Question:

This may sound like a really ridiculous problem, but it’s one I struggle with every day, and I need some advice.

I have what my parents have labeled a “bad attitude.” For some reason, I grew up with a chip on my shoulder, and even now that I’m 20 years old, and supposedly a semi-intelligent, semi-self-aware Christian adult, I can’t seem to shake my old habits of always being on the defensive. Here’s an example: Whenever I discuss something with friends or family, no matter how much I love the subject we’re talking about, I automatically become a killjoy and criticize, criticize. My mother says I act like my motto is: “If you can’t say anything bad about something, don’t say anything at all.” And I have to admit she’s probably right.

I am so stingy with praise you could assume I don’t even understand the word. Everything is “stupid,” “boring,” etc. My negative attitude is ruining my relationships with my friends, my family and my boyfriend. I know I should try to be a little more “cheery.” But if I do, I’m afraid that I’ll look like an idiotic fool gushing over this or that or showing enthusiasm for something unimportant – like a hockey game or being in a church group car wash team.

Can you help me at all with this? I’m almost ready to become a hermit!

Answer:

I’m not surprised your negative attitude is causing problems for you. There are very few things in life more annoying than someone else’s bad attitude. We all have our share of grouchy days. Maybe that’s why we get so irritable when we have to put up with another’s grouchiness. Whatever the reason, a negative attitude can not only damage relationships, it can destroy them. So your concern about your relationships is a good motivation to change.

If you need another reason, I’ve got it. The Bible has a lot to say about this subject. Just get a good concordance and begin looking up some of the references under “backbiting,” “criticism,” or “tongue.” I don’t want to bring in the scriptures just to make you feel guiltier. You are, after all, concerned enough to write. But I would think you’d have some extra motivation to change if you realized that a critical spirit isn’t just a social problem that makes your friends and family unhappy; it’s also displeasing to God.

So what can you do about it? How can you quit being so negative about life? I think there are some very practical steps you can take. Your critical attitude has become a habit, but habits can be broken. And I’ll have some strategy suggestions for doing just that.

However, first, it would be helpful for you to seriously consider the question, “Why am I so critical?”

I’ve known a number of young people who have thought being popular meant they had to be cool and reserved – never showing enthusiasm. You hint a little at that in your letter. Often the emotion underlying this attitude is one of fear – fear of exposing one’s true feelings. It seems safer to put up a defensive wall of criticism than to risk criticism from others.

Often the root of a critical attitude is jealousy of the person being criticized. Or bitterness – a way of paying back others for some hurt we’ve received (usually from someone else). Other times a critical spirit is just the visible evidence of a person’s own feeling of insecurity and low self-esteem: we criticize others in an attempt to bring them down to our level or to make ourselves feel better by elevating ourselves to a position of judgment over them.

If you’re going to put a stop to your habitual critical spirit, you need to get to the root of your behavior and answer the “Why?” question. Sometimes the answer is obvious and close to the surface, other times it takes a lot of digging to get to the deepest root. To get a better handle on the possible effect of hidden emotions, I’d recommend the very practical and insightful book Healing for Damaged Emotions by David Seamands.

It’s hard sometimes answering a question for someone I only know through a few words jotted on a piece of paper. I can’t possibly be certain I know the root of your problem. But if I had to take an educated guess, based on my experience with thousands of teenagers I have personally talked to, I’d say your under lying problem is your own insecurity.

Because you don’t feel very good about yourself, you don’t feel very lovable, so you put down others and try to make them seem just as unlovable. And in doing so, you attempt to keep those around you from thinking what you’re feeling – that you don’t quite measure up. If this is true, I have another reading suggestion, Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? by Tim Stafford.

Sometimes self-examination and reading books isn’t enough to find the root of a problem like yours. Some people only get down to the root through counseling. If you need to, you shouldn’t be ashamed to seek help from a trained Christian counselor. Some pastors do such counseling; those who don’t could recommend someone.

In the meantime, you can take some practical steps to break out of your frustrating habit.

  • You’ve already taken the biggest step: You’ve recognized and admitted your problem to yourself.
  • I’m not sure from your letter whether or not you’ve taken the next step: You need to admit your problem to those closest to you and enlist their help.

Share your concern with your family and your closest friends. If it’s too hard to do face-to-face, let them read the letter you sent me. Then ask them to help you break your habit.

Ask your family and friends to remind you every time you say something negative. They don’t have to embarrass you in public by calling you down or interrupting you. You could devise a little signal, a word or a wink, that would serve as a reminder. And each time you are reminded, you should immediately bite your tongue and stop the negative comment. I’d even suggest carrying a little notebook or a piece of paper to keep track of the number of times you catch yourself, or someone else catches you, making a negative comment. My guess is that over a period of weeks, maybe even days, you’ll begin to see an encouraging decrease in the number of critical comments.

But it’s often not enough just to stop doing what has become a negative habit. Most strategies for breaking a bad habit suggest trying to replace it with a good habit. It might be helpful for you to also keep track of positive comments and compliments you make. And try to increase the number of those you make each day. (Keeping score like this may seem a little bothersome, but it’s one way to force yourself to be more objective about your behavior. And it gives you a measure that can be encouraging as you see the progress you’re making.)

There’s one more strategy I’d like to suggest. It springs from a story a friend told me about an elderly Christian woman named Martha. She was known throughout her community and in her church as a real grouch.

Martha had never been married for seemingly obvious reasons: She’d been a complainer, a sourpuss, all her life. Before retirement she had been a college professor who had a reputation for being critical and gruff with her students and always complaining about something to her superiors. She especially had problems with any man in a position of authority over her – perhaps because her own father had deserted her family when she was just a young child. She never seemed to recover from that hurt.

One day she went in to complain about something to her new pastor who had been warned about her critical attitude. After they’d talked for a while and she’d finished with her complaints, the pastor smiled and said, “You know, Martha, if you’d read 1 Corinthians 13 every morning, it would change your life.” The suggestion left Martha at a loss for words. But she did it. And a few weeks later, Martha stood up in church on a Sunday morning to say, “I went in to see the pastor awhile back and he told me if I’d read 1 Corinthians 13 every morning it would change my life. I didn’t believe him. But I did it anyway. And I want to say it has changed my life.” It was true. Martha became a much more loving and lovable person. Everyone who knew her noticed the change.

So though you haven’t developed a 70-year-old habit, I’d suggest the same treatment the pastor prescribed for Martha. Read 1 Corinthians 13 every morning for the next couple of months. And ask God not only to help you bite your tongue when you begin to get critical, but ask Him each day to help you replace your critical spirit with the kind of loving spirit 1 Corinthians 13 talks about. I predict it will change your life, just as surely as it chanced Martha’s. Try it and see.

Jay Kesler, Campus Life

 

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