Managing Criticism as a Sensitive Person
by April Snow, LMFT
Receiving criticism can feel like the end of the world for Highly Sensitive People who feel everything so deeply, see meaning in every interaction and find it painful to disappoint others. Criticism often feels edgy because we assume it confirms our worst fears that say we’re not enough as we are or not doing enough. In this article, I explore why criticism is so difficult, typical responses when facing conflict and ways to manage without apologizing or blaming ourselves.
Why Criticism Is So Difficult
Having a temperament that is only shared by about 20% of the population, Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are often criticized for being different. This can lead to feeling misunderstood or being an outsider, impacting our self-esteem and making criticism even more painful to hear. Our whole lives we’ve heard from society and perhaps our own family that we’re too much or not enough – too emotional, too sensitive, too quiet, not fast enough, not flexible enough and so forth. When we’re constantly trying to fit in, hearing criticism is distressing.
Our nervous systems are more sensitive to the world around us, therefore the intensity of conflict can also feel overstimulating. To us, criticism seems loud, harsh and more extreme than the person delivering the message may intend.
We feel everything more deeply, process the meaning of the criticism at length and are more attuned to the emotions of others. Not only are we feeling our own pain, but due to our higher capacity for empathy, we’re also feeling the pain of the other person. This is a lot to feel and think about making it easier to avoid the conflict altogether!
Typical HSP Responses to Criticism
Highly Sensitive People are masters of the subtle. We are wired to notice the subtle details in our environment, everything from body language to the lighting in a room. This characteristic evolved because it was a life-saving advantage to notice indistinct dangers, but can be a downside when we don’t realize that not everyone has this capability. We assume others can pick up on our nonverbal cues or vague responses, that others will notice when our feelings have been hurt. When we feel criticized we may respond in a way that doesn’t address the conflict directly, hoping the other person will pick up on how upset we are.
Another common reaction to conflict is to avoid or placate the situation because it’s too overwhelming to address it head-on or we worry about losing the relationship. A common way to placate the criticism is to apologize and take full blame, whether or not it’s our fault. Unfortunately, constantly silencing ourselves and sacrificing our needs leads to resentment which can destroy a relationship.
4 Ways to Manage Criticism
It’s safe to say that you will never enjoy being criticized or find it effortless to address a conflict, but the experience can be less overwhelming than it feels now. As much as our Sensitivity makes it more difficult to navigate these quarrels, there are also innate characteristics in our Sensitivity that we can utilize when managing conflict.
1) Reality Check Yourself
When processing a critical remark, it’s important to look at the facts of the situation. It can be easy to assume whatever someone is saying is a fact, but it may not be about us at all. Perhaps the person delivering the criticism is projecting another frustration onto us, maybe they’re feeling “hangry” because they haven’t eaten or are depressed and seeing everything through a cloudy grey lens. There are so many reasons why people react the way they do, especially considering that we all experience each moment differently based on our unique life experiences. The criticism is not always about us, so be sure to take a moment to reflect on the whole picture before assigning blame to yourself.
2) Use Your Sensitivity To Your Advantage
Having more active mirror neurons in our brains gives us a higher capacity to feel empathy, which sometimes feels like a burden, but being able to sense into what other people are feeling can actually be a gift! Our empathy coupled with the ability to feel a wide range of emotions gives us the ability to be an emotional leader in relationships. We can see more layers of what is happening for people, sometimes more than they are aware of themselves.
When someone is critical, we have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment and can ask:
- What does this person need?
- What could be going on for them?
- Is this really about me?
This approach can provide clarity, lessen the impact of the criticism and provide the basis for more meaningful conversation with the critic.
Another part of being Highly Sensitive is having a brain that deeply processes decisions before talking or acting. Our brains take in the criticism itself, the nonverbal cues of the critic and the context in order to understand the situation more clearly. This processing can help us explore the following questions:
- Is there a part of this criticism that is true and useful?
- Have I been in a situation like this before? What worked and what didn’t?
- What can I take away from this and apply in the future?
Give yourself time to talk it through with a trusted friend, write your reflections down in a journal or process with a therapist.
Hearing criticism can be very threatening because we are being told we don’t fit into the pack or there’s something imperfect about us, sending us into “fight-or-flight” mode. It’s important to keep ourselves calm so that we can think clearly and access our empathy. A few simple ways I like to ground myself include:
- Pressing my feet firmly into the ground and taking a few slow deep breaths.
- Gazing around the room and describing the colors and textures of the objects I see.
- Giving myself a hug or bringing my knees to my chest.
4) Practice Self-Compassion
According to the Stanford Center for Compassion, practicing self-compassion can increase resilience and the ability to manage mistakes. Treating ourselves kindly as we would a friend helps us see the bigger picture, including the good parts of ourselves, which can take the weight out of a critical comment. Start by practicing the self-compassion break from Kristin Neff on a regular basis.
Criticism is harsh and painful for someone who feels deeply and is more aware of subtleties, but some of what makes criticism so difficult for Highly Sensitive People can actually help us move through it. We have an incredible gift to deeply reflect and see the big picture. When a conflict arises, we can look at what lessons apply to us while having empathy for the critic.
About the author
April Snow, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, who specializes in working with Highly Sensitive Introverts. April strongly believes that being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) doesn’t have to stop you from living a fully engaged life and is on a mission to help HSPs create a life on their own terms so they can manage the overwhelm and start to thrive. Find out more at www.expansiveheart.com.