Why Am I So Sensitive To Criticism?
One of the most challenging things to hear is when someone is criticising you personally and sometimes as challenging is when they are criticising themselves.
In this article I want to look at why that is.
Usually it comes down to the story you tell yourself about criticism.
When you talk about the criticism to someone else what do you say. How do you talk about the experience? Do you say things like I felt attacked? Perhaps you say how they undervalued you or you were not fully appreciated. Maybe you instantly felt not good enough and not worthy. You might feel resentment and frustration that what you said was misinterpreted. You may talking about feeling judged. It could be any number of these things that we say to articulate to ourselves and others our experience.
This story then sends a signal to your brain and your brain tracks the patterns and ultimately files this information. With one soul purpose, to keep you safe. It wants to be able to predict what might happen next to ensure that you are given sufficient warning to fight, flight or freeze if you are in danger. So whether it is the tone of how you tell yours story or words like I felt attacked it can send a message to your system to be on high alert for any future possible danger. Which then results in our emotional and often autopilot responses such as cryng and shouting. In the workplace it can result in us maybe speaking faster as we try to stifle the emotional response or we might clam up and say nothing as we attempt to regain some kind of control of our emotions.
Be curious now about the way you talk about and even how often you talk about the experience and potentially how your system might file that. Safe or danger?
If the story you tell yourself is one of being attacked or it even has a tone of you being in danger; your brain will store that in the – to be avoided file. Then even at the first sign of critcism it will react.
What is criticism?
Our human mind is often limited with vocabulary to describe complex things and like many things the word criticism is no different.
We can can become quite vague and all kinds of behavoiur will be filed in the ‘criticism’ box will set off the survival brain. To read more about the survival and clarity brain as I call them check out this article The Clarity Brain
You might feel a knot in your stomach; you might feel warm and clench your hands as your fight flight or freeze mechanism kicks in.
The brain then redirects blood from the neocortex part of the brain to the part of the brain that is designed to keep you safe. Then ithe blood gets pushed out to hands and feet so that you can literally fight or flight if needed. This might be when you feel sweaty in the hands or your feel agitated and want or need to move your legs. The desire to run maybe quite strong. I used to be a great door slammer at home. I would leave the room and slam the door hard behind me. I now know that the loud sound of the door told my system I was safe and the ‘bad stuff’ was in that room locked away.
I recognise that door slamming is neither big or smart. It is not easy to listen to or witness and understanding why I did and it’s purpose gave me choice. I could stay in the room and breath and tell myself I was safe. It was just a teenager kicking off or a disappointed family member. I was okay and would be okay.
What is criticism?
One of the challenges is that we can also use one word to describe a number of different behaviours which in turn makes it harder for our brain to store and react to the information effectively.
Some feel when questioned that they are being threatened or challenged or that someone does not believe them. When I ask the person who posed the question they invariably don’t understand and simply want clarity. The difference that makes the difference is the purpose for the question. This usually impacts our tone.
Someone who is genuinely interested and curious and does not feel threatened or challenged will often speak with a gentle tone and pace.
If however something that has been said triggers their survival brain and they need clarity to protect themselves or the business or their family ‘how’ they ask the same question may come out much faster and will more energy. The question can almost stab the person. They don’t hear it, they feel it.
If we have had an experience like this then we could file ‘all questions’ are a threat.
Rolling of the eyes, tutting or even silence can be taken as not being interested or not approving. Making suggestions can be taken as the first thing they said was not good enough.
Opinions and suggestions
Giving an opinion or sharing your own experience can be seen and heard as not listening to or valuing what they had to say. Again we can hear something that triggers a thought and memory in us and we can’t help but pour it out. This can be from a place of survival with thoughts like; if I don’t say this now I will forget. We then interrupt and usually speak fast.
When we have so many different things filed as criticism/threat it can become almost impossible for someone to communicate with us without triggering the part of our brain that wants to put us into flight, fight or freeze.
Tone and pace
Sometimes it is not even what they say or do. Sometimes it is the tone or pace of the suggestion or question. It can be that we are naturally sensitive to a certain pitch of volume because that is how our own sense work.
It could be that we had a traumatic experience in the past where someone shouted or raised their voice.
Sometimes it is simply that the comment, question or sound of the voice was unexpected and that creates an interruption in the pattern that was predicted and that puts our own system on high alert in the moment. I can then file “unexpected comments” are a threat. This reduces our ability to be curious and willing to hear new perspectives.
