Everyone has had their feelings hurt at one time or another by the criticism of others. Whether criticism is patently false or has the ring of truth, and whether it is intended to be hurtful or helpful, it can sting. Still, healthy adults, even if stung, have the ability to consider the criticism of others, integrate what may be true or helpful, and recover from the hurt feelings that are sometimes unavoidable. Extreme defensiveness, anxiety, depression, anger, shame, or other intensely negative emotions and experiences may indicate that a person is too sensitive to criticism.
Sensitivity to criticism may stem from childhood experiences, for example being subject to constant harsh criticism or to confusing mixed messages from parents and caretakers, or having great difficulty getting along with peers, missing out on experiences that would foster a sense of confidence and competence, or not receiving positive reinforcement for our accomplishments. A parent with unrealistically high expectations or, on the other hand, a parent who protects a child from any disappointments or criticism may result in children who are sensitive to criticism.
Ironically, people who are sensitive to criticism may themselves be highly critical of themselves and of others. Sometimes this stems from perfectionism, which is sometimes associated with Obsessive Compulsive personalities and various anxiety disorders. Sensitivity to criticism may also be linked to depression, and to narcissistic personality disorder. However, sensitivity to criticism is much more common than these conditions and does not necessarily indicate the presence of a disorder.
Therapists can help people develop more useful, healthy responses to criticism, which would include a willingness to consider the validity of others’ criticisms without being overwhelmed or ashamed by our own mistakes and errors.
Lori, 29, is anxious and depressed. She reports feeling that no one likes or appreciates her. She constantly feels she has let others down, and has a sense of being persecuted by family and close friends. Therapy reveals a deep fear of failure and of death, with which Lori copes by attempting to be free of any mistakes or weaknesses – a sort of perfectionism that Lori is intellectually able to recognize as impossible to achieve, but from which she is not immediately able to free herself. Therapy helps Lori accept her own imperfections and those of others, and focus on bringing her strengths to bear on solvable problems that confront her. Therapy also helps Lori examine the criticisms she hears most often and determine whether or not they are legitimate. In the case of legitimate critiques, Lori becomes more willing to admit to her own mistakes and work on personal growth. In the case of criticisms that truly have little or no merit, Lori becomes more firm in herself and able to ignore unhelpful, inaccurate feedback.
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Last updated: 09-10-2014