Valjean Clark


I’ve long thought about the tradeoffs of being a critical person. I’ve known people who I would characterize as too critical, and others who are uncritical to a fault.

I’ve sat down several times to write about this, but each time I’ve gotten stuck.

When I sat down this time, a clarifying framing came to mind: Why do I want to write about this?

Because I want to be more at peace with my critical nature.

When attempting to write about this before, I found myself struggling with the definition of “critical”. I was trying to define things along a continuum of being critical, or thinking about the opposite of being critical, and was finding the word slippery to work with.

So I took some time to come to a better understanding of the word “critical”. What does it mean? What are its opposites?

Antonyms of “critical”

The definition of “critical” for my purposes, from Merriam Webster:

given to making or expressing unfavorable judgments about things, e.g. “adults tend to be critical of teenagers’ taste in music and movies”

Merriam Webster has this cool relevance heat map for words. The only strong match is “uncritical”. The others are weaker - further evidence that it’s an imprecise word.

antonyms of the word "critical"

Grouping these into similar types of antonyms:

uncritical, undiscriminating: Almost pejorative, like the person can’t seem to distinguish between good and bad, effective and ineffective.

charitable, forgiving: I suppose the best kind of forgiveness is when the person is critical, but is able to forgive regardless. It means a lot coming from them. It’s almost implicit? To forgive is to have been harmed but then find it within yourself to forgive.

undemanding: Can be nice, if you don’t really care about the thing the person is not demanding of. Like if someone doesn’t care about a class at school, it’s nice that the teacher is undemanding. But can also not be nice. Sometimes people need a more demanding teacher or boss.

unfussy: Often a positive term. “I’ll eat whatever.” Though that same person is not helpful in picking a place to eat!

Part of why I was finding the word “critical” to be slippery is because it has different definitions in different contexts, and hence it has antonyms in different contexts.

Synonyms of “critical”

synonyms of the word "critical"

Using the synonyms list above, I’ll group these into similar types.

particular, demanding, discerning, judicious, discriminating: These can result in very favorable outcomes. For example, a person described as discerning is someone you would trust to make a good decision. At worst, these words mean that someone might be a bit difficult to deal with.

judgmental, rejective, harsh, uncharitable, unforgiving: Instead of focusing one’s critical nature on determining the good and bad qualities of different options and choosing the good ones, someone with these attributes seem particularly focused on the negative. All of these words share a certain unfairness. For example, a judgmental person is not just seeking to critique but to make judgments. I don’t fear someone critiquing my actions or work, but I do fear someone coming to a judgment that may not be accurate. There’s something harsher and more final about receiving a judgment vs a critique.

hypercritical, overcritical, merciless, exacting: These are more about intensity, which can be overwhelming. These seem mostly negative, but could potentially be tolerated in the right context (Steve Jobs comes to mind).

captious, faultfinding, carping, caviling, fastidious: These all get at a certain sense of never being satisfied and of incessant, exhausting criticism.

picky, finicky, finical, nitpicky, fussy, pettifogging, quibbling: These are annoying, but they seem to be used for less important topics. For example, we wouldn’t say that a parent is “picky” about insisting their kid should be a doctor, we would say they are “overcritical”. “Hard to please” is how Merriam Webster defines several of these. Anecdotally, there seems to be a strong correlation here with some of the other categories above.

What did I learn?

I’ve never spent so much time thinking about the synonyms and antonyms of a word! And yet I’m also confident that I only scratched the surface here, and that my grouping of words is full of subjective, cultural, and temporal bias, but it’s a start.

I’m glad I did spend the time, because now I can confidently say I am proud to be a critical person! Or rather, I like being discerning, judicious, and sometimes demanding.

My favorite teachers and mentors have been critical people. I appreciate when someone is demanding of me at work (within reason). I’ve learned a lot from discerning people who know how to find elegant solutions to problems.

Being critical can have a dark side. I like to think that I don’t exhibit the darker aspects of being critical like I used to (qualities like “overcritical” and “judgmental”). When all someone thinks about is what is wrong with things, they are only tapping into the negative side of being critical. A critical person has the ability to amplify fear and anger into something darker. Critical creation seems good, while critical destruction seems bad. Though I imagine there is a time and a place for critical destruction.

I don’t know how someone develops the “annoying” types of being critical, such as being fussy, nitpicky, or quibbling. Do these always come along with someone being darkly critical in other ways? Or is it something else entirely?

Criticality as a darkness amplifier

I wanted to explore this idea in particular. Imagine the most stereotypically critical person you know. For me, what comes to mind someone who finds fault with everything, who cannot see the beauty in something someone else loves, who is quick to point out what is wrong, who rarely talks about something they are excited about or are learning.

A critical person is always observing, assessing, and categorizing, which isn’t inherently bad. What seems bad is when someone uses those tools in a purely negative way.

This may just be Millennial therapy speak, but it seems like this person is “hurting” in some way, and because they are a critical person, this hurt is amplified.

Perhaps a less critical person who is hurting would just be silently miserable doing an activity they don’t want to do, but the critical hurt person would be more judgmental and evaluative of why the activity is stupid.

I’m a little out of my depth here, so I think I’ll stop my untrained armchair psychology here for now.

Final thoughts

I am still finding writing about the word “critical” to be challenging, but writing this post really helped.

There’s so more to explore. In particular, the idea of criticality having a light and dark side and somehow being an amplifier feels imprecise and squishy. Maybe there will be a part two.

Thanks for reading!