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by Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD

Nobody likes to be criticized but it can be particularly difficult for individuals with depression and anxiety disorders. Individuals with depression tend to be highly self-critical and frequently have an ongoing internal dialogue that is harshly judgmental of themselves. Having someone else be critical can then act like salt to the wound and trigger feelings of shame at being exposed as deficient. Individuals with anxiety, particularly social anxiety, are very fearful of being judged and being criticized can feel like being under attack in a war zone! 
Arming oneself with effective skills will allow one to face criticism with fortitude. Done in baby steps and a self-encouraging attitude, it is very doable. The more the skills are practiced the less the criticism stings and the more empowered you become.  

Responding to criticism: 

Criticism can present itself in different ways in our lives. Here are some ways in which one can respond to criticism: 

  1. When the criticism is valid, constructive and respectful in delivery it may still cause one to feel upset to some degree. To cope it would be helpful to stay focused on what the other person is saying while you calm yourself by taking some deep slow breaths. It is likely that as the minutes’ tick by you will be able to focus more on what is being said and recognize that this is not an ‘attack’. 
  2. When the criticism is invalid, unnecessary and given disrespectfully, it would very naturally trigger considerable distress. At such times, it would be good to follow the strategy of focusing initially on calming yourself. This can vary from doing slow breathing exercises, to counting backwards or focusing on something extraneous to distract yourself from the unpleasant situation. If your emotional response is intense, leave the situation if possible and go to a quiet place, where you can calm yourself before returning to the situation. Remember, you have the option to take your time to decide on the best course of action and respond to the criticism when you are less distressed. 
  3. In some instances, when the criticism is not fair and your behavior is within your rights it is appropriate to clarify and explain without offering lengthy excuses or apologies.  Remember that defending yourself and not accepting unfair criticism is your right so long as it is done with respect. This is what assertive communication is all about. Done in gradual baby steps assertiveness is a skill that can be acquired.  
  4. Sometimes, in the case of manipulative and emotionally abusive persons the intention of the criticism is get you to react and get upset. In such cases ignoring or not reacting would be the best way to go. 
  5. Sometimes unhealthy criticisms are indirect. They can be conveyed through facial expressions and body language. At other times criticism are veiled and implied. In such instances, it would be good to ask for clarifications. This causes such people to experience the discomfort of explaining their passively aggressive statements and not repeat these kinds of veiled attacks. 
  6. When one is being criticized in the presence of other people a big part of the distress is associated with the sense of being shamed in the presence of other people. The criticism then takes on a collective quality where the judgment causes one to feel isolated into a shamed corner. However, the reality is that it is the person who is displaying the unkind behavior who gets judged for bad behavior by others. The person who is the target of disrespectful behavior usually gains the support, of those who witness such behavior whether the criticism is valid or not. 

Reducing the pain:  

Remember, everyone makes mistakes and has deficiencies, including the person who is being critical. Accepting that you are as human as anyone else will help to see yourself as a worthy person regardless of your deficiencies and criticisms will sting less. In addition, honing your skills of dealing with criticism will make it easier to stay self-accepting.   
 


About the author:

Suma-Chand_website.jpg Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD., is a Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the St Louis University School of Medicine. She is a board member of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC) and a member of the ADAA Public Education Committee.

Thank you for sharing this. It gave me insight on why not to criticize those around me. Your blog was inspiring and I am glad that I read it.

My girlfriend and I have been together for four years now going on 5 and I cannot offer her even the smallest amount of criticism or it turns into World War 10. She knows that I am not doing anything to harm her logically and that I'm not attacking her logically but she was in an abusive relationship 4 13 years and she even admits it triggers those old feelings regardless if she knows that the reality of the situation does not match her emotional reaction. This obviously causes considerable stress in our relationship the point where I don't say anything and it builds up and I end up exploding. My exploding comes in the form of shutting down and not talking out of fear of saying something very hurtful or something I don't mean and cannot take back. This person is somebody I am considering marrying this person but I don't know how to get through this inability to offer criticism. I think sometimes she has set it up that no matter what the criticism the fight that ensues is so outrageous and so out of control that it makes me never want to say anything which is what she's trying to condition me for and I hate it. Any advice would be great. She has done Counseling in the past but she tends to shut down and become relatively childlike and almost catatonic in the presence of a counselor. I'm at a loss any advice would be most welcome thank you.

Hi Joshua
I disagree with the fact that you cannot change her. I suffered from super sensitivity for years due to being with someone who constantly helped to make me feel inadequate and useless. He died in 2004 and fortunately around that time I was introduced to meditation. I have not been super sensitive for 15 years until a couple of weeks ago when a combination of a few things triggered it. However, due to practicing yoga and meditation, I know I will return to my calm, centred self where criticism is accepted and then let go and I can actually have a sense of humour about it. Highly recommend meditation/mindfulness and yoga.

