Why Highly Sensitive People Sometimes React So Strongly to Criticism

A highly sensitive person struggles with criticism.

“I thought that therapists just shrug things off. Why would you care what some stranger said to you?”

Years ago, this was said to me on an online forum during what I thought was a healthy debate. An anonymous poster (who wasn’t a therapist) had chimed in on how my sensitive nature was “out of character” for how a therapist should act. I got frustrated, thinking, “Therapists are human too. We’re not always on duty.”

Being a therapist doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the same reactions that many other highly sensitive people experience — especially when it comes to receiving criticism. It would be nice to just “shrug things off,” but for many HSPs, that’s just not an option. Our biological wiring makes us process all stimuli deeply, including other people’s words.

And our emotional reactions — including the overload we feel when someone criticizes us — aren’t just a light switch that we can turn off.

Why Highly Sensitive People React So Strongly to Criticism

For highly sensitive people, those reactions are wired deeply into our brains. When we receive negative feedback, we root into our “emotional brain,” which bypasses our “thinking brain.” The “emotional brain” (also known as the limbic system) is where our databank of triggers and past emotional memories are stored. This happens to everyone (not just HSPs) but, according to Julie Bjelland, a therapist who specializes in HSPs, the limbic system is activated more among HSPs than non-HSPs.

That means that a non-HSP may be able to use their thinking brain (neocortex, the part that handles logic) to not take criticism personally in the moment. But for us sensitive people, even when we logically know that criticism is invalid, we still need to process the emotions that arise. These are often past as well as present emotions; criticism can bring up all the painful comments that have been made to us in the past — and the shame that came with them.

So it’s no surprise that highly sensitive people will go above and beyond to avoid being criticized. And this can feed into our people-pleasing tendencies. Knowing that you exceed the expectations of people in your life can help you feel like you’re “good enough.”

I’ve had sensitive clients tell me, “If everybody around me is happy with what I’m doing, they won’t criticize me. Being criticized makes me feel like I am not good enough.” The reality is that everybody gets criticized from time to time — and no amount of over-achieving will make you “good enough” for everyone.

For sensitive people, coming to terms with that (and spending days or weeks analyzing a critical comment), can be completely exhausting.

How HSPs Can Take Criticism Less Personally

Criticism is inevitable. I won’t tell you to build a thicker skin (who hasn’t heard enough of that?). Here are five tips that have really helped me, whether the criticism happened face-to-face or online. If you’re highly sensitive, I believe they might help you, too.

1. Remember that the comment is often not about you.

You might wonder, “Did I word things wrong? Did I say something that was offensive? Why did this person lash out at me like that?” Or online, even, “Maybe I should delete my post.”

But that’s probably not necessary. When someone hears what you said or reads what you wrote, they’re interpreting your words through their own personal lens. Sometimes your experiences and their experiences clash. You didn’t say anything wrong — they just can’t relate.

This is even more important online. Because you can’t see a person’s body language or hear their tone of voice, online commenters can easily misunderstand each other’s intent. Someone’s criticism may not be about what you did or didn’t do at all.

2. There’s no rule that says you have to react.

As a highly sensitive person, you’ve probably been told to stand up for yourself more. But sometimes, fighting back may actually make you feel worse about yourself — and make the situation even more tense.

When someone provokes you and makes you boil over with anger, they might see it as an opportunity to bait you even more. Choosing not to respond to a personal critique sends the message that you aren’t going to waste your energy on that person’s words.

Yes, some people actually want to see you get upset. They may even accuse you of being the troll or bully! Don’t give these people what they’re looking for.

3. Decide if you agree or disagree with the criticism.

If you tend to empathize with other people’s perspectives, it might be tempting to take in someone’s opinion as your own. You may have even agreed and nodded with someone just to be polite. Conventional wisdom says to see the grain of truth in criticism, but you get to form your own opinion on what someone says.

It’s okay to set boundaries and disagree with any comments that you receive. Unless it’s a trusted confidant and you asked for their opinion, the person judging you is probably not the most reliable source for pointing out your flaws.

In my opening example about the online forum, the poster later admitted to being out of touch with how therapists really are in their personal lives. Anyone who works in the mental health field knows that therapists can be as emotional as anyone else.

If you think there’s truth to someone’s criticism, take what you can learn and realize that it’s not a reflection of your self-worth. Even very talented people have something they can improve on — and that’s okay.

4. Focus on the positive feedback.

Don’t ignore the positive feedback that you’ve received! Since criticism pushes us into an emotional state, it’s easier to ruminate more on those few negative comments. Make sure you take a look at the entire picture and take into account those who enjoyed what you shared, or times when someone complimented you. One or two critical comments don’t mean that everybody in the world feels the same way.

5. Find out which communities work best for your sensitive nature.

This is true both online and off. When it comes to the digital world, I could tell you to quit the internet and focus on your offline life, but that’s not realistic for most people. If you feel like your energy is sinking low because of online conflict, it may be time to decide if a site is really in your best interest. Places like Reddit and Facebook can be confrontational, and they often leave me feeling flustered. Don’t feel guilty about walking away from an online community that isn’t fulfilling for you.

In the physical world, it can be harder — but it’s still possible to seek out communities or circles of friends that make you feel good. If someone (or some group) in your life repeatedly makes you feel bad about yourself, it may be time to take a break from them and set some personal boundaries.

Criticism will always sting. But it is possible to change the way you perceive it, and understand that it’s not always about you. And that can bring a lot of peace to a sensitive soul.

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