Criticism is a common form of our social communication. Whether it’s your best friend who you think looks ridiculous in a shirt that’s way too small or a person you supervise whose work needs improvement, you’re constantly in a situations where a negative opinion you offer could (you think) provide useful insights.
Needless to say, though, it’s not all that pleasant when you’re at the receiving end of someone else’s critical comments, especially when their criticism feeds on your own insecurities. Perhaps your friend shares with you the opinion that you might benefit from toning down your sarcastic sense of humor, especially around people who don’t know you all that well. Yet, that sarcasm stems from your own fear of seeming dull or stupid. Now, on top of feeling insecure about your social skills, you worry that you’re offending people as well.
Unfortunately, many of us are laden down with enough self-criticism to last a lifetime, not to mention the criticism that we might receive from our nearest if not dearest friends and family. Our self-esteem takes a hit each time we let the inner voices in our heads chide and complain about the mistakes we’re making, the people we’re unintentionally offending, and the opportunities we let go by.
You can eventually control your inner critical voice but it’s much more difficult to control the outer critical voices that come from the people whose opinion you value. Once you realize that the criticism you’re hearing is really the criticism that you only think you’re hearing, though, even those outer critical voices can be easier to survive.
These five specific strategies will help you navigate the dangerous waters of criticism and survive with your self-esteem, and your relationships, intact.
1. Resist the temptation to criticize back. It’s all too easy when you’ve been attacked (or think you’ve been attacked) to lash out at your attacker. It’s the old children’s comeback: “Are too!” In the playground, such retorts are not only commonplace but perhaps even adaptive. However, in the realm of grownups, by answering a criticism with a criticism, also called a tu quoque, you only end up looking as if the critical shoe fits you just fine.
Making the problem worse is the fact that people tend to respond to the initial critical comments by feeling offended so they escalate their comeback, exacerbating the conflict even more. For example, your romantic partner complains that you don’t seem to return phone calls or texts very regularly, and you respond by pointing out your partner’s clinginess. Not only are you invalidating your partner’s observation, but you’re also ratcheting up the level of the argument by criticizing your partner’s personality rather than behavior. What started out as perhaps a reasonable request now becomes the basis for a critical free-for-all.
2. Avoid projecting your insecurities onto the criticism. As I mentioned earlier, the topic of self-criticism receives a reasonable amount of attention in the psychological literature. When we hear criticism from others, we sometimes amplify its magnitude by interjecting our own insecurities into the picture. The process is basically similar to the defense mechanism of projection in which you transfer your own anxieties onto the others around you, reading far more ominous meanings into their words than they intended. You might feel unhappy with the state of your home at the moment, recognizing that some solid closet cleaning is in order. It’s late on a Friday afternoon when a neighbor stops by to chat. You notice that she seems to be taking in the scene with a bit of a furrowed brow. She remarks that she’s looking forward to the weekend and having a chance to catch up on her spring cleaning. Immediately, you jump to the conclusion that she’s accusing you of being a slob. If it weren’t for the guilt creeping around the edges of your consciousness about the sorry state of your bedroom (which she might not even be able to see at the moment), the comment would go by unnoticed. With your insecurities primed, however, you’ll see the otherwise innocent comment as a condemnation of your housekeeping abilities. From there on, the interaction will almost invariably go downhill.
In this scenario, nothing critical was even uttered by your neighbor. What about if someone actually does share a critical observation about you, with you? In this case you are being criticized, not imagining it. Again, however, unless the criticism is an attempt to bring you to your knees in tears, projection can put you at risk of over-reacting. A co-worker may be offering what he believes to be helpful criticism and has even given the matter careful deliberation. However, because it touches a sensitive nerve, you find yourself unable to hear the positive tone in your co-worker’s voice, or even his attempt to embed it in an otherwise supportive remark. People often do try to soften their criticism with counter-balancing statements (“I really liked the way you did X, but Y could’ve used some improvement”). A good personal critic uses the “criticism sandwich.” You place the critical statement between 2 positive statements so that the person you’re trying to help with your comment is better able to hear it. Many of us are savvy to this strategy, however, and ignore the top and bottom of the sandwich, only hearing the problematic middle section. By overcoming the tendency to use projection, you’ll be better able to focus on the positive elements of this type of communication.
3. Try to understand where it’s coming from. It’s possible that you’re not the one projecting at all, but that your critical partner is the one struggling with feelings of inadequacy. For some people, criticizing others is the only way they can feel good about themselves. Threatened by your happiness and well-being, they try to throw you off your game by incessantly pointing out your inadequacies. It may be hard to fend off these attacks, especially if (as I noted above) they are particularly well-placed barbs that tap into your insecurities. If you value your relationship with this person, or if you have no choice but to be around that person, then you’ll have to figure out a way to reframe these interactions. Seeing their need to criticize as stemming from their weaknesses will help you protect not only your self-esteem, but could also potentially help this person overcome the need to criticize. Without feeding into their need to feel superior, you can offer them a kind word or two that can help alleviate their anxiety. Point out their strengths, and they’ll be better able to acknowledge yours.
4. Ask whether there’s truth to the criticism. So far, the general assumption I’ve made is that the critic is being overly critical, even if that critic is you. What if there’s something about you that could truly benefit from improvement? Perhaps you’ve been wearing the same (now-filthy) sneakers or comfortable shoes every day, all day, from the workplace to the home to the backyard. They’re looking pretty tattered at the edges and although they may be fine for a walk in the park on a muddy day, have no place in the home or office. A friend offers you the criticism sandwich, noting that it’s great that you like to wear comfortable shoes outside but you might want to consider keeping a spare pair for indoor use and that (here’s the top of the sandwich) you look great in the sweater you’re wearing today. Instead of reacting with outrage at the thought that this person has the audacity to attack your taste in footwear, you might take a quick peek at your feet and see if perhaps the comment bears taking seriously. In fact, if you really thought about it, you might come to appreciate this person’s bravery in bringing up such an awkward topic.
5. Try to resolve destructive criticism in constructive ways. The criticism sandwich is only one way in which people can provide criticism in a supportive context. In “constructive” criticism, you focus on the behavior, not the person; “destructive” criticism aims to eviscerate its target. It’s the destructive form of criticism that truly erodes relationships. In a study of 118 married couples, University of Notre Dame psychologists Kristina Peterson and David Smith found that couples who expressed destructive criticism toward each other, as judged by observers, felt higher levels of perceived criticism than when their interactions showed higher levels of constructive criticism. This study supports the idea that destructive criticism contributes disproportionately to a couple’s perception of general discord in the relationship. In marriages, high levels of perceived criticism are what go on to erode both the relationship and each individual partner’s mental health.
In any relationship, if you sense that criticism is taking a destructive turn, it’s time for you to take a step back. Try to put the brakes on before the situation spirals out of control and look rationally at who’s being criticized, for what, and why. By taking as objective an approach as possible you can help support both yours and your partner’s feelings of self-worth.
Criticism can be unpleasant, but it can also be the source of growth and self-improvement if you learn how to use, and hear, it in its most constructive forms.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Peterson, K. M., & Smith, D. A. (2010). To what does perceived criticism refer? Constructive, destructive, and general criticism. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(1), 97-100. doi:10.1037/a0017950