How do I stop taking critical comments so personally — and without having an anxiety attack?
Dear Alane, I am particularly sensitive to criticism and tend to remember negative comments or experiences — no matter how tiny — for years, sometimes decades. This seems to happen even when I try not to dwell on them. I’d be grateful for your advice on how to navigate this and any tips for HSPs like me looking to short-circuit their brain’s negative bias once in a while! —Happy HSP (usually!)
Dear Usually Happy HSP,
I have also suffered this extreme sensitivity to criticism my entire life, and it turns out highly sensitive people are often the most critical critics of all. We sensitive people notice so much, process so deeply about it, and have such strong emotional reactions, that we tend to tell people what we see, think, and feel. We just know how things could be better, right? But coming back at us, that criticism feels way too harsh.
It is the human condition to have a negativity bias — a tendency to have a stronger psychological response to negative events than positive ones, resulting in stronger emotions, a greater impact on our behavior, and even remembering negative events more than positive ones. As unpleasant as that sounds, though, it’s actually a strength. A negativity bias helps us see the truth and discover what needs to happen to make things better.
The negativity bias has served humans throughout evolution, and in some ways our sensitivity itself developed around it. Clans or families with highly sensitive members would be more likely to a) notice a threat, b) think carefully about it, c) have an emotional reaction to it, and therefore d) alert the community so they could take careful and appropriate action.
In other words: Negativity bias is our birthright, and sometimes even a gift.
Now you might be saying, “Alane, how does that have anything to do with sensitivity to criticism?” It does, my friends, because criticism hits us right in our negativity bias. We perceive criticism as a threat and our survival instincts trigger an outsized emotional reaction. The challenge is that these survival instincts do not serve us as adults in a modern society. They can actually harm us as you describe.
It’s not easy to turn off these habits. I often feel pretty frustrated with the habits I’ve had my whole life that no longer serve me — especially my sensitivity to criticism. Recognizing that these quirks have helped me navigate a sometimes hostile world — you know, a world that isn’t designed by or for sensitive people — helps me find a place of gratitude for them, and serves as a foundation for reining them in.
The good news is, it is possible to tame your sensitivity to criticism. It takes an effort, but it’s something all highly sensitive people (HSPs) are capable of doing. Read on for the four steps that make the biggest difference in dealing with criticism.
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How to Handle Receiving Criticism
Here are four steps I recommend to help tame your sensitivity to criticism (and your negativity bias in general).
Step 1: ‘Embrace and Release’ Your Reaction
In fishing, not all fish are meant to be taken home and sometimes you have to “catch and release.” With emotions and habits, you have to go a little further — you have to embrace and release.
How? Take that negativity bias, that sensitivity to criticism, that tendency to feel badly about yourself, that shame, each and every survival skill you developed, and THANK IT. To me it boils down to thanking my brain. You can do that by writing a letter, speaking out loud, or saying the words silently in your head. Here is a short note you can adapt to show gratitude for your own life and brain:
Dear Brain (Dear Shame, Sensitivity, Negativity Bias, Low Self-esteem),
Thank you so much for kicking in when I was young. You gave me a way to go with the flow. You helped me adapt some of my behavior so I was not as ostracized as I could have been. You showed me how to please others so I would have human connections. I could not have survived without you. I’m eternally grateful that you kept me alive and helped me survive. Now that I’m all grown up, I can take over. I love and bless you, and I don’t need you any more. I release you.
Will writing this one note fix your problems? Not on its own. It serves as an anchor for the inner work we HSPs need to do on this. Here are some ways you can do that when you catch your survival instincts harming you more than helping you:
- Welcome each one of your survival skills, such as your sensitivity to criticism, and write a little story about it. Examine in great detail all the times it has been a part of your life, both the good times and the not-so-helpful times.
- Be generous and unpack it all — censor nothing! You can do this in a journal, with a therapist, or with a very trusted friend who is okay with a little “trauma dumping.” This method only works if you really give your young brain all the space it needs to feel heard and understood. In other words, be honest and be vulnerable.
- Once you make your peace with each survival skill, you will be able to release it with love and gratitude. That’s when you’ll notice you don’t get so hurt by criticism.
HSP friends, this works. Psychological theory and research have tested it, and I have too, over and over again in my own life and with my clients. It works because it addresses your wounds and reframes how you think about criticism.
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Step Two: Dig into your sensitivity to criticism — and where it comes from
There are as many ways to be sensitive as there are highly sensitive people. That diversity comes first from everything that makes all humans diverse. But here I would like to talk about two very impactful psychological diversities that we all need to understand and embrace in order to thrive with sensory processing sensitivity, the innate trait that makes us highly sensitive. These two variables are quality of childhood and temperament:
Quality of Childhood
Quality of childhood profoundly impacts HSPs because we are more affected by any environment than other people are. Thus, we are even more likely than the average person to be adversely affected by a difficult childhood. We are even more likely to be healthy and successful in life if we receive a “good enough” childhood. If you had a challenging childhood with adverse childhood experiences (violence, abuse, neglect, instability, or having substance abuse or suicide in the family) and trauma (which can even be neglect or “small” events that feel huge for you), then seeking professional help is not optional. It’s likely that many of your struggles — including sensitivity to criticism, but also other sources of stress — are being fueled in part by your upbringing.
The good news is you do not have to be limited by your childhood. Instead, you can address and change those longstanding patterns. The best way to do so is with skilled, HSP-knowledgeable professionals, such as those at our partner BetterHelp.
