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Want to Cope Better With Criticism? You Can Build A Boundary to Filter It

Wife: Every time I say something even slightly negative to my husband, he gets really hurt and angry and refuses to discuss it.

Employee: Every year I’m extremely nervous to meet with my supervisor for my annual evaluation. If she gives me any criticism, I’m not sure I can take it.

Student: I made a C on my first statistics test. I guess I’m not cut out for this graduate program.

Friend: My friend Maggie told me that she thought I could get a better job. I feel so insulted that I haven’t talked to her for a while.

Stranger: The cashier at the grocery store snapped at me for taking too much time to pay. I was so upset that it ruined the rest of my day.

When I was 23 I started my first year of grad school. I was so excited that I had been chosen from hundreds of applicants for admission to a Ph.D. program in psychology. My first test in the psychology program was in statistics class. I was appalled to receive my test back with a big ugly C on it. “Are you prepared for the rigors of this program?” my professor had written at the top.

Actually, I was more than appalled. I had never imagined making a C in graduate school, let alone my first test. Stunned, I went home and questioned my entire life plan. “Maybe he’s right and I’m not up to this. I guess I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I should just drop out now before they kick me out,” I agonized.

Let’s face it. No one can go through life without getting negative feedback or criticism from others. And believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing. Because feedback (especially negative feedback) is essential for your growth and health.

We all have our own view of ourselves: our choices, behaviors, and performances. Criticism from others offers us a view of ourselves from the outside. In this way, other people’s views offer an excellent source of information about how we can grow. Yet unfortunately, many of us aren’t able to take advantage of this rich resource.

Two Ways You Can “Waste” Good Criticism

  1. You Fold: It hits you like an arrow to the heart. It hurts so much that you’re not able to process it or make use of it. (The Employee, Student and Stranger examples above).
  2. You Fight: It hurts so much that you can’t take it in. So you become angry and defensive and shut out the criticism, the person, or both. (The Husband and Friend examples above).

Folding and fighting are two very different responses to the same thing: feeling hurt. Unfortunately, neither response allows you to benefit from the criticism. And both happen when you lack a good, healthy Criticism Filter.

To become stronger in the face of criticism (and maybe even benefit from it), all you have to do is build yourself a boundary to keep criticism from spearing you in the heart while you process it. Sound easy? It’s not.

But you can do it!

Five Steps to Build Your Criticism Filter

  1. Know that no criticism is 100% true. It’s always complicated, nuanced, and based on someone else’s point of view. So before you take in someone’s criticism, pause; and take the time to process it.
  2. Know that every piece of criticism says as much about the critic as it says about you. Every single human being sees the world through their own lens. When it comes to human behavior, few observations are based on 100% reality and truth. Every criticism comes from the eye of the beholder.
  3. When criticism comes your way, stop it before it can pierce your heart. Hold it off while you ask these questions to process it.
  • Who is the criticizer? How well do they know you? How credible are they?
  • What are the intentions of the criticizer? Do they have any reason to wish to hurt you? Are they upset or angry? Are they trying to help you? Are they simply having a bad day? Do they have reason to exaggerate?
  • Is there information that the criticizer lacks? Might that information change or mitigate their opinion?
  • Are some pieces of this person’s criticism more accurate than others?
  • Do you need more information before you can answer the above questions?

     4.   Ask your criticizer questions. Try to understand exactly what they mean and why they are saying this. Filter their message, owning the parts that are true and discarding the parts that are false.

     5.   If your criticism carries something valid and useful, develop a plan of action. Is there something you can or should try to change about yourself or how you’re doing things?

And now, flashback to 1983. After several hours of painfully questioning my abilities and my future, I suddenly felt indignant. “Who is this professor to question my potential on the basis of one test?” I thought to myself. “He doesn’t know me at all.” 

So why would he say that? I knew the answer. Because he was challenging me to either work harder or get out.

I also realized my part in this event. I had been over-confident and had not studied properly for the test.

I took out my Statistics book and started on page 1. I spent the entire weekend poring over every page and working through every problem until I fully understood every element of every section we had covered so far and was actually ahead on the material.

And what did I take forward from that experience? I never again went into another test under-prepared.

Sometimes I look back on that experience and wonder what might have happened if I had given up? Where might my life have gone, and how many regrets would I have taken with me?

Each experience of criticism is a challenge: to get better, get stronger, or change for the better in some way. You can fold or you can fight.

Or you can filter it and use it to make yourself better.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can lead to a lack of resilience in the face of criticism. To learn more, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.

10 Question Quiz: Do You Need Better Boundaries With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to their children.

As much empathy as I have for parents, being one myself, today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is a problem in your life.

There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.

Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.

6 Different Ways You May Feel About Your Parents 

  • You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  • You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  • You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  • You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  • You may get physically ill when you see them
  • You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally? 

Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.

Individuation: The natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.

Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”

Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent starting from an early age.
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.

So now the big question. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?

10 Questions About Your Boundaries With Your Parents

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.

Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen fully through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.

So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you.

Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong. 

To learn more about the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.