Published on July 9th, 20131
Why Criticism Hurts
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
Do you often find yourself feeling really bad after being criticized? Do certain comments from other people keep lingering in your mind for days and even weeks? In order to handle criticism from people in the surroundings, it is important to be aware of why it affects us in such a negative way.
If you feel familiar with the above, criticism may be such a big problem that it can affect your quality of life in an extremely negative way. Criticism is often considered one of the main sources of psychological pain. You are probably not alone if you have experienced that just one single comment can get you in a bad mood, or simply make you feel down. Some people may even spend sleepless nights thinking about the critical comments they get.
Firstly, it is important to point out that there are many types of criticism. Some criticism may even be constructive, such as when the critic wants to give you well-meaning advice in order to help you to progress. Learning from criticism can actually allow you to improve yourself and open you up to new perspectives and new ideas you may not have considered before.
Whenever someone challenges you, they help expand your thinking. However, at other times the criticism is just nagging, and a pointless sum up of all your shortcomings or failings. The pathological critic often says that the criticism is “constructive”, while in reality he or she is only trying to appear smarter, better or more right than you.
Even if we may be consciously aware of the person’s unfair motives we can still be negatively influenced by it. So why do we still feel so bad after being criticized? The biggest problem with criticism is not really the critic’s words, but rather how they are processed in your mind. If you continue to feel bad for weeks after hearing a negative remark, it is most likely that your bad feelings is caused by distortions in your way of perceiving reality.
Put in another way; you may believe that the criticism actually says something about you as a person, while it is really about your bad habits of thought that repeatedly interpret reality in an unreal way.
These negative thinking styles are within psychology known as cognitive distortions. These inaccurate thoughts may seem rational and accurate but in reality they only serve to reinforce negative thinking or emotions, keeping us from feeling good about ourselves. In this section I will go through four of the most common distortions.
Overgeneralization takes place if you take one fact or event and make a general rule out of it, without testing the rule. This thought process may for example be triggered by your boss at work when he criticizes you for making one single mistake in one particular situation, and you start to believe that you are likely to repeat the same mistake over and over again.
Global labelling is similar to overgeneralization but even worse. This happens when you instead of analyzing an error in the context of a specific situation, attach a negative label to yourself. You may for example have performed a poor presentation at your job, and afterwards thought to yourself that the errors made shows what an incompetent person you are. You are likely to believe that you in the future won’t be able to achieve well in any tasks in your job, and even within other areas of life.
Personalization takes place when you believe that everything others say to you is some kind of direct, personal reaction to you as person, instead of assuming that a person will help you out of a problem.
When you indulge in polarized thinking, you live in a universe where everything is either black-or-white, with no colors or shades of gray. You either look at yourself or others as perfect or as failures, as heroes or as saints. There is nothing in between and people are placed in either/or categories, without allowing for the complexity that characterizes most people. There is only one right way to live, and all the others are wrong. If you fail in one situation you see yourself as a total failure.
The main point in this article is that you cannot always be in control of what is happening around you. However you can be more in control of how you respond to negative input from the critics in the environment. By learning how to be more aware of your cognitive distortions you will create an opportunity to perceive yourself more realistically, experience enhanced emotional life, and have less destructive mood swings.
*Cover photo by Andrew Mager, learning photo from visualpun.ch