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Criticism is a universal but painful experience. Being criticized may trigger fear, shame, or anger, and feed into your insecurities about being unworthy or incompetent. Winston Churchill likened criticism to pain in the human body—an unpleasant experience that is necessary for growth and learning. He also stated that being criticized is good because it meant you have stood up for something. Criticism can be a way of asserting power and social control, or of neutralizing competition, but it can also be a way of communicating a genuine grievance or speaking up for oneself, even if unskillfully. Not all experiences and situations are the same, and becoming emotionally intelligent means understanding the subtler nuances and context so you can respond mindfully and skillfully.

Below are 30 possible reasons why a friend, partner, colleague, relative or acquaintance may criticize you:

  1. They are threatened by your competence, attractiveness, etc. so they are trying to level the playing field.
  2. They have a concern about your motivation, skill level, performance or contribution.
  3. They feel you are not doing your share of the work or being a team player.
  4. They have a strong unmet need that is not being satisfied.
  5. They have a controlling personality and have to be in charge.
  6. They feel entitled to special treatment or status and do not feel they are receiving it.
  7. They want to make you look bad so as to advance their own position or curry favor with the bosses, etc.
  8. They feel insecure and are overcompensating.
  9. They think you are making them look bad in front of others.
  10. They feel criticized by you and are counter-attacking.
  11. They think they are genuinely helping you by giving you the benefit of their wisdom or experience.
  12. They have strong opinions on a subject (e.g., politics, religion etc.) and see other points of view as less valid.
  13. They are trying to get your attention or connect with you but lack skills, so they end up whining (e.g., kids, teenagers).
  14. They are testing limits in order to feel more independent (teenagers, young adults).
  15. They are competing with you for status or position or you are an obstacle to their goal.
  16.  They see themselves as an expert on the topic by virtue of education or experience and they want to share their knowledge with you and be admired.
  17. They are frustrated with you because they don’t feel you have been hearing them or responding to their requests.
  18. They are trying to put their own spin on a situation to make them look good or minimize their bad behavior.
  19. They are setting limits on your disrespectful/inconsiderate behavior.
  20. They want you to understand how your actions are hurting or disadvantaging them.
  21. They are trying to bully or intimidate you so they can feel powerful.
  22. They are defending their own actions by pointing out that you also did some things wrong.
  23. They lack social skills and are delivering well-meant feedback unskillfully.
  24. They want to feel important and respected (e.g., an elderly family member).
  25. They are covering up hurt feelings with anger.
  26. They are a narcissist and can’t handle your confronting them or not going along with them.
  27. They have a problem they don’t want to deal with (e.g., substance abuse, spending money) and are trying to get you to back off.
  28. They feel you are acting unfairly or taking advantage.
  29. They have different values and perspective than you and are judging you.
  30. They are trying to shame or humiliate you, perhaps as revenge or a power play.

Understanding The Critic's Motivations

The majority of the reasons listed above have to do with the critic’s own agenda or perspective, but some may be the result of your behavior, or of an unskillful attempt to connect with you. When partners or spouses criticize each other, there are often softer feelings underneath, such as feeling hurt, rejected, or not important. It is best to try to understand the critic's agenda before responding so you can tailor your response to best meet the situation. 

These are some important questions to ask yourself so you can be more mindful and strategic in your response:

  1. Does this person seem to be coming from a genuine place? 
  2. Is any part of their criticism legitimate? What was your contribution?
  3. Are they trying to be helpful?
  4. Is the criticism public or private? If public, why choose that forum?
  5. Does the criticizer seem to be competing with you for status, position, or inclusion?
  6. Are there hurt feelings underneath? Notice the person’s body language, tone of voice, etc.
  7. Who is the intended audience? You or somebody else?
  8. Is the criticizer really interested in solving a problem or reaching a mutual understanding?
  9. Are they willing to listen to you?
  10. Are they capable of moving off of their position to reach a compromise?
  11. Is this just a difference of opinion or something more personal?
  12. Are they just venting or do they want you to try to fix things?
  13. Do they perceive you inaccurately? Are they projecting qualities or intentions onto you that are more about their own issues?
  14. Is this only about them? Are they respecting your right to have a different opinion or make an independent choice?

How To Respond to Criticism

The answers to the above questions will determine your response. If the person seems to be a narcissist, dirty competitor, or bully, you will want to set some kind of limit or boundary on how they can talk to or about you. In a public forum, such as a meeting, you will want to defend your performance, argue for the value of your decision or work, and correct any misperceptions. Restating your genuine good intentions or motivations and taking responsibility for your share is a good strategy in many situations. If the complainer is a partner, child, friend, or family member, you may want to let them know that you care about them and genuinely want to understand their concerns and perspective, even if you don't always agree. In some situations, you may want to indulge the person’s underlying need by telling them that you respect their opinions or appreciate their efforts. Depending on the situation, you may want to assert your independence or right to have a different opinion—"Let’s agree to disagree." With a whining toddler or teenager, a good strategy is to acknowledge that their feeling or need is legitimate but that they need to work on the delivery so it’s more respectful. You may set a limit, try to find a compromise, or let them know what choices are available. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can make you feel more patient and empathic. If the criticism is legitimate, you may want to take corrective action.

Common Traps to Avoid

In dealing with criticism, your goal will likely be one of the following:

  • to reach a mutually acceptable resolution;
  • to respectfully set a limit and defend yourself if appropriate;
  • to correct any misperceptions or misrepresentations;
  • to gain a better understanding of why this person is upset with you or disagrees.

Unfortunately, because criticism triggers your “fight-flight-freeze” response, your first reaction will most likely be to feel blind-sided; to run away and avoid the conflict; to try to prove you are right without listening to the other person; or to counter-attack. None of these responses are particularly effective. Some will make the critic angrier or leave you defenseless. So when confronted with criticism, take a mindful moment or two to take a deep breath, notice how you feel and what the other person is communicating nonverbally, and refocus on what you want from the situation. Feel free to use delaying tactics such as reflecting what you think the person is saying (“Are you saying that...?”) or saying that you need a minute or two to think about what they’ve said before you respond.

Final Thoughts

Nobody likes to be criticized, but it is part of the human experience. Sometimes it is just a power play or someone’s projection, but it can sometimes be a valuable piece of information about how you are being perceived. It may be a signal to pay more attention to office politics, to be more thoughtful about picking up after yourself, or to be more attentive to your partner's need for intimacy. Try to find the middle ground between taking too much responsibility for other people’s issues and being too defensive. Remember to be compassionate to yourself for this (perhaps small) experience of deflation and use your wise mind, rather than your reactive mind, to move forward.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and an expert in social behavior, neuroscience, mindfulness, stress & relationships.

 

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