Written By Paoula Saoud, Clinical Psychologist at The Valens Clinic
How not to take things personally?
It is natural to want to be respected and valued, therefore negative criticism can be very unwelcoming by certain people causing them to be hurt. Criticism is a very common element in human interaction, in fact it is very present in certain cultures or social backgrounds as a pillar in a conversation or a relationship.
While constructive criticism can improve our skills and abilities, negative criticism can undermine our self-worth. Scientific research proved that negative comments/feedback are associated with negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, sadness, and irritability. Therefore, criticism can hurt everybody, but why do some people focus more on it?
Criticism has always been a challenge that interferes with self-worth, knowing how to navigate it can help people separate their intrinsic value from external feedback. By cultivating a better approach to criticism, reinforcing psychological flexibility, and introducing shades of grey into your thinking, you can enhance your personal growth and develop resilience in the face of challenges.
Why do certain individuals anxiously and repetitively replay a negative comment in their mind and why do we take things personally?
- Negative self-talk and poor self-esteem: if we are used to constantly think of ourselves as “not good enough’’, it will be easier to believe something bad that is said to us.
- Childhood trauma: neglect and lack of emotional support as a child can sometimes contribute to feeling that we deserve to be criticized or blamed as it is a familiar situation.
- Anxiety: nervousness and social anxiety can lead people to be extremely afraid of being judged or embarrassed.
- General stress: people are more prone to negative feedback and more sensitive when they are not in their best mood or when they are facing a lot of challenges or stress.
- Perfectionism: perfectionists have a hard time accepting when someone is pointing out their flaws or their weaknesses due to unrealistic or extremely high standards that they have set to themselves.
Personalization is a cognitive distortion: cognitive distortions are internal mental filters or biases that increase our misery, fuel our anxiety, and make us feel bad about ourselves. A very common example of personalization is thinking “they must be talking about me’’, ‘’they must think I am not good enough’’ when someone is giving negative feedback about the teamwork in a meeting.
Criticism can evoke a negative emotional response such as anger, irritability, and defensiveness. These emotions may cloud one’s ability to properly assess the feedback and consider its validity.
Personalizing a criticism can affect self-efficacy and self-worth, therefore people can find it difficult to differentiate between their actions and inherent values leading to self-doubt and anxiety.
How can we navigate criticism and not personalize it?
- Separate action from self: recognize that criticism addresses specific actions and not your entire worth. Detaching your identity from the specific criticism can help reduce its emotional impact.
- Remember I.C.E: Identify the negative thoughts that were activated in your mind after listening to the negative feedback. Call it what it is, which cognitive distortion is fuelling the negative thoughts? (Personalization, black and white thinking etc. Explore if the thought is valid, challenge your thinking, look for facts and try to dispute the thought instead of quickly believing it.
- Embrace a growth mindset: know yourself, your weaknesses, and your strengths. Remember that abilities and skills can be developed over time. Embracing this perspective allows you to view criticism as an opportunity for improvement rather than reacting impulsively.