The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2007: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Coping Corner :
A Meditation for HSPs on Criticism, the Killer

As a therapist and an HSP, I am often coming up with things that make me say, "Oh, that is really the basic problem we all have (HSPs and non)." I'm writing a book about one of those, the distortions we make about love and power, in particular seeing things through a lens of power when love is what is there. Another That's It is the role of shame in all of our lives--how we humans will do almost ANYTHING to avoid that feeling of "I'm a bad person." My latest That's It is related to shame, and has been bubbling in the back of my mind for a long time. It is about the HSP's intense reaction to criticism.

Everyone feels it. Even animals can be "shamefaced."

The reaction to criticism is probably tripled in HSPs. For example, we did a study (Aron, Aron, & Davies, 2006, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197, Study 4) to help demonstrate why distressing situations are even more distressing for sensitive children, although in this case we used college students. We found that when HS students were given positive or negative feedback on an aptitude test, it affected their mood afterwards far more than it did non-sensitive students. (The information was actually false, which they were told immediately afterwards.)

In this article, however, I want to assume the criticism is at least partly true. Often it is not, and I have discussed this as a part of some advice on "not taking things personally" in the paper newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 1, February 2003. So let's proceed to the those cases when you have to swallow some bitter medicine.

The Problem is Everywhere

We all want to be open to criticism and improve ourselves. For example, we go to psychotherapy to change. Alas, some time along the way we have to listen to what the therapist thinks we might be doing wrong, and sometimes it's a painful surprise, even if it is said gently and with perfect timing. Then we struggle until we accept what is true in it, because HSPs know intuitively and in their souls that the first step to any kind of worthwhile progress is accepting where you are now.

What are some other examples when we have to bear valid criticism besides psychotherapy? Seeing our wrong answers on a test and then the correct ones. Performance reviews or anything like that at work. Being corrected while learning a skill. The editing of something we've written. Critiques of our art or athletic style when we wish to be more professional.

Perhaps most important and painful, listening to the criticism of a friend or our living companion--anyone who knows us well--because it is so often true, or even points to something larger, and truer, that goes to the heart of who we are. At one of those times when I was exploring myself more deeply, I saw how much I tried to please others. I thought I did this often with my husband and that I should assert myself more. In the process of explaining this to him, I said something about him dominating me.

He exploded: "Me dominating you? It seems to me that you have made every major decision in our lives! Or we have decided it, but your needs were the decisive ones."

Oops. Me, controlling? Maybe so. In my marriage at least. Okay, maybe whenever I really want something. It was a side of myself to look at that no one else would probably have said or perhaps even seen.

Getting "All Defensive"

How nice it would be to accept criticism gracefully. Again, we all want to improve. But instead, when criticism comes at us our first reaction is rarely rational. I am sure I denied my husband's analysis of who controlled whom for quite awhile before I finally saw the truth in it. We all search our minds for a good reason that we did something not so great--a reason not too damaging or that makes it prettier ("That's just how I am"). When that fails us we will argue ("I don't!"), discount the other's thinking ("You don't know anything about it"), or accuse ("You do it too").

When HSPs are criticized we may also blush, cry, or show other signs of strong emotion and over arousal. Perhaps the most frustrating part is that if we are then urged to try again, we will probably do even worse, because now we are over aroused.

A Bad HSP Defensive Strategy--People Pleasing

Everyone protects themselves from criticism by a certain amount of preemptive strikes. "The best defense is a good offense." HSPs make those strikes mostly against themselves. One of the worst chronic strategies HSPs cook up to avoid criticism is "people pleasing," so that we are so good that no one can find a single flaw in us. I have often joked that my tombstone will read, "She never caused anyone any trouble." (Even my husband would agree I do that when with others--to the point that I used to inconvenience him just so others would not have to go to any trouble for us.) I have made enormous progress on that flaw, because I know incessant people pleasing is just that, a flaw.

People pleasing leads to inauthenticity in communication. "Sure, I would be glad to." (That way you will never complain that I don't help out.) "Of course you were no trouble." (That way you have to say the same thing back to me, that I was no trouble.) But if you never complain, that puts others into the position of doing you harm when they don't mean to. How can they know you are burning yourself out to please them? It leads to not even knowing your own needs, and to others having less respect for you and helping you even less. You begin to feel victimized, martyred, resentful, passive aggressive. Not a pretty picture, all to be nice. All to avoid criticism.

Another Bad Solution--Criticizing Yourself First

The other favorite HSP offense-as-defense is criticizing our self first, before the other person can. Sometimes this is a good defense. Admitting to a mistake on the spot spares us quite unnecessary pain. It's easier to say "Oops, I made a mistake" or "I see a way to improve this" or "Give me a chance to correct that." (I once read that to dampen "road rage," when you make a driving mistake that would annoy someone else, make that universal sign of "I know, that was crazy" by pointing to your head and circling your finger.) Although, it would still be better to hear the other person's comments, so you can take those also into account. Often they are not useful, and that saves you changing something that did not need changing.

But self-criticism it is a bad strategy when used chronically. "I'm so stupid!" "I bet I did that wrong--I usually do." "I know I'm pretty dumb about stuff like this, but?" "There I go again."

