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Handling Criticism

June 14, 2016

By April Mojica, MS, LPC, NCC, Skyland Trail Lead Counselor

Criticism can trigger psychiatric symptoms for some individuals who interpret feedback in unhealthy ways.  How we handle criticism may affect our relationships with others, our self-esteem, and our opportunities for personal growth. At Skyland Trail, we help clients discover a new perspective and develop new skills to respond to criticism with a more healthy, productive approach.

People generally have one of three potential reactions to criticism:

  1. One unhealthy response would be to automatically assume that the person giving you the criticism is right. You don’t question the validity or motivation behind the feedback and accept it as 100% accurate and deserved. If you struggle with self-esteem or entrenched negative beliefs about yourself, you might receive the criticism as further evidence that you are a failure, incapable, or unworthy, regardless of whether the criticism is valid.
  2. Another unhealthy response would be to automatically assume that the person giving you the criticism is wrong. You might reflexively interpret the criticism as an attack and act defensively or respond with anger. If you struggle with perfectionism or anxiety, criticism may often feel like an attack when it contradicts the image of the ideal person you feel like you are expected to be.
  3. On the other hand, a healthy response would be to accept each criticism as one person’s opinion about your behavior in a specific situation and not as a universal referendum on you as a person. By examining your behavior from the other person’s point of view, you may be able to understand why they are giving you that feedback. You can then determine if you want to adapt your behavior or change the way you approach a similar situation in the future. In some cases you may determine that you don’t need to change your actions, but you can still respond to the other person in a respectful way.

As an example, consider if, after you inadvertently missed an appointment with a friend without calling or texting him, your friend says:

 “You don’t value our friendship at all.”

If you automatically assume he is right, you might say, “You’re right. I’m always forgetting to do things. I know I’m not a very good friend.” This response can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and exacerbate depression.

If you automatically assume he is wrong, you might say, “Chill out! I usually show up or let you know. You shouldn’t be so sensitive! You’re the one who picked Tuesday and I told you Tuesday was a busy day for me.” This sort of defensive reaction can lead to troubled relationships, another trigger for depression and anxiety.

The more balanced response would be to say, “I sometimes do forget appointments and don’t let you know. I see how that would bother you, and I would probably feel that way too.  I did not intend to make you feel as though you are not important to me, as I do value our friendship. I’ll try to communicate better next time.”

The key elements of a balanced response are:

  1. Empathy.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Whether he is “right” or “wrong,” he feels the way that he feels. Validate his emotion in your response. For example, “I understand that you feel disrespected.” You do not have to take responsibility for being the cause of how he feels, but acknowledging the emotion he feels is important. You may need to ask some questions in response to someone’s criticism to be sure you understand what’s behind their heightened emotion. For example, “What specifically did I do that makes you feel dismissed?”
  2. Find the kernel of truth. “Right” or “wrong” are not the only options. You do not have to dismiss or accept the criticism outright, 100 percent. Could the criticism be 5 percent correct? In the example above, you can reject the feedback that you don’t value the friendship. However, you may be able to agree that it was not courteous to miss an appointment without calling or texting. You can reject that this situation represents a pattern of behavior or reflects your overall role in the relationship. But using empathy, you can acknowledge how this specific incident might make your friend feel disrespected, even though that was not your intention. When you can acknowledge a portion of the criticism, your friend may feel “heard,” and may be more willing to see the situation from your perspective too.
  3. Negotiate the appropriate response or change. Based on the kernel of truth you identified, is there an opportunity to change your future actions or approach that would improve your relationship or help you achieve your goals? Is there an action you need to take now? Do you need to note your decision in a journal or discuss it with a counselor or trusted friend? Remember that you are changing your approach to a specific situation in a way that aligns with your values. You are not trying to change who you are as a person.

The overarching goal is to remember that this is feedback about a specific situation, not about your value as a person. Try to see it as an opportunity to make choices more in line with your values and not as a measurement of your self worth.

Now consider this example from the other side of the equation. As the friend in the relationship who did not receive a call or text, how could you provide feedback in a more balanced way?

  • Consider using “I statements.” Instead of, “You don’t value our friendship,” try, “I feel disrespected.”
  • Focus on a specific behavior instead of the person.  Instead of, “You don’t value our friendship at all,” implying the person is an unworthy friend, try naming the behavior, “When you don’t show up and forget to call, I feel as though I don’t matter to you.” Avoid sweeping words like “always” and “never.”
  • Try not to assume the other person was trying to hurt you. Causing you pain or stress may not have been her intention.
  • Examine your own vulnerabilities. How much of the criticism you want to give is about the other person’s behavior and how much is about how you feel in the moment? Is there anything else contributing to how you feel besides the other person’s current behavior or actions?
  • Approach criticism as bringing awareness to a situation. Try not to assume that the other person is even aware that his actions are affecting you in a negative way. “I’ve noticed that sometimes you forget to tell me when your plans change. When that happens, I feel disrespected. Is there something we could do to communicate better with one another?”

Learning to handle criticism with a healthy, balanced approach falls under the larger umbrella of assertive communication. Through assertiveness exercises, we learn how to effectively communicate what we need to be happy and healthy and to voice our opinion when it differs from those around us.

Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn and use for anyone, but can be particularly challenging for individuals with a mental health diagnosis. Assertive communication and interpersonal effectiveness skills groups are important components of the holistic treatment program at Skyland Trail.

As our clients learn about their diagnoses and how to manage their symptoms, we help them build the skills they need to pursue meaningful relationships, participate fully in their communities, and reclaim their lives.

April Mojica, LPC, NCC, is a lead counselor at Skyland Trail and helps lead our Social Integration, Cognition and First Episode, and Dual Diagnosis treatment communities. Mojica is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally certified counselor. She received her M.S. in clinical mental health counseling from Mercer University. She has completed intensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy methods from the Beck Institute for Depression and Suicidality.