The 4 Personal Traits That Make it Hard To Take Criticism

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“Scott, I feel uncomfortable at parties sometimes when you tell a story real loud. I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it embarrasses me. Can you try not to talk so loud?” Andrea said to her husband.

Immediately, Scott’s face turned red. He felt a combination of shock, rage, and hurt. “I-I-I-,” he stuttered. Then he ran down the steps to the basement, slamming the door behind him. Downstairs, he turned his music up as loudly as he could and started lifting weights furiously.


“So now that I’ve explained all the great strengths you bring to the job, Rebecca, there is one thing I’d like you to try to improve over the next year,” her supervisor said as they discussed Rebecca’s 6-month job evaluation. “I want you to work on giving your direct reports more clear feedback about their performance.”

As her supervisor explained that she wasn’t challenging her employees enough, Rebecca’s field of vision literally went blank. Her thoughts were swirling so quickly in her head that she barely heard anything else her boss said. “How can she say that?! I just gave someone feedback yesterday. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start looking for a new job.”

Do you identify with Scott or Rebecca? Is it especially difficult for you to hear negative comments about yourself, your actions or your performance, even from people who you know deep down have your best interests in mind?

4 Personal Traits That Make it Hard to Accept and Respond Well to Criticism

  1. Lack of self-knowledge. How well do you know yourself? Do you know your own strengths and weaknesses, talents and challenges, preferences and tendencies? What do you want? What do you like? And why? Not knowing yourself deeply and well leaves you overly vulnerable to other people’s opinions. It also leaves you with little to call upon when you need it. If you knew yourself well enough, when your wife gives you a specific critique, it’s OK. Because you know you have plenty of other strengths that make you good enough as a person even if you make a mistake. If Scott had enough self-knowledge he would feel somewhat hurt by Andrea’s comment, but he would be able to think it through and realize that people generally like him, that he has natural good humor, and that Andrea’s discomfort is more about herself than him. He would say, “Oh, OK Andrea. I’ll try to be aware.”
  2. Low compassion for yourself. Everybody makes mistakes, no exceptions. It is what we do with those mistakes that matters. When you have compassion for yourself, there’s a voice in your head that helps you think through criticism, take responsibility for your mistakes while at the same time having compassion for your humanness. I call it the Voice of Compassionate Responsibility. It steps in when you receive criticism and talks you through it. If Rebecca had the Voice of Compassionate Responsibility, instead of thinking about a new job, she would have been thinking: “OK, so she thinks I’m not giving negative feedback to my people. I do know I’ve always struggled to say difficult things. Even though I’ve been trying, maybe I need to try even more. My overall communication skills are good. I can rely on those to help me. This will be a work in progress.”
  3. Difficulty managing your feelings. Scott and Rebecca both have this challenge in common. They are each when receiving criticism, flooded by emotions that render them helpless at the moment. Both feel a combination of shame and anger immediately upon hearing the criticism, and neither knows what to do with it. Neither has the skills to notice what they are feeling, name those feelings or manage them so that they can have a conversation.
  4. Lack of assertiveness. Assertiveness is a skill. It is the ability to speak your truth in a way that the other person can hear it. To be assertive you must first know what you feel and manage those feelings, as described in #3. When you’re aware of your anger you can listen to its message. It may be telling you to speak up and protect yourself, and it is vital that you listen. If Scott had assertiveness skills, he might say to Andrea, “Everyone was loud at the party, and I didn’t think I was any louder than anyone else.” Andrea would respond by speaking her truth. They would have a back-and-forth conversation, and this might enable them to learn about each other, listen to each other, and perhaps forge some kind of mutual understanding.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

These four character traits are all hallmarks of one common childhood experience. In fact, they are essentially the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Growing up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members (the definition of CEN) leaves the children to move into, and through, adulthood lacking some vital skills.

How can you learn who you are when the deepest expression of that, your feelings, are ignored by your parents as they raise you?

How can you have empathy for yourself when your parents were unable to show you compassion and empathy while they raised you?

How can you learn how to manage your emotions when your emotions were ignored in your childhood home?

How can you know how to speak your truth when, as a child, your truth was not accepted by your parents?

How to React Well to Criticism

Before you start to think it is too late for you, I want to assure you that it is absolutely not.

You can begin to work on thinking of criticism in a new way: like someone’s opinion, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful to you. You can realize that criticism is often a useful and valuable way to become a stronger and better person.

You can start to pay more attention to the best source of strength, purpose, connection, validation, and direction available to you, your feelings.

To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and the struggles it leaves you with throughout your adulthood, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, available in bookstores and online everywhere.

Most people who grew up with CEN have no idea that it happened. To find out if you grew up with CEN, visit and take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Alfiano Fong - October 6, 2019 Reply

Interesting. Thank you for this information!

Lisa - August 12, 2019 Reply

I have done tons of reading and had years of therapy, and I still struggle with this. It causes so much trouble between my husband and I.

Vanessa - August 11, 2019 Reply

Ah! Lately I’ve been wondering why any sort of critique or criticism absolutely destroys me! I know criticism can be hard for everyone, but in my case it only takes the smallest comment and I lose my mind. I do believe I have experienced CEN, and inadvertently received the message that there was something deeply wrong with me. I think criticism I so hard for me to take because the shame voice inside of me runs with it and uses it as confirmation that I’m not good enough. It feels as if shame is a monster starving for evidence of my inadequacy and as soon as anyone even suggests that I did something wrong or could be better I’m filled with intense self hatred and literally want to die. I receive the message that ‘I am bad’. Rationally, I know my reaction doesn’t match the situation at all, but in the moment I feel as if I have no control over the shame gremlins and am completely overwhelmed. As a result, I live in fear of messing up and this causes me anxiety in all situations. Working with my therapist has helped a lot but criticism still has thus weird power over me and I hope to God that one day I’ll be free of it.

