In my experience many people are sensitive to criticism and find it hard to take even when it is intended to be a contribution. I am one of those people so if you fit into this category you have my deepest sympathy. In this article I will examine the reasons why people become sensitive to criticism resulting in difficulties in dealing with it, and suggest emotionally mature ways in which you can change your response to it.
Ways in which people are sensitive to criticism
Sensitivity to criticism can be manifested in two distinct ways:
- You find it hard to admit; you defend or deny what has happened, or look for someone else to blame.
- You easily take the blame for everything and cannot bear the feelings that this gives you, so you collapse into despair and think you might as well give up.
I would like to now look at the first of these possibilities:
Defending or denying responsibility for what has happened
How many times, when I worked with ‘disaffected’ or ‘disruptive’ pupils did I hear the phrase, ‘It wasn’t me, it was him / her’. Passing the buck, denying the evidence of everyone else’s eyes, or making endless excuses were common responses to being caught behaving badly. Some adults I have worked with seem to behave very similarly.
On the adult Emotional Education courses, I taught we made some agreements with all participants, one of which was ‘We will be on time for all sessions’. Latecomers dreamed up all sorts of excuses for being not being on time. One of the best was ‘Well I’m only three minutes late! I had to finish my coffee / tea/ lunch’ etc. ‘Why are you making such a fuss about it?’, they would ask. At what point does ‘late’ become ‘late’?
I would point out that if they were catching public transport they would have literally missed the bus despite having an excuse. If they were attending an interview the interviewer might take a dim view of their tardiness and reach their own conclusions about their reliability and look for someone else to fill the job.
Of course, they invariably pointed out that missing some of the course was not as serious as these scenarios. They could not see (until it was pointed out) that being late held up everyone else on the course and disrupted the proceedings. They also could not/would not see that they had made a promise and broken it. This was almost always followed by a ‘yes but…’
It is quite a simple procedure really; acknowledge that you are late, apologise and give assurances that it will not happen again. For some people this is almost impossible. So why is it such an important issue? Because it is a core condition for relationships that work.
Relationships and Trust
One of the major causes of breakdowns in relationships is an erosion of trust, which is the foundation of stable and fulfilling relationships. To feel secure in a relationship we have to trust that the other person can be relied upon and will keep their word to us. Feeling secure within a relationship is a basic building block of the development of it.
The successful outcome of Emotional Education courses depends on participants feeling safe enough to open up and be vulnerable with each other.
If people are heavily defended and guarded it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to learn about their self-defeating patterns and break through them. Many people are frightened of being vulnerable as too often it has resulted in people taking advantage of them. So, it takes a great deal of trust for people to take this risk. Some people have a deeply rooted distrust of others. Once people demonstrate that they cannot be trusted by breaking their word it can affect the whole atmosphere in the group and deter people from speaking or participating fully.
How many of you reading this have been let down in relationships, not just in your adult life, but as children? And what effect has this had on your relationship with those who let you down and with others whom you fear may do so?
You may have been let down in a variety of ways. Parents let us down when:
- they do not keep their word to us, or behave in ways that do not support our growth and development.
- when they attempt to live their unlived dreams through us; when they demand perfection or high performance or are not satisfied with anything that we achieve, letting their disappointment show about our failure to live up to their expectations.
- when they vent anger upon us which should be directed towards themselves or others.
When people have children, they have already made a commitment to the well-being of the child and to the development of the child’s potential whether they realise it or not. We are let down when:
- parents make us promises they do not keep and then make excuses for it.
- parents abuse us, neglect us, ignore or abandon us.
Most of our experiences of being let down are not experienced at a conscious level as children (a) do not have the language to explain it to themselves, (b) do not realise that parents have made this commitment just by being responsible for their birth and (c) the ‘normality’ of our family life blinds us to the times when we are let down. We just do not see it because it is so familiar.
An example of abandonment which was not at a conscious level would be the story of a course participant whose mother had died when he was 3 years old. When on the course he said that he had finished with his long-standing girl-friend because she had taken a job in another country (his girl-friend did not want to end the relationship). I asked him if he felt ‘abandoned’. He said he did not, but I pointed out that he had a history of abandonment which had probably exacerbated his feelings around his girl-friend going abroad to work. He insisted he had not been abandoned, that his mother had died. To a child, however, that amounts to abandonment. Children do not have a concept of death – all they know is that their mother is not there any more and inevitably they work out that it must be something to do with them. They are filled with guilt and shame and probably anger and they have no idea that this is the case, until something happens later in life that triggers those deeply buried, unconscious feelings.
Being let down is one of the reasons that people are reluctant to make commitments in relationships or to anything else in their lives. To commit to someone or something involves putting your trust in them / it or in yourself. How can you trust yourself when the world around you is so unreliable?