Her behavior sounds controlling - she might be modeling the behavior of her prior abusive boyfriend, maybe unknowingly, as a means to avoid a repeat of that relationship. Do the criticisms that trigger her behavior include things like your suggestions of joint activities, people you want to see, and ways you spend your money? She is using the threat of WW10 as a way to control you, blaming it on your “criticism”, and painting herself as the victim.
You might love each other but this is only going to get worse, especially if you marry or live together. Maybe you can get her to agree to separate therapies with different therapists for each of you, since joint therapy is a bust. Explain this to your counselor. But iMO you should prepare yourself to cool off the relationship, and probably end it for your own good.

Hi Joshua, sorry to hear your story. Deep issues need to be worked through and take time, avoidance is not the answer. I'd encourage your partner to find a good therapist. There are a wide range of psychological therapies and therapists, need to find one she feels comfortable with. If she's not willing to deal with this then maybe she's not committed enough to the relationship. Best wishes.

You obviously try to understand her and cope with it, I am in a similar situation myself. It can be difficult to change the hypersensitivity, it needs phychotherapy sessions for quite some time (CB therapy with a skilled psychotherapist). But firstly she needs to realize that she actually over-reacts, due to her own personal phychological factors. Which causes a reaction from you, like a "chain reaction", really. It is not her fault nor your fault, try not to accuse her and avoid the criticism for now, try to calmly talk things through. If you both realize the problem, have a positive attitude and try to work with a skilled phychotherapist (couple therapy maybe), you will understand the causes of this and how to change the problematic behavior over time. Hopefully you will overcome this.

These are good advice, but taking deep breaths almost always makes me hiccup. Is there any other way I can calm myself down without doing that?

Why do some people criticize or make fun of others? How can one put the criticizer in his place?

I've been struggling with depression and anxiety for over 20 years and don't feel I know how to cope in a healthy way. My partner likes to make blanket statements about how "i never" or "i always" do something, which makes me feel inadequate as a partner, and as a person. I turn inward and self-loathe because it must be something within myself that makes my partner say these things. I just want to find an effective way to deal with my self-hatred, anxiety and depression so I can remain more calm when I feel like I'm being verbally attacked. I will try anything that can help. I feel like the worst person in the world, like I dont deserve to even live anymore and feel like I'm trapped in a deep, dark hole with no way out. I just don't know how to deal. I'm 37 and had some cancerous cells removed from my body this year and found myself thinking, maybe I shouldn't have done that so at least the cancer would eventually kill me early and I wouldn't be such a burden to others. When I tried talking to my partner about how I think excessive bullying when I was a kid is the cause of alot of this, she dismissed it as trivial and told me to get over it, because everyone is bullied as a kid.

I think you should definitely try psychotherapy sessions, like cognitive behavioral therapy, with a trained psycologist/psychotherapist. Your partner lacks the knowledge that is needed to understand you or help you. You could also read a relevant book, (I recommend "Overcoming depression: a self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioral techniques", by Paul Gilbert), but ideally try psychotherapy sessions if you can.

When a loved one criticizes me I feel all the life drain from my body. I immediately have to leave the room. In some cases I have to get into my bed. Sometimes I am ruined for the rest of the day.

Why is my reaction so strong. I feel as if my entire body chemistry changes, like I have every ounce of energy emptied from me. It doesn't even feel like bad thoughts in my head. The reaction is totally in my body, like someone injected me with a bad drug.

Hi there

Your post resonated with me greatly.
I too, feel like a horrid drug had been injected into my system when I am criticized by a loved one, no matter how kind they had put it
I had a situation yesterday where my reaction was so strong I felt my day was ruined by it and it has slightly gotten into my morning today.
I feel as over sensitive people this is just how we are. All I can suggest is to be aware of the thoughts and try to live in the present moment as much as possible

You are not alone, trust me on that!

Chris

I have been avoiding criticism for so long. But recently i got criticised and although i was ok in the moment because I “prepped” myself before, I bursted after! I had insomnia the whole night, I feel like cra*p and so depressed! You know how the internet talks about “critical aunties” its true! an auntie used to criticise my whole family, but now she only targets me! ( i get very anxious around others so maybe she latches onto that?) whereas my other family members seem confident, well the ones that show up anyway. She recently criticized the way I did an action which lead me to feel angry, ruminate for days, insomnia!, feeling depressed, feeling weak, like i am not good enough, like i should just disappear, perhaps die. I think writing this i realise that her criticism surfaces all the childhood abuse.
Can someone explain why these aunties criticise the way we do things infront of other people ? Its so horrible !

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