Highly sensitive people react strongly to criticism. So how do you handle the person who criticizes everything?
“Why can’t I get one thing right at work?”
“Am I the weak link in the office?”
“Should I quit?”
Questions similar to the three listed above are likely to come to mind when highly sensitive people (HSPs) find themselves under the supervision of employers who are prone to undue criticism. Even though you do so many things right, they only focus on what you do “wrong.”
The average HSP would say that working in such an environment is torturous.
This is no exaggeration. Research has found that physical evidence related to an HSP’s body chemistry suggests that most react more strongly than the average person to any sort of negative stimuli in their environment. This can apply to challenging bosses in work situations, as well as with hyper-critical people in other facets of your life.
Why Is Criticism So Hard for HSPs?
In general, sensitive people react more strongly to environmental stimuli than others — as well as to others’ feelings and emotions, absorbing them as though they are their own. HSPs are also great at reading body language, picking up on what is unsaid, too.
Robert Taibbi, a licensed clinical social worker, states that anyone prone to showering others with judgmental comments and disparaging remarks may do so as a result of excessive criticism they were on the receiving end of as a child. Such a person might also struggle with anxiety that triggers a need to control the situations and people around them, insisting that everyone do things their way and coming down harshly on anyone who doesn’t appear to comply.
In either situation, the harsh critic is unlikely to change overnight and lighten up.
While it’s healthy, and best, to omit a hyper-critical person from your life, sometimes you can’t (yet). Maybe we can’t afford to leave our jobs with the toxic boss (until we replace it) or need to live with our hyper-critical roommate just a little bit longer until we can get out of our lease.
So, how can an HSP who needs to leave a toxic situation — but can’t just yet — effectively navigate an environment that exposes them to an overabundance of criticism?
The three suggestions below, borrowed from both personal experience and research, aim to help HSPs do more than simply survive a hellish situation with a hyper-critical (and/or high-conflict) person, but find a way to flourish.
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3 Ways to Deal With That Hyper-Critical Person In Your Life
1. Choose your wellbeing over theirs.
The people we love, and choose to be loved by, become the focal points in our lives. We share unforgettable moments with them, and memories of these interactions last a lifetime. Over the years, we draw from such recollections to feed our self-esteem, endurance, and even our ability to help others. That’s what matters in life: Building memories with loved ones.
On the other hand, a hyper-critical person (a boss, friend, aunt, and so on) who treats us poorly — due to their struggle with underlying trauma or anxiety — is not who (or what) matters most in life.
At work, perhaps you tell your boss you’re not feeling well and need to head home early. But they insist on you “sticking it out” and working anyway, making you feel bad for even asking in the first place. (Maybe they even say something like, “What, you can’t handle it? I work when I’m sick.”)
So you do it — but end up feeling worse later on. Next time, you tell yourself you’ll put you and your needs first, not your boss’ (which may be easier said than done, as HSPs tend to be people-pleasers), but you know you could feel better faster by going home to rest.
I’ve found that, if anything, what’s important in such a situation is how I choose to view and treat the person who is behaving poorly. Am I able to distance myself from their angry words and behavior, and see them for who they truly are? If I can, which isn’t always easy, I’m able to view them with clear vision and realize they’re in pain.
As an HSP, seeing someone in pain evokes empathy, and empathy turns anger into understanding.
So, when I’m not caught in the web of my own emotions, I’m able to speak with sincere empathy, as I let the overly critical person know that I expect them to address me with the same level of respect I have for them.
Admittedly, I’m not always successful in viewing unduly critical individuals with such clarity. But I find that when I spend plenty of my free time with non-critical loved ones and friends, and focus more on my relationships with them, an overly critical person becomes nothing more than a minor irritation.
Essentially, choosing to create a rich and meaningful life outside of the toxic person (or people) seems to be key. (Sadly, highly sensitive people often fall for toxic relationships, which is a good thing to keep in mind.)
2. Breathe, and then take a moment to recalibrate.
One technique HSPs can use when dealing with hurtful criticism is pausing to take a second to breathe and wrap your head around how you’d like to respond to what’s been said.
After all, there’s no shame in slowing down to process what just happened. This can be incredibly helpful to an HSP who’s just sustained a crushing blow to their self-esteem and requires a moment alone to recenter their thoughts and emotions.
Stepping away and “doing nothing” can help us decide if there are any aspects of the criticism that might have been delivered with good intention. (I know, this may be difficult — plus, there is a difference between constructive feedback and constructive criticism.)
And perhaps it can allow us to accept the fact that we were verbally abused by the person (whether it’s our boss, a colleague, a fellow parent at our children’s school, you name it), which is wrong and needs to be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible.
In any case, politely stepping away can help us to stay calm and in control of the interaction.
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3. Take a firm stance against bullying and abuse.
If you recognize that someone’s criticism has crossed a line, especially if they are in a position of power over you, such as your boss, let them know you have zero tolerance for bullying or abuse. I know this may be difficult, and you may feel intimidated, but if you let it continue, it won’t be good for your mental health. It can lead to feelings of rejection and isolation, low self-esteem, and even anxiety and depression. Plus, it will allow the bully to keep getting away with it, and perhaps bully others, too.
But how do you know when someone is bullying you, whether they’re your supervisor or a fellow PTA mom? Some signs include an imbalance of power and repetition.
For an HSP, the process of figuring out whether or not we’re actually being bullied is stressful in and of itself. And then the thought of taking action to speak up about what we’re experiencing may be downright terrifying.
This is where having someone to confide in can help. We might consider talking things out with a trusted friend, a supervisor (if the bullying is happening at work), as well as seeing a therapist. This can help us sort through, and validate, our feelings. It can also help us come up with an action plan to confront the bully and/or extract ourselves from the situation.
Moving Past Criticism and Reclaiming Your Peace as an HSP
Dealing with an overly critical person can chip away at the day-to-day joy we HSPs can otherwise experience. Even though it will take time, there are ways we can reclaim our peace by making an effort to enrich our lives with the people, places, and experiences that foster good feelings, like love and growth.
When we do this, we gain perspective and the drama that unfolds with the hyper-critical person becomes far less important. We can also take practical steps to nip the emotionally abusive behavior in the bud by taking a moment to collect ourselves when it happens, then addressing it with the proper workplace officials.
My fellow HSPs, I’d love to know how you deal with hyper-critical people. Feel free to comment below!
You might like:
- Why Highly Sensitive People Sometimes React So Strongly to Criticism
- HSPs, Do You Have a High Conflict Person in Your Life?
- Why Highly Sensitive People Keep Falling for Toxic Relationships — And How to Stop
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