adult coloring books can help. There are many other ways we can train our brains to be less critical. Here are some helpful techniques:

1. Question yourself.

When the mind is full of automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), it can lead to a racing mind or a victim mentality. Both of these can increase negative thinking. When we really analyze a problem, however, we might find that it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

So, if you feel yourself being overly critical, take a pause and examine what’s true. Use these questions from the realm of cognitive behavioral therapy and the work of Byron Katie:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it absolutely true—are you 100 % sure it is true?
  3. How do you feel when you have the thought?
  4. How would you feel if you didn’t have that thought?

Then replace the negative with a kinder, more positive, and objective thought instead. Sit with this new thought for some time and see how it feels.

Alternatively, if you’re focused on a bothersome trait in someone else, you might turn the microscope back to yourself. We humans often project our own “unlikable” characteristics onto others. Identifying with someone else, versus pointing the finger, can help you gain more compassion for others—and for yourself.

2. Start a gratitude practice.

When we’ve trained the brain to seek out the “bad” in the world, we can overlook the good. One way to consciously start noticing more of those positives is by seeking them out. And a gratitude practice helps you do just that. When you become accustomed to noticing the everyday joys of life, you are more likely to appreciate them when they arrive.

If you’re feeling critical about a situation, can you list any positives that might emerge from it? If you are nitpicking in a relationship, can you list some positive qualities of that person instead?

Looking at all sides gives you a more balanced, nuanced view. This helps fight against damaging (and untrue) black-and-white thinking.

3. Slow down.

Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and tai chi are practices that force a slow-down in the mind and body. They also put a bit of a distance between ourselves and our thoughts. Then we can evaluate them with more objectivity instead of getting caught up in the reactive “story” we want to spin.

You might also get your thoughts out on paper instead of blasting away at someone in anger or letting frustrations build. The American Psychological Association reports that journaling has been found to reduce intrusive negative thoughts.

Finally, deep breathing quickly calms us, as it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. And it can be done anywhere, anytime, on the spot.

With these tactics, you’ll also reduce your stress levels. This makes it less likely you’ll fly off the handle at falsely perceived injustices. Try some or all of them to reduce the negativity and instead learn how to embrace the beauty that life offers.

Published by Amen Clinics

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