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5 Ways to Survive Criticism From Family Members

You're worthy of unconditional love, and have the right to ask for it.

Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock
Source: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock

With the holiday season in full swing, people are preparing themselves—financially, mentally, and emotionally—to spend significant amounts of time with their family. For some, these extended periods with family are the highlight of the year. For others, they’re like standing in front of a firing squad.

If you’re steeling yourself for an onslaught of family criticism this season, know that you’re not necessarily facing a losing battle. And you don’t need to avoid gatherings altogether to gain some relief from the verbal jabs.

The following five strategies for surviving family criticism are valid at any time of the year, but especially during the holidays:

1. Start viewing criticism as misguided caring.

Many people grow up with the notion that if you care about someone, you worry about them. But while worrying about someone’s well-being is well-intentioned, it’s a slippery slope into finding fault with their actions or deeds.

In other words, when a family member expresses disapproval of your actions—or directly criticizes you—they may be doing it because they deeply care about what happens to you. Family members (especially parents and children) often worry about one another because they care. Remind yourself that the criticism that springs from worry may actually be misguided caring.

2. Speak up! Let relatives know how they can better express that they care.

Reminding yourself that caring and criticism are often related helps, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re dealing with harsh words from someone you love. To stop the harsh words, it helps to educate the relative about a better way to express their caring.

Take a few minutes with the critical person to describe ways he or she could express an opinion that would be more helpful and less hurtful to you. For example, if your sister is always on your case about your low-paying job, tell her that it would be more helpful if she forwarded job opportunities to you instead of criticizing your current situation. Often, all people need is an outlet; they want and to feel like they are doing something. Provide them with an alternative outlet that works better for you.

3. Encourage prioritization.

Let’s say your dad constantly nags you and your spouse about having a baby and moving back to your hometown. Ask him, “If we could only do one of those things—have a baby or move back home—which would you pick?” Prioritizing the critical person’s concerns in this way helps narrow the focus of the criticism. You may continue to endure nagging about their “top priority” concern, but the lesser concerns will likely fall by the wayside. This may even help the criticizer gain better clarity about what he or she actually wants from you.

4. Give gentle reminders that you are worthy of unconditional love.

Criticism from family can be deeply painful. Even when you know intellectually that it comes from a place of love, it doesn’t feel very loving. That’s because criticism conflates one’s actions and circumstances with who they are as a person. When someone attacks your actions or circumstances, it can feel like he or she is attacking your character.

If someone in your family insists on conflating your worth as a person with a list of tasks he or she would like to see you accomplish, it’s time to remind that person that you are deserving of unconditional love. You are bigger than your spending choices, your rental history, your career path, or your childlessness. You know that, and your family should, too.

5. Understand that purposeless negativity is just that—purposeless negativity.

The previous tips give your family members a certain benefit of the doubt: They assume that your relatives are reasonable people with good intentions who, through upbringing or conditioning, have developed some poor communication habits.

This tip is for a family member who’s just mean: He or she doesn’t particularly care about you, your future, or your feelings. This relative is just critical because putting others down makes them feel good. He or she is a bully, deeply insecure, or both. Such a person doesn’t deserve your attention just because they hold the title of "family member.” Their criticism can and should be dismissed as nothing more than purposeless negativity.

Kira Asatryan is a relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships.

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