7 Tips for Shaking off Your Critics and Restoring Confidence

Why we're sensitive to criticism, plus how to cope and nurture your self worth.

Posted Dec 13, 2015

“A million people can cheer you on, yet one negative voice can pierce right through the crowd.”

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Have you ever been told, “You’ll never amount to anything” by someone you looked up to? Or perhaps you’ve been criticized by an onlooker or yelled at by a passing motorist. Mortifying or infuriating, insults sting even when delivered by strangers. And many of us know the pain of being mocked by the cool kids or angrily accused of wrongdoing.

Even if you're on the right path, you're innocent, or you have millions of admirers, a negative voice does indeed pierce right through the crowd—and burrows itself into your being.

And when the sting of a negative comment persists, mantras and soothing affirmations ring hollow. You can’t help but feel inferior and doubt yourself.

But why? Why do you dismiss a sea of positive feedback and mountains of self-worth and take one negative remark and blow it out of proportion? Why do you take it to heart?

And what can you do to stop the incessant echo in your mind?

It’s Human Biology

Your experience of hurt and obsessing over criticism is a universal affliction. It’s human nature to be sensitive to feedback from others, and your hurt is a result of your brain and body reacting to a perceived threat.

The first step to resolving your distress is to understand (a) what’s happening in your brain, (b) how your body reacts, (c) why you’re so sensitive, and (d) why the effects linger.

Next is learning how to manage your stress response, so you can recover or maintain a sense of calm. Then you can align yourself with those supportive mantras and affirmations.

(a) What happens in your brain?

That negative voice is amplified because it triggers the most primitive and reactive part of your brain, which is wired to notice any threat-- including judgment, criticism, and aggression. This primitive core is sometimes referred to as “the lizard brain” because it functions similarly across the animal kingdom, including mammals, birds, and reptiles. In the face of a perceived threat, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system, launching the body into action to boost the chances of survival.

(b) How does your body react?

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

When your core brain is triggered by a perceived threat, your sympathetic nervous system kicks off a cascade of physiological responses that intensify your experience. Stress hormones (like adrenaline, cortisol) are pumped into your bloodstream and your pulse and breath quicken. In an instant, your body is ready to flee, fight, or freeze. This entire physiological reaction happens long before your frontal lobes-- the sophisticated, thinking parts of your brain-- even come online. People whose lives were actually in danger often report phenomena like super-human strength, speed, and endurance, or in the case of “freeze”, a dreamlike detachment and peacefulness. If your life isn’t threatened, but your well-being is at risk, your sympathetic nervous system should moderate its response such that you simply feel scared or angry, and perhaps walk more briskly or defend yourself with a swift comeback.

(c) Why are you so sensitive?

This quick and automatic reaction to threat helped our ancestors survive in hostile situations or dangerous environments, and is basically what has enabled humans (and other species) to survive through the ages. True, we aren’t fighting the same battles our ancestors did, but our lizard brains still come in handy, alerting us to threats and spurring us to act NOW. We may not leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we can swerve the car around a road hazard, pluck a teetering child off the top of playground equipment, and run for shelter in an electrical storm.

And what happens when the threat is another person? It’s one thing to react to a road hazard, a teetering child, or a lightning strike, and quite another to react to someone who is critical, mean, or angry with you. That’s because through the ages, our survival has also depended upon us belonging to social groups. So we are wired to be especially empathetic and attuned to the emotions of those around us, and we are especially sensitive to being shunned, bullied, or attacked. So whether your boss scolds you for being late, another driver yells at you to get moving, a neighbor accuses you of trespassing, a lover says you’re not good enough, or a relative excludes you from a wedding, you’re not only reacting to a perceived threat but also to the sting of another human rejecting, criticizing, or mistreating you.

(d) Why do the effects linger?

