Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Why Criticism Is So Hard to Take (Part 1)

Why is criticism so hard to take?


accusing fingerVery few people can take criticism graciously. For most of us, being criticized is uncomfortable at best--de-stabilizing (or even devastating) at worst. The ability to take criticism in stride, it seems, is almost universally elusive.

We all need to feel good about ourselves, so the moment someone judges us negatively any doubts we may yet have about ourselves can immediately catapult to the surface. And, to be ruthlessly honest, which one of us doesn't harbor certain deep-seated doubts about our worth, goodness, competence, or attractiveness?

Of course, there's some relativity in all this. If, for example, a four-year-old gets on our case for something, it's unlikely that our emotional composure or self-confidence will be much shaken. For typically we give a child of that age very little authority to judge us. But in most instances we tend to give others' criticisms more than enough authority to upset our equilibrium.

Bulleted below are explanations as to why almost all of us are susceptible to criticism. It should be emphasized, however, that as common and understandable as this felt vulnerability may be, we hardly need be subjugated by it indefinitely. But if we're to overcome our habitual defensiveness to criticism, we must first learn how to become more self-validating. For once our feelings of personal security become anchored from within, what others think of us will no longer be of primary concern. And my earlier three-part post on "The Power to be Vulnerable" discusses specifically how we can at last free ourselves from the relational dependency that requires us to regularly receive external validation if we're to avoid getting our defensive buttons pushed.

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Nonetheless, it will be useful here to describe some of the reasons that criticism can so easily elicit a defensive reaction. Reflecting on how much these explanations might characterize your own reactions to negative appraisal should help you determine (1) what, internally, you may need to work on, so that in the future you're less vulnerable to another's criticism, and (2) what, externally, you might want to change in how you confront others, so you can reduce the possibility of eliciting their defenses.


• Chances are that as a child you were frequently (maybe even incessantly) criticized by your caretakers. After all, none of us emerges from the womb properly socialized, so our parents must do the best they can to prepare us to become appropriate social beings, to help us learn how to relate to others in ways that don't prompt disapproval or rejection. Very few parents are enlightened enough, or sufficiently skilled, to carry out the kind of "loving correction" that doesn't end up making us hypersensitive--and therefore over-reactive--to criticism. As a result, negative judgment we receive as adults can automatically remind us of the inadequacies we so keenly felt when criticized as a child.

Assuming we've never fully resolved these deep, hurt feelings, then all our accomplishments as adults--accomplishments that, logically, should verify our essential competence (or "ok-ness") once and for all--won't be enough to protect us from re-experiencing some residue of the original hurt whenever we're found fault with. This is why present-day criticisms are capable of inducing in us so much emotional distress. Additionally, so long as our adult achievements have never been sufficiently internalized, we're likely to feel compelled to soften the blow of any negative judgment against us through some sort of self-defense--whether that defense take the form of mounting an animated counter-attack ("I'm not wrong--you're wrong!"), strenuously (if not vociferously) defending our position, or tuning out the other person entirely.

• Once again, looking to the past (where we got "sensitized" to criticism in the first place), consider what it felt like when we got criticized by someone whose view of us seemed vitally important. It's safe to assume that unless that criticism was delivered with considerable tact and restraint (probably much more the exception than the rule), in that moment what most of us experienced was a painful withdrawal of love, validation, and support. My therapy clients have spoken of experiences when they were being harshly judged by their caretakers as times during which they felt not simply inadequate but unacceptable, and even abandoned. And for an insecure child--and, to some degree or other, which of us didn't feel insecure as a child?--such parental reaction can invoke in us great anxiety, and emotional disturbance generally.

After all, how could such criticism not constitute an immediate threat to the attachment bond we as children so desperately need if we're to maintain a secure sense of family identity and belonging? In the moment of criticism--particularly dismissive, denigrating criticism--the harmonious connection we require to feel safely connected to those we must depend on feels splintered, or severed. And so, even though we grow older (and hopefully wiser), the very circumstance of being criticized is inevitably linked to--and thus can easily evoke--much earlier experiences of anxiety, frustration, and failure.

Becoming conscious of the fact that our earlier vulnerability may be one of the reasons that being criticized in the here-and-now can be so challenging may at least motivate us to talk to ourselves differently in such situations where someone is finding fault with us. For only when we can appreciate such criticism as not nearly the threat that, in our gut, it might first feel to be, can we retain our emotional poise in the face of it.

Note: Part 2 of this post will delineate several additional reasons to help explain why it can be so difficult to respond well to criticism.

To explore other posts I've done on relationships—and on other topics as well—click here.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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