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Can I really overcome my natural, angry response to criticism?

  • Asks ...

    What does it say about me that I can’t handle criticism very well? I mean I really can’t handle criticism very well at all. When someone criticizes anything I do, especially at work, I tend to react with a strong defense of very good offense by getting immediately angry and finding something worse to criticize that person back about. It’s like a knee jerk reaction. I don’t want to hear another word of criticism about me so I always turn the tables to make it about them.

    I am not manufacturing the anger either. It’s real and it just happens naturally and it clouds my judgment about the potential validity of the critique. Often, after the fact once I cool down, I can see that the person was well meaning and often right, but at the time and in the heat of the moment I always just react as if it was an unfair personal attack.

    I can see that I have a problem but since it is something that just happens naturally I don’t really know how to go about changing it. My inability to handle criticism of any kind is hurting my career and it is also limiting my ability to make and sustain normal friendships.

  • Art Matthews Says ...
    Art Matthews

    First of all you are a very self-aware person who is capable of reasonable thought once you have passed through your emotional phase. This is necessary but not sufficient for change to occur. What this says to me about you is that you are human, you have insecurities about your own worth, and that you have probably been the brunt of extreme criticism in your early experiences (or perhaps experienced very little criticism) and you've never learned to receive it without reacting in anger. I believe that you have, because of these factors, developed an irrational core belief (see Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy philosophy) that you should instinctively know the best way to do everything and that people who love or care about you should not disagree with you.

    Because criticism is such a strong trigger for you, your automatic thinking kicks in and you become emotionally activated before you can stop yourself. Once the brain is flooded with activating hormones, you cannot think from a rational level and every thought you have goes to validating why you feel the way you do. Only once the adrenaline wears off (often in 20 to 30 minutes) you are able to see another side of things. This ineffective triggering of the body's natural fight/flight mechanism is a big key to turning things around.

    Part of the answer lies is developing awarenesss of your overall stress level and learning to manage stress better, and another part of the solution likely lies in learning to value yourself and the intention of others who share their criticism with you.

    Honestly, no one likes being told they are wrong or they should improve. It's human nature to believe our own experience and judgment. After all, it has gotten us to where we are fairly successfully.

    The purpose of anger, as I alluded to earlier, is to protect us from perceived threats and motivate us into action. That's extremely functional when there is a real, imminent threat to our existence but not so great in the workplace or interpersonal environment where we are being told simply to change the way we do something.

    My recommendation to you is to work with a therapist to uncover why criticism feels so threatening to you so that you can reclaim emotional control and benefit from sage advice. Your reaction is an attempt to protect -- and thus love -- yourself. Tell yourself you no longer need this level of self protection, that you can learn new ways to cope and that you don't need to judge yourself for being where you are. Accept that you are a person who overreacts and can use support in ending that. Don't let your natural, emotional response define you.

    You sound like you are motivated for change and capable if self-reflection. I think you will find changing under the guidance of a trained professional less difficult and painful than you thought. Remember, we are never really done developing. We grow and develop throughout our lives, when we get out of our own ways. You only have an inability to do something until you have gained the ability. If you can't learn how on your own, get someone else involved in your learning process.

    Best to you. Now get growing!

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