Every one of us has a tender underbelly of our psyche. Everyone has something they’re sensitive about, where even a gentle poke can feel more like a thwack. Comments don’t slide off like water from a duck’s back; rather, we feel more like a sitting duck.
But criticism is an inevitable part of life, and hearing reasonable negative feedback without overreacting is a life skill. If we can hear fair criticism of our actions without taking it personally, not only do we escape feeling hurt or shamed, we also keep criticism from escalating. By contrast, if we think, “You hurt my feelings so I’ll hurt you back,” we create more conflict and pain all around.
So how can we take things less personally, both to benefit ourselves and others? How can we toughen up without becoming hard-hearted?
Let’s start with two tips about how to re-interpret the critic, whether it’s your boss, your mother-in-law, your nosy neighbor, or someone you love and trust. In fact, that’s the crux of the matter.
1. Consider the source.
Would you be as likely to drink water from a mountain spring as from a puddle under a dumpster? Of course not. But why? Aside from the fact that you are smart, it’s because the source matters.
The same thing goes for criticism. Does the critique come from someone you like and respect? Does this person know you well? Or is this someone known to shoot off their mouth, have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or has never had an authentic interaction with you?
In short, you’d take criticism very differently if it was presented with care from someone you trust versus shouted from a moving car. Consider the source, which will help you decide whether to take their feedback to heart or with a big grain of salt.
2. Give critics another chance, but not unlimited chances.
People say mean things. People can be dumb. People have no filter. It’s only human to make a mistake and say something critical or insulting, but if it happens again and again, it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a pattern.
To paraphrase, critique me once, that’s on you. Critique me twice, that’s on me. But if you’re repeatedly insulted without apology or acknowledgment, it’s time to speak up and/or limit contact. Three strikes and you’re not necessarily out, especially if you still have to work with or be related to them, but it’s definitely time to draw some boundaries.
Next up, four tips about how to work on ourselves to take the sting out of criticism. As they say, the only person you can change is you.
3. Heed the double-edged sword of “They shouldn’t say that!”
Individuals hypersensitive to criticism often have high moral standards. They have a strict moral code and their values run deep. And that’s a good thing. But this is one of the few places where strong values can have a downside. “How dare they say that!” “That’s wrong!” “She can’t say that!” “That’s not how things should be.” All those things may be true, but whatever statement hurt you was still uttered.
The fact that the critic “shouldn’t” or “can’t” is moot. Pretend a dog just deposited a steaming bundle right next to your “please pick up after your pet” sign. It shouldn’t have happened, but you have to deal with it nonetheless.
Getting unfair or undue criticism is similar. Even if it “shouldn’t” be there, you still have to deal with it. Feeling annoyed and offended may be warranted, but it’s not helpful. Remember that even if you walk the line and follow the rules, you can’t control whether others break them. In short, focus your attention on the content of the criticism, not whether or not it should have happened.
4. Question your own perfectionism.
There is a straight line between hypersensitivity and perfectionism. Individuals who take things personally often work really hard to be blameless, flawless, or excellent precisely so no one will criticize them. When they get negative feedback, it feels like it blows away all they’ve worked so hard for.
If this sounds familiar, you can reframe this in a few ways. One is to incorporate getting better at hearing criticism into your perfectionism. Get better at receiving feedback. Aim higher when it comes to dealing with commentary. Be an overachiever when it comes to facing the haters.
Another, more challenging way, is to change your perfectionism. Dare to accept your cracks and warts. Slowly realizing that you are enough just as you are takes time and work, but simply acknowledging your buttons can be a powerful first step. If you were bullied in the past, you may be hypersensitive to comments that remind you of being thrown against your middle school locker. If you were pigeonholed by your parents as being the dumb one, the crazy one, or the problem child, you may have worked your butt off to prove that you’re anything but.
Any critique that brings forth old hurts cuts extra deep, but just being aware that something is a hot button issue for you is the first step to owning it, and eventually healing it.
5. “I should’ve said…!” Be honest with yourself when recreating scenes in your head.
We’ve all experienced getting bullied or criticized and then, hours later, coming up with a good zinger we wish we had said in the moment. We replay the scene in our head, spinning out what we wanted to have happened instead of what actually went down.
But replaying scenes in your head is a two-sided coin. In some cases, it can be extremely helpful. If you replay the scene and imagine getting what you needed in the moment—feeling empowered, soothed, or safe, it can be an extremely worthwhile daydream. In fact, when done with a qualified therapist, this is called imagery rescripting, and is a cutting-edge tool in treating trauma survivors.
In fact, a study out of Louisiana State University found a link between how frequently people re-imagined interactions and covert narcissism, the version of narcissism associated with low self-esteem rather than I-am-the-greatest grandiosity. Covert narcissism is the unenviable mix of being vulnerable and self-absorbed at the same time.
The researchers found that frequently imagining scenes that were discrepant with reality—fantasizing about humiliating the ex you never see anymore, or imagining dressing down your boss and staging a power grab—was tied to covert narcissism. Turns out covert narcissists envision conflict more often than non-narcissists and, in addition, imagine themselves dominating the interaction and controlling the relationship.
So be aware when you replay those scenes in your head. If you’re doing it to soothe and empower yourself, carry on. But if you’re doing it to dominate your imagined enemy, consider trying out a healthier coping strategy instead.
6. Toe the line between taking things personally and being personally invested.
To wrap things up, we’ll do something surprising: we’ll defend taking things personally. Now, “taking things personally” usually brings to mind images of silent fuming or screaming into our pillow, but there’s something to be said for taking things to heart.
The opposite of taking things personally is to depersonalize them. And when you depersonalize an action or a role, it quickly loses its value. Taking your job personally means being invested, while depersonalizing it means showing up only for a paycheck. Taking a passion personally means being engaged, while detaching guarantees lackluster results at best.
To take things even further, with your fellow humans, taking things personally means engaging with others at your best. Not taking things personally, at worst, leads to dehumanization and moral disengagement—convincing yourself that ethical standards and other people don’t matter.
So, oddly, let things get to you. Take them personally, in the best possible way. Find a happy medium between being hypersensitive and caring deeply. All in all, take your work and relationships extremely personally. After all, this messy, imperfect, glorious life of yours belongs to you.