Why Criticism Is So Hard to Take (Part 2)
Do you--or someone you know--struggle with criticism?
Posted February 5, 2009
• When we're unfavorably evaluated or disagreed with, we can experience such discord almost as a put-down. Negatively sensitized to criticism, we may respond as though we were told (in so many words) that we were bad, ugly, or stupid. In such instances, the hurt child within us--never fully healed from the wound of early, and quite possibly excessive, parental criticism--is likely to bleed anew. And so we're simply unable to listen objectively to the other person's remarks, calmly appraise them, and respond accordingly. If their criticism pushes our buttons--and it can hardly be over-emphasized that it's our child self that controls these buttons--we're compelled to react far more emotionally than rationally. So if we're ever to overcome this ultimately self-defeating habit of reacting emotionally--and negatively--at the first sign of another's judging us, it's crucial that we learn how to talk, compassionately and reassuringly, to this insecure child within us
• Criticism, even well-intended criticism, can be understood as a direct assault on our ego. When (however unconsciously) we've come to associate our very selves with our ego or point of view, then whenever our perspective is questioned, disbelieved, or disputed, we cannot but experience ourselves in jeopardy--our mental and emotional poise at once thrown into disequilibrium. When this occurs, the right way of hitting our "reset button" is to remind ourselves that, regardless of whether we've said or done something wrong, we're still fundamentally ok. The situation doesn't really require us to defend ourselves because our self-acceptance doesn't hinge on the other's approval. And, finally, it is this essentially positive self-regard that can inoculate us against any and all negative appraisal.
However, the kind of unconditional self-acceptance that alone can enable such a response frequently eludes us, so that what we typically do when criticized is attempt to regain our psychological balance (and the upper relational hand) by focusing all our attention on invalidating the person who just judged us. Such a reaction is hardly the way toward personal evolution or growth, but may yet be irresistible in situations where our ego feels in peril.
Additionally, for those of us who are particularly insecure about how others see them--and therefore sensitive to the slightest hint of criticism--even a well-meaning suggestion can feel threatening. For others' suggestions can be perceived as a negative evaluation of how we've done something, as somehow casting doubt on the adequacy of our thinking or behavior. They can make us feel corrected or blamed--or that we're being viewed as in some way deficient, whether in intelligence, discernment, principles, or anything else. It's hard to take a simple suggestion at face value if self-doubts we still harbor about ourselves are never that far from the surface.
• Finally, although the psychological literature does not appear to have recognized this, there may be something innate about reacting negatively to criticism. Just as our bodies when struck are hard-wired to immediately tighten up and take a resistant posture, our psyches seem similarly constructed to react defensively when we experience ourselves (or rather, our egos) as under assault. And I suspect that what happens to us physically, and bio-chemically, when we're verbally attacked (or are experiencing the threat of such an attack) is almost identical to the way our bodies react when someone is throwing a punch at us. Experientially, that is, being verbally admonished, or reprimanded, may closely parallel being physically slapped, or assaulted.
In fact, the actual language we employ when we feel criticized closely overlaps, or replicates, the language we adopt when we're harmed physically. Which is to say that when we're sharply criticized, we may portray our experience as having been "ambushed," "assailed," "bashed," "beat up," "blasted," "busted," "hit hard," "knocked for a loop," "lit into," "pounced on," "stabbed," and even "walloped." And virtually all the terms we employ when we're being negatively judged suggest how very painful--subjectively--such an experience can be. In this respect, it's hardly a coincidence that many medications for alleviating pain are known to have a positive effect not only on physical suffering but on depression as well (and vice versa).
Despite this inborn vulnerability to criticism, however, if we can repeatedly tell ourselves that the subjective threat we're experiencing is actually nothing more than a "perceptual illusion," in time we should be able to forestall the potential hurt of such criticism. Such a procedure for averting psychological pain is analogous to how, ideally, we might learn to better deal with life stressors--so that the kinds of situations that in the past might literally have given us headaches will no longer be able to. Finally, no matter how understandable it may be that the great majority of us don't take criticism particularly well, it's still essential--if we're to improve our relationships to others (to say nothing of our relationship to ourselves)--that we learn to transcend this negative knee-jerk reaction to others' judgment.
Many of my earlier posts, including those I've provided links to above, attempt to describe the personal work requisite to coping better with negative evaluations by others. Hopefully, these posts will be kept in mind as a resource--not just for the present post but for my next one as well, which will deal with the special difficulties in dealing with criticism from a spouse. In it I'll try to explain why in families (as I like to put it) "blood may be thicker . . . but skin is thinner."
To check out other posts on relationships I've done for Psychology today (and on other topics as well), click here.
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