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Handling Criticism With Your Self-Esteem In Tow

As a people pleaser, it’s important to recognise something so critical, it could change the way that you view you and the critics in your life:

Not all criticism is constructive; a hell of a lot of it is inaccurate, as in it’s not anything close to 100% true. The source and true motivations of the critic heavily influences not only the accuracy, but also how much you need to take it on board.

As a people pleaser, criticism, warranted or not, tends to automatically trigger a sense of being under attack, auto-acceptance, and compliance, or of knowing that it’s BS but remaining silent while secretly simmering. These either cause a great deal of anxiety or frustration, plus whichever pleaser response you have, it affects your confidence and so negatively impacts your self-esteem and self-image (your perception of your personality, appearance, capabilities and opportunities).

As you have been compliant and a pleaser in the past, you must recognise that criticism from any passive aggressive and aggressive people in your life, stems from a place of trying to ‘put you down’ or manipulate you into complying and doing as they want.

Read that three times and click your heels together (joking).

Remember that you and an aggressive (or passive aggressive person), are coming at the same thing from two different places that will cause each of you issues:

When you’re a people pleaser, you believe that you are in charge of how others feel and behave and that you can pussyfoot around others and please them into being and doing what you want, need, and expect.

When a person is aggressive, they also believe that they are in charge of how others feel and behave and use their abusive ways to try to force people to feel and behave as they want and need.

A passive aggressive person also thinks that they’re in charge of how others feel and behave, and mask the anger and resentment they feel about how others react around them, by telling people what they want to hear and then undermining it in an attempt to get their own needs, expectations, and wishes met. They reason that they’ll only invite conflict into their lives by being upfront.

By recognising that you are only in command of you and that your own feelings and behaviour are yours to take ownership of, you stop giving you and others powers that none of you have. This does not mean that you become unreasonable and inconsiderate – that would not be assertive nor respectful – but what it does mean is that you own your own and let others own theirs.

That is what being conscientious is about. Knowing where you end and others begin and being aware of rights, responsibilities, and consequences.

In knowing the way that each type of communication and behavioural style works, you can then see where a criticism is truly stemming from.

Criticism from an assertive, respectful source whether it’s justified or not – we all get it wrong sometimes – is not founded on trying to control you or take you down. That person will not have a vested interest in an end goal of making you compliant.

Healthy criticism has something that you can learn from.

While there are instances when you are ‘under attack’ from an aggressive person (it will be exhibited in tone, language, body language etc) or a passive aggressive person (the smile and faux concern veiled with spiky comments and backhanded ‘compliments’ plus there’s often double standards too), in other instances, you’re not ‘under attack’ nor is your Good Person™ reputation at stake.

If a criticism could actually help you to stop engaging in people pleasing behaviour and so in actual fact, help you to be more representative of who you are and increase your self-respect, seeing all criticism as an attack will mean that you miss out on opportunities to make positive changes to your behaviour.

I’m really glad that it was pointed out to me that I was acting like a desperate woman with no options. I felt hurt, I felt offended and the delivery probably wasn’t couched with as much compassion and empathy as I would like, but when we’re sensitive to criticism, there often isn’t the perfect way. The difference is that when we improve our self-esteem, we feel temporarily wounded, we then self-soothe, ground ourselves, and ask: Is this true?

When I was willing to truly be honest about my own actions and those of others because I wanted to be happier and authentic, I was finally able to internalise that criticism from more than a year before as the much needed feedback about how someone was perceiving my own actions towards my romantic life. It’s not as if I had that feedback but didn’t actually feel desperate or that I had a healthy relationship with my self-esteem in tow; I received that criticism when I was miserable.

It is too much to expect that you won’t feel wounded or even angry when you feel criticised. You are human. Most people feel some level of something even if it’s only temporarily. The difference is how you deal with the feelings and thoughts.

If you accept stuff as true without question, you will feel bad.

If you continue to see it purely as an attack, you will still feel bad.

If you know it’s not true but you say nothing, you will also still feel bad.

Ultimately, whichever of these three paths you choose, you learn nothing and you won’t support you.

The answer isn't to keep responding to criticism as you always have or from a place of wanting to caretake that person's feelings and behaviour so that you can limit their behaviour and criticism; the answer is to change the relationship that you have with criticism and step up.

How to cope with criticism in an assertive manner

1. Listen to what is being said.

Stay conscious, aware, and present. Have a go-to message that you train you to say when you experience the feelings that are triggered by that sense of being criticised. I say, ‘I am safe. I am secure’, or ‘It’s OK, just hear them out’, or ‘I’m OK’, or even, ‘Keep it together’. This gives you a chance to listen carefully and if you do, you will see what’s going on.

If you don’t listen and only listen to a rush of negative beliefs and feelings without grounding you, you won’t hear a damn thing and will actually hear the past or your imagination. It will then get mixed up and even if you do rebuff what’s being said, you won’t say it from an assertive position and it will sound super defensive and blame-y and an aggressive person in particular, will latch on to this and a passive aggressive person will deflect. An assertive person will find your response very confusing and may also get defensive because it may appear that you're not responding to what was said. Or they might not do any of this and just assume that you don't want to hear anything from them and just know to steer clear.