Similarly, you can prevent an attack by expressing your fear of one. "Now I'm afraid you're really mad at me." All of these are ways of defusing the other's critical thoughts, maybe even before they were thought, or at least making it impossible to speak them to you, given how hard you are on yourself already.

Why We Defend--It Truly is Traumatic

HSPs who have been criticized harshly or often can begin to behave like someone with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, in that we may avoid the criticizer or similar persons or situations, have bad dreams about it, become chronically over aroused, and lose overall confidence in ourselves in that area or all areas. No wonder that to avoid criticism we would put ourselves down to others, stay at a lower wage than we are worth, stay out of relationships, and become a "defensive person," which usually puts people off even more. Criticism can make us depressed, sometimes without even knowing this was the cause. People have committed suicide because of criticism--bad reviews, being fired, being judged a failure, or breaking up with someone, the ultimate criticism. It's a killer.

The inner critic, often overactive to an extreme in HSPs, always kicks in to defend against further trauma. But the inner critic kills a lot of good ideas and potentially right impulses. Another killer. That leaves you with two bad options--expose yourself to criticism and be traumatized, or heed a voice that says you are no good and should never express yourself, never expose yourself.

Why Such a Fuss Over Some Criticism?

Oddly enough, evolution has probably selected for social animals who are upset by criticism. Those who were not did not learn important social lessons. To get along well with others we need admonishments such as "Hey, you forgot to say 'thank you.'" People who lack gratitude do not receive help. The more we pay attention to criticism, the better we learn anything we might need for survival, such as "Next time aim a little higher."

Why is it worse for HSPs? We have a strategy of "do it once and do it right," and we do that by reflecting more on everything, but especially information on our past performance so that we can mentally adjust our strategy before trying again. That means we are naturally more influenced by feedback, and it may even be why we are more emotional generally. Emotion motivates action. Notice they share the same root. We act more effectively after taking some useful criticism "to heart."

Dealing Better with Criticism

  • Following from the above, my first advice is not to criticize yourself for your "overreactions." They are not "over" at all. They are natural, especially for HSPs.
  • Allow time to let the criticism settle in. I find that in twenty-four hours I am usually able to consider the validity of something that hurt at first. Not all situations allow so long, but even a minute or two can help, so maybe you can say "Let me digest this a moment."
  • Think of your successes in a related area, times you have been praised, and people who think you are generally wonderful. This is not to deny the truth of the criticism, but to keep it in perspective.
  • You can work with a devastating, overly protective inner critic in a variety of ways, in therapy or on your own. Mostly, you must literally have a conversation with it. Listen to its comments (often extreme), ask it why it over states things, and ask about when it was "born" and the memories that "fed" it. Then express sincere appreciation of its good intentions (if there are any--some are just ruthless), and provide counter arguments, like now you are older and can handle it. Done often enough, this really can settle that voice down, and whenever you do hear it, you can counter it more easily.
  • Warn your teachers or managers that sometimes strong criticism has an unwanted "ripple effect" with you, in that you start changing other things you do that are similar that actually should not be charged. This makes it sound more positive--you're trying to improve so much--than a comment about being easily upset.
  • Assure others that you want to hear all feedback, all criticism, but they should also tell you what you are doing right. This prevents the ripple effect.

There's considerable evidence on this last point, that giving positive feedback--all the time, but especially along with the negative--is the very best method in teaching, training, relationships, and everywhere else. It makes criticism so much easier to take. In marriages, John Gottman's research has found that to have a message your spouse can hear without defensiveness, you need to say seven nice things for every criticism.

In New York subways they have signs reading "If you see something, say something" (about potential crime or terrorism, speak to the conductor, police, et cetera). How nice it would be to have signs everywhere saying, "If you see something well done, say something." Ah, when we all become the way we know we ought to be....

Above all, appreciate that personal growth almost always blossoms out of the smelliest manure, those feelings of defensiveness and defectiveness. The old D and D. Defensive--"There's nothing wrong with me"--or Defective--"Everything's wrong with me."

It's useful to remember, too, when it's you who has to give criticism that everyone shifts back and forth between D and D. You're wrong (defense) or I'm wrong (defective). One of us has to be wrong. Unless the deliverer of criticism is very tactful, soon he or she will be engaged in a game of Toss the Shame Ball. Back and forth. Or missiles, because often it becomes a war. Of course it's war, given the research finding that the very same area of the brain activated by physical pain is also activated when we are critical. Ouch.

Learning to master the D and D in yourself and others just might be the basis of all social wisdom. Advice from a spiritual teacher of mine was "Speak the truth, but speak it sweetly." Let's add, "Hear the truth, but hear it sweetly."


May 2007 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Summer Reading for HSPs:
Cather's One of Ours, Mitchell's Black Swan Green, and Forrest's Help is on its Way
Coping Corner: A Meditation for HSPs on Criticism, the Killer
Sensitive Children: Working With Sensitive, Withdrawing Children
By Jan Kristal


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

May 2007 Articles:

Summer Reading for HSPs: Cather's One of Ours, Mitchell's Black Swan Green, and Forrest's Help is on its Way

Coping Corner: A Meditation for HSPs on Criticism, the Killer

Sensitive Children: Working With Sensitive, Withdrawing Children
By Jan Kristal

A Letter from Elaine