A Therapist Teaches You How To Overcome Your Sensitivity To Criticism
Understanding why negative criticism gets you down can help thicken your skin.
By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | November 17, 2022
Many people beat themselves up over their inability to take criticism constructively, diving headfirst into a negative thought spiral. They may be haunted by questions like:
- "Why can't I use the time I wasted brooding over my mistake to fix it instead?"
- "Why do the smallest criticisms take me into the biggest thought spirals?"
- "Why is the shame I feel after receiving negative feedback always disproportionate to the feedback itself?"
However, it can be helpful to understand the biological roots of our hyper-fixation on negative feedback (or negative experiences). Feeling guilt or shame, or just plain being bummed out after being criticized, is our mind's way of trying to make sense of a complicated experience that it wants to avoid in the future.
Here are two reasons why you may feel you are thin-skinned, and what you can do to reframe your perspective.
#1. Know about the negativity bias
Have you ever felt like someone could compliment you nine times, but you would only care when they criticize you on the 10th instance? This tendency is referred to as the negativity bias.
The negativity bias is at play when we react more readily to negative stimuli, recall negative memories more clearly, and focus more on the negative aspects of an experience. It is our biological and genetic compulsion to magnify and dwell on the negatives.
This isn't just true for the ones receiving the feedback. People are also giving in to negativity bias when they use sharper words or indulge in hyperbole while expressing dissatisfaction because they know that negative feedback is more effective and yields faster results.
Let's illustrate this with an example. Let's say your supervisor asked you for a report on short notice and when you turned it in, they asked you to redo a few things and said that, on the whole, it "could have been better."
If you identify as thin-skinned, this response could do quite a bit of damage and end the interaction right there. But, when examined closely, the feedback could mean a whole host of things, like:
- When compared to the quality of your previous work, this report does not seem as impressive.
- The information was there, but it did not come through as clearly as they expected.
- There weren't any glaring mistakes, but it wasn't anything special either.
It is also possible that your expectation for a pat on the back was higher since you worked extra hours to meet the tight deadline. Or, it could even have been a neutral comment but your negativity bias convinced you otherwise.
Keeping this example in mind, here are three ways you can deal with unfavorable feedback:
- Get clarity. Ask questions, get written feedback, or just ask someone for more details on how you can do better. Getting specific about what prompted the negative feedback will help you not feel powerless in the face of it. It will also feel less permanent.
- Focus on the positives. When we evaluate feedback as negative, chances are we are only considering a part of it. Instead of reacting to the feedback at face value, take a beat to consider what it's really asking for.
- Practice mindfulness. A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science explains that mindfulness – the mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings – can not only help us see the negatives and positives equally, it can also help us view the negatives in an optimistic light.
#2. Don't let fear hold you back from taking risks
The need for acceptance can make us bend backwards to avoid negative evaluation. The fear of negative evaluation is essentially a social instinct. If we are at the receiving end of disapproval from our peers or fall short of our elders' expectations, the negative feedback can be brutal.
A fear of being evaluated as less or worse than what we are can affect our self-esteem. This can, unfortunately, ensure that negative feedback will always sting us a bit more because it threatens an already weakened ego. According to research, it can create in us a crippling need for social validation, which we might seek by using social media platforms (not a good coping strategy).
The fear of being excluded or ostracized, or being seen as different, can make negative feedback seem like an eviction notice – a sign that you're not wanted or that you don't belong. Criticism shakes the foundation of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs – safety and acceptance.
Here are two things you can do to ease the grip of this need on your life:
- Spend more time alone to understand the things you value. Enjoying your own company and working on yourself can make sure that you won't overvalue other people's opinions about you.
- Learn the art of gentle confrontation for a two-fold benefit on your social life. First, the negative feedback will get clearer and more actionable for you. Second, the people who trash on you for no real reason will either change or leave.
There is no way to avoid negative feedback; it is inevitable and important for your growth. But it is possible to do away with the unnecessary damage you endure because you are too sensitive to it. Taking something that affects you negatively and turning it into a rallying cry is a true sign of power.