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Blog Short #124: How to Handle Sensitivity to Criticism

Photo by ArtistGNDphotography, Courtesy of iStock Photos

Why is it so hard to take criticism? It may vary depending on your sensitivity, but even stoic people don’t particularly like to be criticized. If you’re highly sensitive, you can feel shattered by it.

It gets down to these three elements:

  1. How you perceive it
  2. How you internalize it
  3. How you react to it

Let’s review these and discuss how you can deal effectively with each part of the process. I’ll also tell you how not to do it.

How do you perceive it?

When someone says something to you either directly or indirectly that smacks of criticism, how does it go in? How do you experience it?

Think about this carefully for a moment. Go back to a situation where you felt criticized and slow it down. What were the thoughts and feelings you experienced when you heard the words?

Usually, our reactions are so fast that we don’t recognize all the emotions involved, at least not at first.

Here are some possible examples. Maybe you:

  • Feel overwhelmed, and your mind fogs momentarily. You can’t think, and your feelings are muddled and negatively tinged. It’s too much to take in.
  • Your body temperature goes up or down, and you feel queasy or unsettled.
  • You feel stung, surprised, and derailed temporarily.
  • You feel hurt, shamed, and angry all a the same time. You might tear up.

Generally, there’s a rush of emotional responses that blend together. The overall perception is of being attacked, and your emotional brain quickly formulates a fight-flight-or-freeze response.

How do you internalize it?

This is the pivotal part because how you let it land and take it in determines how you respond. Here are several possible scenarios.

Scenario #1: It’s an indictment of your whole person.

You aren’t hearing the criticism as something related to a specific behavior but are seeing it as a characterization of your whole self. It’s a full-on frontal attack. You narrow your sense of self down to the specific criticism and equate it with who you are.

Scenario #2: You wholeheartedly refuse it.

In this case, you don’t consider whether there’s any truth to it. You won’t let it get far enough in to look at it. You erect an impenetrable wall.

Scenario #3: You can’t get a grip on your thoughts or feelings and feel adrift.

You’re overwhelmed. It feels like you’re moving through sludge and can’t wrap your mind around what you hear. You’re paralyzed. You feel traumatized even if the weight and strength of the criticism don’t warrant such a big reaction.

How do you react?

Your reaction will depend on how you’ve perceived and internalized what you’ve heard. Back to our scenarios:

Scenarios 1 & 2:

You’re most likely to defend in the first two cases – whole-person indictment and impenetrable wall. Most of the time, it’s a verbal defense ranging from denial to counterattack, and often both. Your words might be strong and loud, or you refuse to talk or interact.

Your partner tells you you’re being stubborn and unreasonable, and you quickly retort:

“I am not! What about you? What about last week when I tried to get you to work on our finances, and you refused and accused me of overspending and being the problem? Who was being stubborn and unreasonable then? Huh?!”

Who hasn’t had conversations like that?

Scenario 3:

You’re feeling overwhelmed and can’t grasp what you hear or how you feel or think, so you freeze.

This type of reaction likely stems from your history. It’s linked to earlier experiences that felt damaging, painful, and traumatic. Criticism for you sets off an internal alarm.

You might have grown up in a household where parental anger was volatile and frightening, and any missteps on your part led to severe punishment or emotional upheaval. Or maybe it was used as a means of control and projection.

Any new criticism brings up the old fears and paralyzes you temporarily. You retreat internally until you can sort out what’s happening.

People with this type of history may also react as in the second case scenario – counterattacking vociferously and loudly while erecting a wall of defense.

What can you do?

1. Review your history.

Write out the specific types of criticism that trigger you and how you respond to them. The goal is to identify your reaction patterns and understand where they come from. If you have a good grip on this information, you can work on changing them.

2. Avoid wholesale labels.

Instead of labeling yourself (or being labeled by the other person) with personality characteristics – stubborn, defensive, selfish, infantile, judgmental, etc. – focus on the behavior in question. If someone’s labeling you, shift their attention to the behavior.

The easiest way to do that is to ask, “What leads you to think that? What have I done that leads to you say I’m stubborn?”

Always shift to behavior and away from wholesale personality characteristics.

Three of the worst ways to tell someone about something you don’t like are to label, diagnose, or scorn them with contempt. It’s hard to withstand that sort of attack without feeling defensive, angry, or retreating.

That brings us to the next thing.

3. Set boundaries on how someone criticizes you.

You can do it in the act by saying something like:

“I’m willing to hear what bothers you, but not if you continue to label me, attack, diagnose, or be contemptuous. Tell me the specific behavior you’re bothered by, but respectfully please.”

If that doesn’t go over well, step out of the conversation until the person is willing to approach you as requested.

4. Work on your self-perception.

This is important because regardless of how respectfully or gently someone delivers criticism, you’ll be more sensitive to hearing it if you struggle with feelings of worth or are already unhappy with your behavior and haven’t been able to get on top of it.

Humility’s hard to come by when you already feel insufficient and not good enough. The ultimate goal is to look at yourself honestly with a discriminating eye and see your strengths and weaknesses without attacking yourself.

Recognize patterns you need to work on, but don’t equate them with all of who you are. Ask yourself, “How can I improve on my weaknesses while making use of my strengths?”

The way you react to criticism from others will reflect how you respond to criticism of yourself.

If you’re in the habit of beating yourself up or excusing behaviors you shouldn’t, you won’t react well to outside criticism. Get used to seeing yourself, flaws and all, with care and love while striving to improve. Make sure to always keep your strengths in mind as you review what needs fixing. Perfectionism has no place in this process.

How do I do that?

Here are four ideas you can try:

  1. You can read if you like doing that. I’d suggest Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection as a good starting place. This book will help you embrace your flaws while feeling good about who you are.
  2. You can seek therapy which, by the way, isn’t just for people with serious problems. It can be a growth-enhancing process for anyone and helps you know yourself better.
  3. Practice taking in little criticisms and changing your reaction deliberately. Read this blog.
  4. Last, I’ve attached a quick-read PDF on How to Stop Being Defensive if you haven’t already seen or read it. You can download it here!

The good thing is, even if you’re highly sensitive to criticism, you can get good at handling it and making it work to your benefit.

That’s all for today.

I hope you have a great week!

All my best,


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