We can get into a habit of criticising ourselves and others. It always if not often has a positive pay off. I worked out if I criticised myself then I could reduce or eradicate the shock of unexpected criticism.
I also discovered that I critcised others it created predictable tension which was easier to handle than unpredictable. My clients and I have model and explore what actually happens to us physically and emotionally when we criticise? What works about it? What doesn’t?
Many of us worked out that criticising not only could prevent unpredictable responses it also gave us a reprieve from trying. If I was saying “I am useless and a waste of space” then for that moment I did not have to find the courage to try again.
I always did and do try again.
I am tenacious and determined and don’t give up easily.
Once I knew what worked about criticism I looked to find healthier ways for me and my relationships to give myself that reprieve from trying.
Just taking a break from trying was a more helpful and resourceful thing to do. Taking time off. Being quiet; and doing something for no other reason than having fun was a great way of hitting the pause button and recharging ready for the next iteration of learning.
Listening to someone criticise themselves
Change isn’t comfortable and yet it is part of life.
When we are listening to someone criticise themselves, it can be equally difficult to listen to. Our tolerance and patience can be tried because again our survival brain is triggered based on the story we tell ourselves and them about what this means.
Maybe we think they will be miserable or unhappy or people won’t like them if they don’t buck up quickly. Maybe we worry about how this will impact us and our workload. Perhaps you think they will get depressed or are depressed and that scares you as that feels like something you are not resourced to listen to.
Whatever the story is, that you tell yourself to make sense of what you hear will determine where you file the information and how your own system responds in this moment and in the future.
Anything that slightly resembles something similar happening and your emotions will be triggered and your system will be on high alert with no warning.
How do I reduce or eradicate my sensitivity to criticism?
In my book Manage Your Critic – From Overwhelm to Clarity in 7 Steps. The first step is curiosity. It is to think about what needs to happen for you to be curious about what you define as criticism? Be willing to ask questions and listen to what you say and think. Listen to what they actually say and do and what you make up about that behaviour. Look up the word criticism in the dictionary. Notice how often you tell your criticism story to yourself and others. Listen to what people say and try of for size believing them. Perhaps they say “I wasn’t criticising you I was just asking you a question”
Trusting your intuition
Yes your spidey senses may well be right. Maybe they were judging or criticising or doubting and that is driving their question. But believing this impacts you. If you assume that everyone wants to feel safe and that everyone is doing the best they can then things change.
Yes they may be judging. Their system might have heard something you said as a threat to them and maybe they did say it fast or with a little gusto or aggression which left you feeling unsafe.
But magic happens when you can reset the parameters and start to experience questions and statements and even labels we give ourselves and others as simply that. Not criticism but another perspective. From their map of the world; from their experience we are a control freak; too sensitive or shy. From their map of the world and their experience they were ‘just asking a question’ When we can listen to understand not criticise or correct our own experience changes.
When you are more curious and you change your focus you change what your brain focuses on and how it files information. That changes the response you and others have.
The book Manage your critic goes onto take you through 6 more steps until you have clarity of what you want, why you want it and you are telling a story that is strength and solution focused. In the process you will change the story you tell and when you change the story you tell everything changes. Yes you being super nice after being super critical will be a change and might be challenged. It is an interruption in a pattern that was not nice but at least it was predictable so be patient and over time celebrate the small changes.
I would love for you to share your experience of being criticised and what happens when you criticse someone else. What works about it? What doesn’t? Even though many, and I include myself, know that criticism is a form of abuse we still do it to others and ourselves.
I am on a mission to change the way the world listens so that less people feel threatened and need to use criticism to feel safe.
Then we can all do more of what you love and ditch the critic that says we can’t.
When you master your critic not just manage it. You can expect to live a life of joy where you see the good and the learning in every situation much faster. Don’t get me wrong; people die and good things come to an end and we will feel sad and loss; but we don’t need to criticise ourselves or others to manage ourselves through the process.
We don’t need to evoke feelings of guilt or regret.
We can learn from it and when we know better we can do better.
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Founder of Step by Step Listening, Sheryl Andrews has always been keen to create space where other people felt safe to speak their truth no matter what that was. She is well known for her ability to motivate, manage and mentor others through change and loves nothing more than helping others feel heard understood and of value by training them in the art of non-judgmental listening and practical ways to turn overwhelm and frustration into a clarity and confidence.
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