Why we do not take responsibility (or The Shame of ‘blame’)
So why is it that people do not want to hold up their hands and say ‘fair cop’ I was late, or ‘I made a mistake – I’m sorry’? Why are they so sensitive to perceived criticism?
They probably do not know why and indeed if you asked them they would probably feel criticised!! But if you can wriggle out of your mistakes – why not? Why not is that it will probably erode your relationships in every area of your life.
For some of us an admission that we have slipped up or failed to keep our word is tantamount to owning up to a serious crime. There is the dread of punishment and further dents to our self-esteem. We have broken the rules and we predict that we will be criticised for it.
People associate criticism with ‘blame’. Blame is a shaming and humiliating procedure. I can remember being hauled up to the front of the room at school for doing something that I thought was affectionately teasing a younger child. I was actually very fond of this younger girl and did not realise she would be hurt by my actions. I was told to write her a letter of apology. I now know that my actions could have been seen as malicious by this other girl but there really was no malice in them and I was not given an opportunity to explain before being humiliated in front of my classmates. I was told I was cruel and bad for doing this.
So how do we need to deal with being ‘blamed’ for something? Take a deep breath and own up to your mistake/s if you have made any. Then apologise and make amends in whatever way you can.
If people are still unforgiving and will not let go of it what I usually say to people is ‘ Yes I did this and I deeply regret it. It was a mistake but I do not deserve to be hanged for it’. If we cannot own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for them then we are likely to keep blaming those who are unforgiving in our turn . If we do this we are also likely to keep repeating the mistakes rather than learning how to deal with blame and criticism in an emotionally mature way.
Unconscious Reactions to Criticism
Few of the emotional reactions we have to criticism are conscious. They may be driven by impulses that derive from past experiences. These may be deeply buried or repressed emotions stemming from being heavily chastised, humiliated or coerced into doing things as children and where we felt our objections or feelings were trampled over or that we were simply not allowed to have a voice. If children are not listened to or given a fair hearing then they may resort to subverting the situation using procrastination, rationalisation and resistance. These patterns can also form by observing others in the family being abused.
Habits are difficult to break, especially if we do not realise the basis of them. Awakening this realisation is one of the functions of emotional education. Awareness is the first and most essential step to changing the patterns we have developed that do not serve us in life. Without awareness there is no choice in our actions. We are automatons.
I often hear the phrase from people (‘enlightened people’ of course) when addressing self-defeating behaviours that they are ‘choosing’ to do this or that. I repeat, without awareness there is no choice, only emotional compulsion. Ironic really for the people who need to feel in control!
Those who must never be in a position to be criticised are experts at rationalisation. They have an excuse for everything and they can be very creative about it.
I recall asking a class of fifty 10 – 11 year old pupils to promise they would be on time for sessions. One boy was very indignant. ‘Well’, he said,’ what if I am coming to school and I lose my ball in the bushes and I have to look for it?’ I replied that it would be very upsetting, however he was saying that finding his ball was more important than keeping his word to everyone. So how important was his word? How much was it worth? Was finding his ball worth the risk of upsetting and offending his fellow pupils who might have made enormous efforts to keep their word and be on time? Eventually he heaved a deep sigh of resignation and said ‘Oh OK, I’ll try’. How indignant he was when I said I did not want him to try. I asked the assembled pupils why they thought I did not want him to ‘try’. One little girl said, ‘because when someone says they’ll try they really mean that they won’t do it but they don’t want to tell you that’.
I thought that coming from an 11 year old that was a profound statement. She had obviously suffered the disappointment of people who ‘try’ to come to your party etc and never make it.
Ways of avoiding criticism
I am willing to bet that you know a few people who are masters of procrastination. Of course, if you do not do something you cannot be criticised for messing it up. So, procrastination is usually a function of deep-rooted fear that you will get it wrong.
I used to think that people did this just to annoy me or wriggle out of doing it. Now I know better. Putting pressure on people who are terrified of making mistakes can never work. They need empathy, compassion and encouragement rather than coercion.
The other way you can avoid criticism is to attack the person criticising you. ‘Well what about you?’ ‘You did this or that or the other’. If you know someone like this then a good tip for dealing with this is to point out that you are not, at this moment in time, talking about what you may or may not have done – you are talking about what they have done. When that is sorted out satisfactorily then you will be ready to listen to their complaints.
This form of ‘tit for tat’ goes on in many relationships. People sensitive to criticism are likely to store up the mistakes you make and ‘cash them in’ at some future point.
If you want to avoid criticism do not do anything with your life. Don’t take any risks. Keep your aspirations low and stick to what you know you can do without failing or making a mistake. You can then complain, if you like, about being bored and in a dead-end job. You just don’t get the right breaks!
