For as long as I can remember, I’ve never handled criticism well. I squirmed whenever someone took a look at my work and didn’t like it. It was even worse when they had something to correct about it.
You see, in our household, anything less than excellent was unacceptable. You can’t really show your face at the dinner table and expect to be applauded for above-average work. That won’t sit well with the teachers, my mother always used to reprimand me.
So I strived for perfection over and over, until my parents had nothing left to say except high praises. But even then, it wasn’t enough. There was still more work to perfect.
I’ve carried this struggle well into my adult life. While I have no more parents over my shoulders to chastise me, I was still under the mercy of my colleagues and bosses. And I hated every single second of it.
For them, they were simply helping out a coworker and an employee. But for me, it was a nightmare.
Even when their criticism was well-intentioned, all I ever saw were my flaws on display. All I ever heard were doubts in my head. The worst of it all was feeling like everyone was out to get me. After all, they were all better than me. Right?
This is probably why I thrive outside of an office environment. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been doing freelance work online. I’ve figured that I always worked better by myself.
However, I’ve come to acknowledge that I’ve never healthily addressed my inability to take criticism in stride. Still, humans are intensely social creatures, and even when being alone works right now, there is much growth waiting to be discovered with others.
The best way to solve a problem is to resolve its root cause. Fortunately, there is a body of psychological research that may shed some light on the matter.
The Child Within Us
There is much to be said about our adult lives, but most, if not all issues we carry on our backs come from our childhood. Growing up, I was taught to seek the approval of others. I needlessly aimed to be excellent, not for my sake, but for everyone to love me.
Now, I’ve learned to surmise that, in their own way, my parents did their best to help me become properly socialized. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of my personal growth.
Very few parents are enlightened enough, or sufficiently skilled, to carry out the kind of “loving correction” that doesn’t end up making us hypersensitive — and therefore over-reactive — to criticism. As a result, negative judgments we receive as adults can automatically remind us of the inadequacies we so keenly felt when criticized as a child.
My ego was built on an unstable platform of external validation. Today, I still crumble in the face of unfavorable evaluations and disagreements because the child within me has never fully healed from the wound I’ve acquired from excessive parental criticism.
Assuming we’ve never fully resolved these deep, hurt feelings, then, all our accomplishments as adults — accomplishments that, logically, should verify our essential competence (or “ok-ness”) once and for all — won’t be enough to protect us from re-experiencing some residue of the original hurt whenever we’re found fault with. This is why present-day criticisms are capable of inducing in us so much emotional distress.
When we receive criticism, our inner child gets threatened and is compelled to react far more emotionally than rationally. As a result, we are unable to listen objectively to other people’s remarks and respond accordingly.
Additionally, any doubts we may have about ourselves immediately resurface. We become susceptible to insecurity so we elude the unconditional self-acceptance needed to handle criticism. We would rather focus on invalidating those who judge us, those who corrected us, and those who make us feel deficient, in one way or another.
Regrettably, I have lost opportunities because I let my fear of criticism get in the way. Once in college, I was enrolled in a research class that was set in a collaborative environment. For every submission, our papers were dissected, scrutinized, and reviewed by our peers while our professor handled the discussion.
I’ve never felt so exposed in my entire life. My fear overcame me that I dropped the class after a few weeks and never looked back.
One of the main reasons that make criticism so painful is because we associate it with vulnerability and loss. We worry that it would cost us our good reputations, our jobs, and our relationships.
Nonetheless, reflecting on how much these explanations might characterize our reactions to criticism should help us determine what we may need to work on, and what we might want to change.
When your heart starts beating rapidly and your palms get sweaty, breathe deeply to stay calm. Even when it does not come easily or naturally, calmness and clarity always win over agitation.
Defensiveness starts in the body. When you only listen to the things you don’t agree with, you become tense and rigid, unable to take in new information. Do what you can to calm yourself.
Listen to Understand
As much as possible, do not interrupt, argue, refute, or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints.
There is no room for your response when the other person is not finished with what they needed to say. It is only when you have heard the other person out that you can think about what they have said. Take a moment to prepare your response.
Show Your Empathy
However, there is no need to respond immediately, especially when you need to sort yourself out first. When you are not sure how to respond yet, buy yourself some time.
Tell the person who has just criticized you that you need to think about what they have said. Communicate to them that you take their thoughts and feelings seriously.
After all, you will feel differently about an interaction after a crucial period has passed. Setting this boundary with someone makes for a healthier and productive outcome.
Speak Your Truths
Do not hide from your truths to appease everyone else. Instead, relay to the other person how you may see things differently. If your points are legitimate, choose the right tact and timing to be heard.
You do not always have to match the other person’s tone or language. Even the most difficult things can be said with kindness.
Above all else, speak kindly to yourself and others. They may think that they are being polite when they are actually being aggressive. Or they may be so nervous that they may default to talking too much. In any event, you defuse the tension when you approach them with kindness.
You could also benefit from proper self-talk and care. So consider doing something nice for yourself. No one is perfect, and the only way to grow is to listen and learn from what others have to say.
The Bottom Line
It is crucial that we learn how to talk, compassionately, and reassuringly, to the insecure child within us.
Because regardless of whether we’ve said or done something wrong, we are still fundamentally okay. We are not required to defend ourselves because our acceptance shouldn’t be hinged on others.
It should be found from within.