Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person handling constructive criticism

How to Handle Constructive Criticism Even When It Hurts

HSPs may be more sensitive to constructive criticism, because they feel things more deeply than others.

Constructive criticism can be difficult to handle for anybody, but especially for highly sensitive people (HSPs), who feel things more deeply than others and tend to be perfectionists. Although the feedback is constructive in nature, the “criticism” part is what lands hardest for the HSP and brings up those feelings of not being good enough, anxiety, and sadness that HSPs are prone to experience. As constructive criticism is a part of life, it’s important for the highly sensitive souls to find ways to cope with receiving this type of feedback.

As a therapist, I know how important the delivery of the message is for the receiver — it is a skill. This isn’t often thought about, but, many times, those who are delivering constructive criticism also have anxiety about communicating it, which is important for the HSP (and anyone, really) to keep in mind. 

So what, exactly, is constructive criticism? Let’s take a look at this from a work standpoint, as this is most commonly where constructive criticism is implemented. One definition from Indeed.com, which is a site focused on work and career, states:

“Constructive criticism is a helpful way of giving feedback that provides specific, actionable suggestions. Rather than providing general advice, constructive criticism gives specific recommendations on how to make positive improvements. Constructive criticism is clear, to the point, and easy to put into action.”  

How to Differentiate ‘Helpful’ Criticism From Non-Helpful Criticism

You may be wondering: How do you know if your boss is being helpful or straight-out critical? Let’s bring this back to relationships for a moment, as the relationship with your boss is still a type of relationship.

In relationships, you may have heard of the concept of starting a sentence with “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. It’s best to stay away from “you” statements in relationship conversations, as this tends to put the receiver on the defensive, as it may be accompanied by all-or-never statements such as, “You always…” or “You never….” 

You may agree, when someone starts off communicating something in this way, it usually feels pretty awful to receive, as though you automatically move into needing to defend yourself (since it feels critical). But if there is a gentleness with the approach — or the statement is sandwiched between positive statements (known as the sandwich approach) — it feels safer to trust the person providing the feedback and feel that they have your best interests at heart.  

Let’s use a work example here to illustrate this point. Let’s say your boss says to you, “You never get your reports done on time. What’s going on with you?” This is likely going to depend on the tone that’s used as to whether you experience it as concern or an attack. But I feel most people will feel their defenses rise with this type of communication.

If we look at another example, however, such as, “I’m really happy with the training you’re providing to Joe — you’re doing such a great job! But I’ve noticed you struggle to get your reports done on time. Let’s talk about some strategies that may help you with this.” This is going to feel more constructive than the prior example, although an HSP may focus on the “you struggle to get your reports done on time” part. Do you see the difference between these examples?

As constructive criticism is a part of life, it’s important to identify ways to handle this type of feedback without getting too much in your head. Let’s take a look at some strategies to help with this. And keep in mind that this is focused on constructive criticism, not someone who is being outwardly mean and overly critical.

5 Ways HSPs Can Handle Constructive Criticism 

1. Remember, constructive criticism is meant to be helpful.  

Usually, constructive criticism is a type of feedback that is meant to help you grow. Sometimes growth messages can feel challenging, which is why it isn’t always easy to take in, especially for highly sensitive people. As HSPs themselves never want to communicate anything that may even have the slightest potential of being perceived as hurting another person’s feelings, the times you may find yourself in a position where you need to provide direct or constructive feedback may feel like you are being harsh. In actuality, though, you are likely just being more direct or assertive. This can subconsciously be the meaning you assign to constructive feedback — that it is harsh — and why being on the receiving end of constructive criticism can feel harsh or hurtful, even when the intention is to be helpful. Which takes us to point #2…

2. Look for the positive(s) in the message. 

It can be all too easy to focus on the pieces of the message that say, “Hey, here’s an area you can improve on.” But no matter how nicely the message has been delivered, an HSP will probably look at this from the stance of “I’m doing something wrong” or “I’ve disappointed them.” Yet thinking in these ways will make you miss the gift(s) in the message. For example, your boss may say, “I love what you listed in your proposal, but I feel if you restructure these points, it will give it more of a flow.” An HSP may zone in on “but I feel if you restructure these points” rather than seeing the comment as their boss being happy with their work and simply suggesting to tweak what they have to make it “even better.”

3. Instead of reacting immediately, breathe.

When those not-so-great feelings kick in after receiving constructive criticism, you may notice anxiety arising within you, which is an emotion that is all too familiar to HSPs. In these cases, it’s important to take some deep breaths. This is going to help ground you and calm your activated nervous system, which is already extra sensitive to external stimuli. You can also practice grounding techniques, such as feeling your feet planted to the ground or feeling your hands touching the arms of the seat you are in. Meditation and yoga can help, too. And, most importantly, breathe.

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4. Use your intuition to feel into the meaning behind the message. 

HSPs are quite intuitive beings and connected to their emotions — and you can use this to your benefit! Once you have focused on breathing, soothing your fight-or-flight response, and silencing your mind, you are then able to hear your intuitive messages. You can ask yourself, “What is the intent behind this constructive criticism?” Quiet your mind and listen to the response of your inner self rather than your anxiety’s stance on it. Was the feedback meant to be harsh or hurtful? Or was it meant to help you? A key trick to identifying the difference is if it feels peaceful and if you notice a sense of expansiveness in your heart. That is your intuition speaking. If it feels bad and constrictive, like you feel something is closing in around you, that is your anxiety speaking. This helps to distinguish between criticism and constructive criticism. See what your intuition and emotions tell you here.

5. Be aware of any cognitive distortions that pop up.  

After you receive constructive criticism, it’s important to be aware of any cognitive distortions that come up. These include overgeneralizing, all-or-nothing thinking, and mindreading. If you are overgeneralizing, you might think, “I can never do anything right; I’m always disappointing people.” If you are engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, you may find yourself thinking in extremes or worst case scenarios. For example, you may think, “My boss sees that my work just isn’t good enough. I’m probably going to get fired. You know what, maybe I should save myself the embarrassment and quit first.” And mindreading is when you assume you know what another person is thinking. This may be thinking something like, “My boss sees me as incompentent.” 

If any of these thoughts pop up, it’s important to evaluate them to see if there is truth to them… or if they are really just your anxiety speaking. First, return to point #3 above to breathe and engage in self-soothing strategies. Then, take a critical look at these thoughts to get clear for yourself. You are only able to get clear once you quiet your mind and relax your activated nervous system, so it’s important to take that step.

Keep in Mind That Constructive Criticism Is Usually Meant to Help You, Not to Hurt You

Hopefully, you can see that constructive criticism isn’t anything to fear, though your anxiety may tell you otherwise. It really is something to help you grow and provide support to help you accentuate your skills. If you are able to reframe this to see it in that light, doesn’t that feel better?

HSPs, how do you handle constructive criticism? Feel free to share in the comments below! 

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