Tag Archives: inner critic

9 reasons you are such a know-it-all

Someone may have called you a know-it-all – maybe even to your face – and you are considering whether to listen to the criticism. This post might help you.

Or maybe you are tired of co-workers “mansplaining” or tired of “authorities” who enforce household or office rules, or tired of endless arguments about factoids that bore you. This post might help the people you despise.

How would you define a know-it-all?

“Know-it-all” is not a diagnosis from the DSM, but it is probably a defense system someone uses to protect themselves from further harm or uses to regain something that was lost or neglected. If you try hard enough, I think you can probably add “know-it-all” to  descriptions of certain enneagram numbers (they are looking at you, number 1), or to several Myers-Briggs types (watch out NTJs). Regardless, most of us can spot the behavior in others (if not ourselves) when we run into it.

Lenny on the Polar Express

Someone will be correcting what we say (even our memories and feelings), or they will launch into detailed descriptions of their own (or our) history or book plots which only tangentially connect with what we were just saying, or they may appear to know more than everyone about any subject brought up during any meeting. One person complained a co-worker could not resist blurting out “That’s not right” when someone was sharing a thought. They did not blurt back, “Who made you the arbiter?” — but they were blurting in their mind. A person on the search for “rightness” often gets tagged a know-it-all if they always have the correct thing to say.

This “type” of person is so common there is a Wikihow article about them, which is helpful. Eze Sanchez just updated it in May. Here is his intro:

Smarty pants, wise guy, smart aleck – we all know one. Whether at family get-togethers, at the office, or in a social setting, know-it-alls are everywhere and they know everything. Sometimes it is utterly unbearable to spend time with these annoying individuals even if you have tried to engage, endure, or even empathize with them. In the end, it might be best just to avoid them, but if they are friends, family, or coworkers of people you know, it is still possible to come into contact with them. Therefore, you better be prepared to deal with them.

This is not a study or much of a lit review, but I offer nine reasons you might be, or at least come off as, a know-it-all. Eze goes on to be more empathetic after his intro above, and I also want to help us care for people who are messing up social situations or locked in self-destructive patterns they can’t see. Just “avoiding” know-it-alls or “dealing” with them is not good for them psychologically and does not reflect the way of Jesus very well, either. I hope this list will help you see yourself with kindness and also help us see one another with understanding and hope, rather than with more judgment.

9 reasons I am a know-it-all

  1. Knowledge is power and I want to be one up.

I think this is what we usually think about a know-it-all. They are power tripping. They are working on being greater than everyone or they think they already are.

The apostle Paul had a whole faction of know-it-alls spring up in one of the first churches. In his first letter to that church he wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). By his second letter he is saying, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am untrained in speech, I certainly am not with respect to knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you” (2 Cor 11:5-6). The know-it-alls were challenging their teacher!

In the info (and false info) age we live in, everyone thinks they are, can be, or ought to be a Google-aided expert. So life has become an endless argument. We are all know-it-alls in training. For example, Progressive Insurance is filling our football games with commercials about people “going to replay” to verify that they are right.

  1. I am an affirmation pig, since I am, somewhat hopelessly, still trying to get parental approval because I grew up in an affirmation desert.

I think this is much more likely than #1. Being a know-it-all could be a misguided approach to finding soul-food, just repeating a habitual approach that never really worked. If I am smart, I will get praised (for once).

  1. I actually have more knowledge than most people, but I have few social skills. I would like to be an expert for people. I learned stuff, but not how to relate. I might be “on the spectrum.”

Some people are just smarter and many people have worked hard to learn stuff. They might be bursting with it (ask any dissertation writer). Respecting them might be appropriate.

But some otherwise smart people might be less smart about how to present what they know. An Asperger’s/HFA mom wrote on a forum:

I can become hyper focused on topics and want to know as much as possible about them so that they, too, become part of my mental algorithm for connecting dots. I retain a lot of the info and am able to think about possible solutions to problems that others seem to either miss, or just don’t research enough to see. I try to impart topics to people in an attempt to help them (oh you have dry eyes- get your zinc levels tested) but it’s about 50/50 whether it’s received well, or taken negatively as if I’m trying to demean them with some perceived superior intelligence.

