Hearing criticism is a challenge for most of us, but for the highly sensitive person (HSP), it can be especially distressing and downright devastating. HSPs tend to have more intense reactions to criticism than their non-sensitive counterparts, and as a result will often employ certain tactics to avoid criticism, such as people-pleasing, criticizing themselves first (before the other person has a chance to), and avoiding the source of the criticism altogether.
Criticism can cut deep, but it doesn’t have to be crippling. If you are a highly sensitive person and struggle with criticism, here are some strategies that are aimed to help you move and grow through these experiences more gracefully.
Determine if the criticism is constructive or destructive.
The difference between constructive and destructive criticism is the way in which the comments are delivered. Constructive criticism points out faults and includes advice or suggestions on how they can be corrected (“Always check your blind spot before changing lanes.”), whereas destructive criticism seeks to tear down or directly attack the person and does not include practical advice for improvement (“You’re doing it all wrong.”).
Don’t respond immediately.
Our first instinct when faced with criticism is to get defensive. Even when intended to be helpful, criticism can feel like rejection—which triggers our natural “flight or fight” response. But when we fire back immediately from a place of intense emotion, we often say things we regret later. As best you can, resist the urge to respond right away. Take a step back from the situation and think about how you’re going to process it. Wait until you’re in a calmer, clearer space before you say anything.
Avoid black-and-white thinking.
Many HSPs struggle with black-and-white thinking—meaning that they see themselves as a huge success one moment and a complete failure the next, based on their most recent accomplishment or failure. This type of thinking prevents people from seeing themselves as a cohesive, realistic whole—comprised of BOTH positive and negative traits. Stay present and give your thoughts a reality check. Once you’ve identified an extreme thought, ask yourself, “Where is the evidence that I’m the worst employee on the entire planet?”
It can be easy to misinterpret even the slightest bit of negative criticism. Ask follow up questions to make sure you fully understand what is being said to you. This is especially important if the criticism received isn’t particular clear. One way to determine if you’re interpreting feedback correctly is to paraphrase the message you’ve heard and communicate it back to the other person, asking: “Am I understanding this correctly?”
Look for the nugget of truth.
It is said that there is a kernel of truth in every criticism. At the very least, a person’s criticism carries the truth of how that one person sees you. Allowing yourself to be open-minded to what you hear doesn’t mean you have to believe it or act upon it, but if you can find something to grow from, then by all means do it! Other people in our lives often act as mirrors to reflect back to us the things we cannot see for ourselves. Find a way to use this as a learning experience to improve yourself.
Separate feelings from facts.
Don’t believe everything you feel! Feelings are not facts; feelings are feelings. They do not always objectively represent what is taking place around you. When HSPs hear criticism, it often triggers deep feelings of shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger, inadequacy, hopelessness, etc.—making it difficult for them to perceive the whole picture, instead narrowing in on those aspects of the situation that are most upsetting. Ask yourself if your feelings are based on present reality, on past experiences, or on fears you have about the future.
Do something nice for yourself.
Being open to criticism can be wounding for the highly sensitive person, and it’s not uncommon for their egos to feel bruised following a critique session. It’s important for HSPs to engage in good self-care following these experiences and do what they can to self-soothe/comfort themselves with something pleasurable—a funny movie, a long bubble bath, a good book, your favorite treat. Being warm and kind to yourself when the going gets rough will make a big difference in helping you achieve more balance and greater peace of mind.
Click here for more information on Highly Sensitive Person Counseling.