Help! I feel too sensitive to criticism!

Question: Help I feel easily hurt and slighted by criticism and spoil my mood and the day.

Answer: Dear Anon, most of us feel upset by criticism, but to understand your reactions deeply, ask yourself, whether you are sensitive to criticism only from few specific people, only in specific areas of life, or if it is global and hurts uniformly from everyone, in every area of life. If you feel hurt mainly in specific areas of life or by specific people, then ask yourself why is it so? Desire to do well in specific areas of life may make us more vulnerable to criticism in that area. Same way approval from some people might feel very important, but does your life depend upon them, or you basically don’t like to be criticized by them? It is important to keep making this differentiation, since many times we mix up the two, and feel as if our world is ending just because we do not like criticism by a certain person, or in certain area of life.

Question: How can I learn to better deal with criticism?

Answer: One of the most important steps to successfully dealing with criticism is to accept the fact that criticism is inevitable in life. Although some of it is destructive, plain thoughtlessness by another person, or meant to hurt our pride; some of it can be constructive and aim towards our growth. Although it is natural to feel hurt and want to defend ourselves in response to criticism, it is not very helpful in long term. We can never protect ourselves fully from it, but can learn the skills to successfully engage with it and use it for our growth.

We can start by taking all criticisms with a pinch of salt; it may or may not be fully true. All humans have some strengths as well as flaws and our flaws will keep us vulnerable to criticism. So, consider the possibility that there might be some grain of truth in a particular criticism. Then we can stop defending or giving excuses, and focus on how to address it. We can even get better at it by thanking the person who gave us honest criticism, for they are helping us improve. This will strengthen our interpersonal relationships.

Many of the criticisms are not for us as a person, but the roles we play, such as, when a teacher criticizes us for our assignment, they might be nudging us as a student to work harder and improve our writing skills, and not criticizing us as a person. There is a feedback mechanism inherent in criticism, and we can try to see what is behind the criticism and then maybe we can decide to do extra reading next time we have an assignment.

Question: What should I do if I think the criticism is completely unfair?

Answer: If you think you are justified in believing that some criticism was completely dishonest and was meant to hurt you, try to see where the person is coming from. Whether that person is angry with you about something else, or they might be having a bad day themselves. Experience the choices you have – in terms of how much importance you want to attach to the criticism and reflect on the consequences of holding on to the upset feelings for long – whether it serves a useful purpose or is merely hurting you. Sometime, you may have an opportunity to learn to ignore or let go, and at other times you may use the opportunity to do something that helps you respond appropriately /distance yourself mentally, or at yet other times to use it to learn and grow. It might help to manage your hard feelings towards a constant critique, when you become aware that such a person might need help in managing their own negativity. Try not to get aggressive in response to it and if you sense rising anger in yourself, take a break/ step away to give yourself the time to respond in the best way.

Many times criticism also hurts a lot because we ourselves have not accepted that aspect of our personality. So make a list of your strengths and things you are happy about and another list about things you consider as your weaknesses and things you don’t like about yourself. Then go over the list and write down the upside or benefits of your weaknesses, if any. You can even take feedback on these, from people who care for you and have your best in their mind. Now you are ready to decide things you would like to change / improve about yourself, and those that you cannot or would just like to accept.

Finally, some criticism is actually not based on facts, but differences of preferences or values. In some areas of life, there are no absolute standards. You might prefer to keep a particular hairstyle, and another person might dislike it. In such situations there is usually no single right or wrong way to do certain things. Therefore think deeply if you really need to change something. In such a situation you can just move on from the comment and continue doing what you wish to do. Remember we can’t please everyone at all times, so if we take too much to our heart, then we can’t live a full life.

Remind yourself of this old story, when faced with unwarranted criticism.

Once, during Buddha’s talk, a man interrupted him with abuse. Buddha waited for him to finish and then asked: “If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?”, “To the one who offered it”, said the man. “Then”, said the Buddha, “I decline to accept your abuse and request you to keep it for yourself.”

Expert: Dr Jyotsna Agrawal

Dr Jyotsna is assistant professor of Positive Psychology at the Dept. of Clinical

Psychology, NIMHANS, Bangalore