  1. Looking like I am smart is a façade to mask my insecurity. I don’t trust you to love the real me.

A lot of us reading this probably have this wound, which leads us to think we should be competing with the other know-it-alls for some kind of recognition that validates the persona we use to protect our vulnerability.

Married couples run into this when they are longing for intimacy. One person in counseling, who admitted they are something of a know-it-all, frankly said, “I married a know it all, so ‘active listening’ does not work well. We both have too many corrections and ‘but whats’ to get in there.”

  1. Performing knowledge tricks is the main way I have gotten attention my whole life. I had to compete.

This is a lot like 2 and 4, it just focuses on how we train children to feel attended to. Most of our training comes from a school of some kind. “One achieves what one measures” is a Western culture proverb. We measure the intellectual development of children and they are good at figuring that out. They may keep achieving smartness at your Thanksgiving dinner to get attention.

  1. I have no reflection time. I am mostly making up things as I go along. So anything you bring up I expand on as I am incorporating it. I might be dyslexic or a verbal processor.

A lot of people get their view of self by grazing in social situations, they never eat a home-cooked meal. They might not be correcting you when they are chewing on what you just said as much as spitting it back out as if they thought it in the first place. This might irritate you if they don’t “quote” you, but it could be taken as a back-handed compliment.

During neurodiversity week this year a dyslexic woman said, “My dyslexia has given me more strengths than weaknesses. My ability to read people’s emotions and situations extremely well means nothing can get past me, and I always know when to ask someone what’s up.” She may have trouble reading a book and having an inner dialogue about it, but she may be able to read you and quickly use what you say.

  1. I have to be right or I will go to hell. And I have to make you right or you might go there, as well.

Everyone who latches on to some kind of fundamentalism, religious or not, thinks what they know is salvation for themselves or others. Sharing their knowledge (or imposing it) seems like a gift to humanity. This reflects #3 in the sense they may actually have knowledge others need or should want. But it could also reflects any of the other numbers, only the truth behind it is subsumed under a religious or social justice rubric.

  1. I learned it was unwise to trust others, so I try not to need anyone. I know it all to be self- sufficient. And I don’t care what others think because they are untrustworthy.

Jada Pinkett was on the Today Show last week marketing her new memoir when she revealed she and Will Smith have been unofficially divorced since 2016. She said, “Why it fractured…that — that’s a lot of things … By the time we got to 2016, we were just exhausted with trying. I think we were both kind of just still stuck in our fantasy of what we thought the other person should be.” A know-it-all might be consigned to their own sense of truth and justice because they only feel safe alone. Kelly Clarkson sang about it once. It hurts to feel disdained. But before you take on a know-it-all’s scorn, you might want to see if you should feel sorry for how alone thye are.

  1. I am isolated because everyone else is a jerk. I project my own inner critic on others. It is especially hard to go to class or church because the leaders always have a flaw.

This is similar to the previous idea only the energy is going out, not in. A know-it-all might not think they are smarter than you, you are just receiving the knife edge of their projected self-loathing. They may see themselves as radically flawed or were taught to see themselves that way. It is so intolerable, they have to project the criticism on someone else. Any imperfection is fair game for them. I hope they are not reviewing your play or restaurant!

After collecting aspects of the common label: “know-it-all,” it seems like a less-than-useful description, doesn’t it? We’re all rather complex. So reducing our irritating behaviors into a single label might be the height of know-it-allism! Most of the time, what irritates us about others is also in us. But even if people are lost in their ignorance, malice or power hunger, a sympathetic, curious and life-affirming (but appropriately boundaried) realtionship with them will do more for the world than more judgment, cancelling and fearful self-protection.

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.

This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow.  Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.

So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.

Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,

Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.

Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.

Pastors are run out by criticism

I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.

Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog

Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.

Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.

My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

It is often a projection of the inner critic

Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!

In fact, an inner critic is  hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.

We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.

The internet is an echo chamber of criticism

Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.

Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to  negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.

I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:

I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.

For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”

An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.

What to do?

This piece is not another call to “step up your game.”  It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.