Temperament, like high sensitivity, is innate. We are born with a set of temperaments, and they will be with us throughout our lives, according to a widely accepted model of temperament created by psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas. It includes nine temperaments which each occur on a continuum: sensitivity, activity, intensity, persistence/frustration tolerance, adaptability, approach/withdrawal, regularity, mood, and distractibility.
Every human, and every HSP, falls somewhere on a continuum from “more” to “less” of each of these temperaments. A great read if you want to know your own temperament profile is The Temperament Perspective by therapist Jan Kristal, who was mentored by leading HSP researcher Elaine Aron. Kristal teaches us to honor the individual temperaments of children and to also teach, socialize, and train them to manage their more extreme temperaments so they can function in the larger world. (Your own early childhood will play a big role in understanding your temperament because, as you were socialized, you learned to “tuck it in” and moderate your extremes so they are harder to identify as an adult.)
That said, a highly sensitive person with a temperament profile that includes lower frustration tolerance, a more negative mood, and possibly being more withdrawing (like me, as it turns out) will find themselves more impacted by negativity or criticism than those around them. Sometimes just acknowledging, “Yes, I am more sensitive to criticism, and I was born with attributes that help me but also make me that way,” can be very freeing and make it easier to let go when you do face critique.
Step 3: Use the Science
Several functional MRI studies on highly sensitive people’s brains — such as this 2017 study led by neuroscientist Bianca Acevedo — thave demonstrated clearly that our high sensitivity causes us to think more, notice more, and feel more. This means that much less was meant by the criticism than you heard and felt. Your reactions to those comments may be significantly more intense than what was intended.
I have noticed that the things I hear that hurt my feelings are often nearly meaningless to the person who said them. Just have a look at the comments on my Google Talk — so many comments are lovely, and I can see I am really helping HSPs, but of course it was the critical ones that stuck out in my mind, and every one of them hurt my feelings. You’ve probably experienced this yourself on social media.
But if I put my objectivity glasses on, I know that most people — especially those who are not highly sensitive — would shrug off such comments. I also know that people commenting online are not actually thinking about me. I know being a public figure trying to change the world puts me in harm’s way, but ouch. I have to remember that I’m thinking, noticing, and feeling much more than the average bear, and I need to practice detachment.
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Step 4: Use this method to respond to criticism in a healthy way
My dear Usually Happy HSP, I also know some of those criticisms come from people you love, people you have to work with every day, and sometimes people with power over you. Those are the ones that can be the most lethal. The key, from this therapist’s perspective, is to allow yourself to have those hurt feelings, I mean really have them. And then use them. Here’s what I mean:
- Get sad and mad, cry hard and yell loud, write unsent letters and many journal pages about how you feel and maybe even some negative stuff back to the criticizer.
- Next, edit it all into three sentences that you can share with the person who criticized you. Begin with a question: “Do you remember when you said…?” or “Could we find a time to chat about your comment about…? I would like to ask some clarifying questions.”
- Once you get started with your 3 statements, keep the focus on yourself. Tell the criticizer what you heard, and with non-judgemental language, tell them how you were impacted.
This is wild, but when I gather up enough courage to do this process, it usually turns out one of four ways:
- They do not even remember saying it.
- They know they said it but didn’t think it was even criticism. They are amazed that you feel that way and want to walk it back or help you in some way.
- They said it and meant it, but not as harshly as you took it. It is something you need to work on, and they and you can agree to communicate about it more carefully moving forward.
- They were critical and rude, and now you know that you have to have major boundaries with them. It is time to dial back your relationship and interactions and keep them at a surface level so the criticizer can’t sting you again. Since HSPs tend not to love surface level interactions, you will find yourself keeping more distance from them overall and that is for the best!
I struggle to let these people go. I’m convinced that if I just did it differently things would be fine. I find some way to blame myself. It’s our nature to think this way. If you do the steps, carefully monitor your own biases and blindspots, then you will find the truth and your own right action. It’s not easy, but as we release toxicity, we create space for healing and love, both in ourselves (releasing our survival skills) and in our community (releasing the people who can’t be what we need.)
The Opposite of Criticism
One final thought. With all this talk about negativity bias and sensitivity to criticism, we might have forgotten that HSPs are more reactive to positive input, too. We are more reactive than less-sensitive people, for one thing.
BUT, we are also more reactive to the positive than the negative!
If you don’t find this to be true in your own life (many HSPs tell me they feel negative much of the time) it’s because negativity has become a habit for you — probably one you learned from a not-so-great childhood. The four steps above can help change that. A highly sensitive brain fires more neurons and fires them more strongly for positive experiences, especially positive thoughts and feelings. Thus, your last assignment: Find beauty and love in the world and practice noticing and enjoying it. Turn up the corners of your mouth in a small secret smile and feel a little boost of endorphins. It works.
Blessings and breath,
Do you need a day to unplug and focus on yourself? I’m hosting a one-day, online retreat for HSPs. You will experience the deep comfort and acceptance that comes from being in retreat with fellow HSPs, gain a treasure trove of tools and self-discoveries, and go at a restful pace to ensure you leave feeling truly recharged. 20% off for those who register before Dec. 1! Learn more here.
You Might Like:
- Ask Alane: Why Are Relationships So Draining for HSPs?
- Ask Alane: Why Do I Worry So Much and How Can I Stop?
- Why Highly Sensitive People Sometimes React So Strongly to Criticism