Now we move to the other end of this continuum:
Taking the blame for everything and giving up
There are those among us who are always willing to take the blame for everything that goes wrong. ‘I’m sorry’ is heavily interspersed in their conversations. This can become an irritating habit. I have a friend who constantly says she is sorry, despite not having done anything. I am always asking her what she is sorry for. She often does not know! She is almost sorry for breathing and being alive.
This is the position that children who felt unwanted or responsible for their parents’ miseries or misfortunes often find themselves in. They are constantly avoiding the bombardment that they are sure is coming their way. The ‘I’m sorry’ is a way of pre-empting the criticism they feel sure is imminent. If I blame myself then others will not need to blame me.
Being sorry for being alive is a condition which can be experienced by children whose conception was unintended, or felt that whatever they did it would not be good enough. They could not please their parents and may have been the family scapegoat.
Often siblings would join in the blame game, only too thankful it was not them that was the recipient. They are not the only ones that join in; the scapegoat themselves frequently accept the blame for mishaps and disasters for which they were not responsible. It is their role in life to shield other family members from the responsibility.
I know of one woman who was always apologising and finding herself in positions in jobs and relationships where people blamed her if things went wrong. She had an older sibling who had learning difficulties and was disabled. She was conceived so that she would be there to look after him if his parents died. I am not sure whether or not this was the reality, but this was what she had been told and she believed it so it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not. She felt compelled to look after and help people. This was her way of compensating for being such a non- person, whose existence was only justified if she took case of someone else.
Imagine being alive only to ensure that someone else was looked after or did not die or. How do you get over that? This is somewhat extreme but at a lesser level many of us think or sense that we exist only in order to keep others happy or ensure their needs are met usually those of our parents.
This is fiction. You are here to fulfil your potential and make sure that you make the most of the gift that life is. How you fulfil your potential is another question that would probably need you to go on a course of Emotional Education to answer it.
Look at nature – does a tree have to justify its existence? Does a bird have to take care of all other birds to ensure that it survives? I think you will find the answer is no. Do we not have the same entitlement as the tree or the bird? Of course we do but we lose sight of it.
The tree and the bird did not receive the same messages that we did. The parent birds did their job of ensuring that the eggs hatched and the chicks were fed and cared for until ready to fly the nest – until they had the confidence to risk taking to the air and be independent. All the tree had to do was become what it was destined to become. Would that human beings had the same experience but they seldom do so.
Only if we are cared for with love, warmth, empathy and compassion do we have a chance of taking the risk of flight. Sadly, many of us are risk averse.
I spoke to someone today who said that she was always told that she couldn’t do things. Her sister got the encouragement – she was ‘the brainy one’. Consequently, this person stays in a job that she knows how to do and has no aspirations to do anything else. She has no choice – that is the sad thing.
Having choices in life is what makes life stimulating and worth living for many people.
To sum up. Avoiding criticism by becoming very helpful and self-sacrificing is extremely limiting. It can make you risk averse and keep you stuck in mediocrity. It destroys your soul. It does not allow you to be who you are capable of being. It adversely affects your relationships and prevents you from attaining emotional maturity. If you fall into the second category of ‘taking the blame for everything’ and trying to please people and help them all the time It will probably generate a lot of anger. There is a ‘what about me’ feeling that develops (quite rightly) but cannot be expressed because that is not what people who are devoted to helping others do. It can generate feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. It is debilitating and definitely not an attribute.
To those who fit into this category I invite them to read the poem ‘The Abyss’ which can be found in my book .
So how do you stop being sensitive to criticism?
There is only one way to stop being sensitive to criticism that I know and that is to realise that making mistakes is not a hanging matter. It is an inevitable outcome of testing your limits.
In my life I have bitten off more than I could chew on several occasions and it has been a devastating experience but I soon got over it. I saw that it was a lesson I could learn from so that I did not make the same mistake again.
If you are too afraid to test your limitations you will never know where or what they are and so will hold back.
So, do I never make mistakes now? Frequently, but they are not the same ones over and over again.
In addition, I do not attach the meaning to messing up that I used to. I don’t use it as evidence that I am useless or hopeless or a ‘bad’ person – which is my default position. I realise that I am going down that road and I stop and give myself a good talking to. To be able to do this it is important to develop an acute awareness of what is going on in your head; those habitual thoughts generated by your past experience. We cannot stop those thoughts but we do not need to give them any significance. It is a matter of observing them, just as you would observe the clouds in the sky and letting them pass by.
It is also about having compassion and not compounding the judgements of others by making judgements about yourself. If you can accept your failings and own up to them, making sure that you make amends if other people have been affected in some way then you will be well on your way to self-acceptance and that is a very emotionally mature place to be.