2. If you’re unsure of what they mean, ask for clarification.

‘I’m not sure what you mean – could you re-explain please?' or ‘Can you give me a specific example?’

3. A general criticism is not useful or respectful.

'You’re too sensitive', or 'You really make me angry', is actually that person not approaching you in an assertive manner. Some people are a bit grandiose or just expect to make an off the cuff statement and then you’re just supposed to go, “Um, OK then” and then capitulate to their demands or shuffle off and feel bad about yourself. Erm, NO. See above. Ask for clarification and specific examples.

Do not just accept this general stuff as fact or fill in the blanks. What you fill it in with may be totally different and what they say may actually be unjustified / inaccurate. You asking for clarification will unseat your average aggressive and passive aggressive person because they don’t like facts and having to back up what they say. No one is entitled to just come along and tell you all about yourself and not have to explain their damn selves. Respect!

Imagine that person having to respond with, “Well, you make me really angry when you disagree with me”, or “You’re too sensitive because when I called you that name, you should have known that I was joking”. Say what? Suddenly you see that the criticism is NOT about you.

4. Qualify the validity of the criticism.

Don’t automatically accept criticism and in fact, other people’s opinions, as ‘fact’. You must make a conscious decision on what the truth is and this governs your response. This is where the application of reasoning and knowledge is.

5. Just because you have heard the criticism before, it does not mean that you don’t have to qualify the validity nor make a conscious decision about your subsequent response.

The source and type of person actually has a lot to do with where there is a repeat criticism. I have only ever been accused of being "needy" or “too sensitive” by passive aggressive and aggressive people who as a result of me agreeing, would have had me complying in their favour.

6. Remember that even if a criticism has part-truth in it, it’s still useful.

On one hand, it could be that you potentially get to learn something new about you. On the other hand, it could actually be that you get to learn something new about the other party. You might learn that the person actually builds themselves up by taking others down.

Part-truth criticism does not mean that all of the criticism is true. This is like someone being asked to give an account of something that they’ve witnessed, for instance, at the scene of a crime. The fact that they are accurate about something does not mean that everything that they’ve said is accurate or even objective.

7. If a criticism is completely true, try to own your own in as least a defensive way as possible.

Now it’s not always possible to do this immediately because sometimes we get defensive first and then think later – I did this just the other day – but when you’ve cooled down, gather your thoughts and make a decision about whether it’s true.

8. If it’s appropriate, you can admit where you’re trying to make changes.

For example, ‘It is true that I’m making too many overtures with that person and I feel uncomfortable about it, which is why I’m working on my people pleasing tendencies'. 'You’re right – I am being too agreeable and trying to dodge making a decision. It’s not because I don’t care or because I want to put it all on you – at the time I genuinely feel that I’m being easygoing. It’s something that I’ve only gradually become aware of recently. How does it affect you?' Or, 'Honestly, I really didn’t consider how that might sound and I mean it when I say that it wasn’t my intention to guilt you. Next time, I will think about the most appropriate means of communicating my concern and maybe text isn’t the best medium for that….'

9. When it’s part true, recognise that bit and clarify the inaccuracy.

This is better than doing the reverse of assuming that part-truth equals all true – deciding that because it’s partly false, it’s all false and going on the offensive.

'I agree that sometimes I do go along with the consensus but I don’t do it all of the time', or 'Yes I didn’t approach you about how I felt and yes I did act cranky but I don’t keep my feelings and opinions to myself all of the time', or, 'Yes, sometimes I can be a bit sensitive about certain things and I recognise this but I’m not an over-sensitive person nor am I sensitive about everything. I am only human!'

10. Completely untrue criticism needs to be rejected, even if it’s in the privacy of your own mind.

Sometimes we don’t get to point out an inaccuracy because most of us aren’t quick to have the ‘perfect’ response plus, yeah, sometimes we feel wounded first, indignant later.

My favourite affirmation: That’s not mine, that’s theirs/his/hers {or insert the persons name}, I’m sending it back.

As a therapist friend pointed out to me, these statements to ourselves are important because 90% of our mind is unconscious and the mind accepts what we tell it. If we consistently refute inaccuracies and rebuttal with truth, we short circuit any leanings towards automatic and conscious self-rejection.

'No, I don’t agree; I’m not over-sensitive. I haven’t given you a hard time when you’ve made other comments or even called me a name. This time, you are over the line.'

'No, I don’t agree; I’m not needy. I have needs like every person on the planet and I feel hurt that you’d make that assertion. What is it that makes you think that I’m needy?'

'No, I don’t agree; I’m not needy. We’re in a relationship and you’ve said that you are committed to me and that you didn’t want me being involved with anyone else. If I’m expected to make that commitment, I expect you to make that commitment too and to demonstrate what you say with your actions.'

Remember, you are not trying to rule the person; you are making your opinions and feelings known both to them and to you.

You may not be in the position to rebuff the criticism but as long as you know the truth, that is the most important thing.

Don’t try to convince and convert the person if they don’t automatically back down or in fact refuse to. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong and the more that you try to convince them is actually the more that they’ll regard you with suspicion and turn whatever you say around to suit their position. Definitely don’t approach any refuting of a person’s criticism from a position of wanting to control that person’s feelings and behaviour. Broken Record also comes in very handy here!

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