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Alas, even when danger has long passed, the ramped-up physiology of your stress response can leave a lasting impression on your frontal lobes, like, “Whoa, what the heck was that, and why do I still feel so reactive about it?” When your thinking brain gets involved, it tries to make sense of what just happened by looking for patterns, determining cause and effect, getting defensive, taking it personally, or assuming blame. And because humans are especially prone to mulling over a serious altercation with another human, you may continue to suffer a negative impact as you relive the memory and trigger your sympathetic nervous system all over again, pumping more stress hormones into your bloodstream. If the interaction is particularly vicious or threatening, you may continue to be haunted by the memory of it, and you may notice that it’s dampening your spirit, leading you to doubt yourself, and holding you back. And if you lead a super-busy, stressful life, your sympathetic nervous system may become prone to over-reaction, making you even more susceptible to feeling bothered.

Managing Your Stress Response

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

The goal is not to avoid stress, but to calm yourself after a stress reaction instead of being overwhelmed by it. In fact, “calm” is your normal default setting. This too is managed by your core brain, which is also in charge your parasympathetic nervous system, whose job is to keep your physiology running smoothly in a state of relaxed calm. This calm state gives you a sense of internal composure and emotional balance. When you’re humming along like this, you are unperturbed by insults or distractions. And after a stress reaction, this calm state is what you can strive to recover.

Whether something is bothering you a little or a lot, here are some tips for restoring calm:

  • With your thinking brain, you can be a calm witness. Observe that your core brain has been alerted, activating your sympathetic nervous system. Acknowledge that your body feels hyper-aroused by the sting of rejection. 
  • See your reaction as normal and remain nonjudgmental. Simply observe the sensations in your body and note where you feel tightness or contraction.
  • Detach from what triggered you, so you can let your body metabolize the stress hormones in the minute or two that it takes. Thinking about the trigger will only renew the activation of your stress response—instead stay focused on your body and breathe more deeply.
  • Remain in the present moment. When you feel calm restored in your body, continue to breathe deeply and soothe yourself with the observation that right now, in the present moment, you are safe.
  • Contemplate the likelihood that your opponent was merely reacting to his/her own lizard brain being triggered, hence the attack of negativity or undue harshness that in turn, triggered you. Grant your opponent responsibility for his/her own lizard experience and behaviors. This can help you repel a harsh delivery or unfounded negative feedback, instead of absorbing it or taking it personally.
  • Breathe in your suffering and exhale compassion for yourself. Breathe in the suffering of others and exhale compassion for them. Turning inward and turning outward can help you feel connected and acknowledge that we are all one. This perspective can help you forgive and escape the vicious cycle of being re-triggered by your memories of the altercation.
  • Remember that time heals all wounds. You’ll be able to put any insult into perspective after you’ve lived some more of your life. And over time, you’ll redeem yourself, gain more confidence, find your success, own your style, and acquire more wisdom about human nature, which overall helps you take stuff less personally. 

Absorbing Mantras and Affirmations

After restoring a sufficient level of calm and perspective, you can be soothed by the likes of these.

Mantras that reframe negativity:

Criticism often says more about the critic than you.

The secret to success is persistence in the face of failure.

Mind over matter: I don’t mind because they don’t matter.

Negative comments mean you’re in the game!

That was yesterday; today is a new day.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Affirmations that put you back on track:

 No one can make me feel inferior without my permission.

I believe in myself and the path I’m on.

I needn’t convince everyone to see it my way.

I can filter the feedback I receive and take what’s helpful and constructive, and toss the rest.

Criticism isn’t doom: Lots of worthy, renowned, successful people have been criticized and dismissed. Oprah Winfrey--demoted; Albert Einstein--failed at school; Michael Jordan--cut from the team; Beatles--rejected; Walt Disney--fired.

Tell me, what are the mantras and affirmations that soothe you?

Check out the next blog post, which elaborates on this theme of "a calm brain", looking at 7 "calm-brain" habits you can adopt, to help you create a life of joy and serenity, even when it's crazy-busy.