    Jonice - August 11, 2019 Reply

    But hope is not a strategy, Vanessa. It will probably not go away on its own. It’s important to take on this problem yourself and try to solve it. Please find a good therapist to guide you. I’m sure you are missing some good opportunities in life to learn and grow because of this shame and sensitivity to criticism.

Binky Bennett - August 10, 2019 Reply

No one who posted a response on this subject of criticism brought up what I think is obvious: I / We have been so constantly criticized and belittled since childhood, that any more criticism is just proof of how damaged and pathetic I already am, so I just want to turn my back to everyone and everything, because no one will ever understand the depth and strength of the hurt and alienation I have felt all my life. I am 70, and still feel like a complete loser, and I’ll never find anybody who can , or will take the time, to understand me. I have had a very successful career in surgical nursing, and have been told I am a good listener, and have a lot of empathy and patience, but my emptiness and loneliness grow every day.
Criticism is just par for the course.

    Jonice - August 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Binky, please find a good therapist to share all this with. You are carrying far too much burden, and there are people available who can help you work through it and see things, and yourself, in a different way. You deserve better.

      Binky - August 12, 2019 Reply

      Well, that’s another story….my therapist of 2 1/2 years told me I had hurt her feelings…..she never said how, but I no longer felt I could trust her or be honest with her.
      Therapy is all about honesty, right ???
      I told her I thought my therapy was not about her feelings.

        J - August 12, 2019 Reply

        I agree that therapy is not about the therapist’s feelings, but their ability to empathize with you depends upon their knowledge and feelings and their access to those parts of themselves. If they feel upset by something that happened between you, perhaps they are not able to get in touch with that knowledge and feelings.
        I’m not sure whether you have terminated with that therapist, but it might be helpful for you to practice repairing your relationship with the therapist. It might require you to apologize if it is truly an error on your part. Practicing relationship skills with a therapist is beneficial if you feel like you can say what you need to say. I’m actually in the middle of some of these situations and practicing!

Infran - August 8, 2019 Reply

I think one of the reasons CEN can make it hard to take criticism is because you’ve more-or-less been hurt your whole life, and not had very much release, if any. So in that sense, you’re basically dealing with an awful lot of hurt, and you can’t really take much more. From my experience, self-compassion, self-awareness, emotional management, and assertiveness skill will only help so much if you’re not getting much – if anything – from the outside. From my experience, it seems like you need both internal and external care in order to be able to heal well. =(

    Jonice - August 8, 2019 Reply

    It’s so true! You do need both internal and external care in order to heal well. The external care can come from a family member, a friend, your spouse, your community or a therapist. There are limitless options for external care and the most important thing is to be open to accepting it.

Lee - August 6, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb,

I can’t thank you enough for the clarity and insight you’ve given me through your book, and newsletter. I read every article word for word and they all hit home, but especially this one. It made me weep. It has put into context and words so much of my experience through adulthood and young adulthood. My only regret is that I didn’t find you or this information sooner. It might have changed the course of my life, and saved some relationships, but I am here now and listening whole heartedly to all the content you produce. Thank you. Hope to take one of your workshops one day.

    Jonice - August 6, 2019 Reply

    I always say, because I truly believe it, that we find answers when we are ready for them. I’m so glad you are realizing so much and growing. I would love to have you at one of my workshops, for sure. In the meantime, take care!

      J. Cope - August 7, 2019 Reply

      Dr. Webb,
      I appreciate your insight and work frequently.

      However I do not agree that “we find answers when we are ready for them” is the case as often as we would like to believe.

      I’ve witnessed this personally having come from a highly dysfunctional background.

      People can handle the information, may be perfectly ready for it, however they do not have access to the information or more often than not were never taught how to seek answers to the problems they face (If in fact they are even aware that they have a problem).

      What I’m trying to say is these types of subjects should be taught in our schools at an earlier age. Plenty of wonderful people have spent their lives needlessly suffering. They would in fact have thrived had they been offered this information earlier in their lives or again known how/been taught how to seek answers to their problems.

      We cant assume that those who come from severely dysfunctional backgrounds will usually find the answers when they are ready for them.
      Many do not and this is a fact.

      I’ve plenty of deceased friends who died too young that Im certain had they been offered this information at an earlier age, in a functional manner/setting, may have survived going on to live much healthier lives. I’m willing to bet on this.

      It is imperative that we get this valuable information to human beings earlier in their lives so they can have a fighting chance. They may just need a nudge in the right direction.

      I agree with the OP. She wishes she would have found this information earlier in life. All the heartache and pain she may have avoided. Possibly yes! and an understandable sentiment.

      What people pick up on subconsciously could help change their lives. Even if consciously
      they aren’t “ready” I’m certain, for some, the subconscious understandings concerning the information may help in ways we don’t completely understand.

      There may be concerns about suicide rates etc. rising if adolescents are aware of a possible hopeless emotional situation with their parents. However my questions are these: Would offering this information to them in the schools do more harm than good? Are we currently researching any of this? Can young people handle this type of information much better than we might assume? Could we offer more qualified counseling within the schools? Or better yet … why aren’t we?

        Jonice - August 7, 2019 Reply

        Dear J., I completely agree with everything you are saying. I meant “people find answers when they are ready” only to encourage self-compassion for those who blame themselves for not learning things earlier. Many people beat themselves up feeling they “should have known.” There is lots of research on childhood adversity happening and schools are doing a far better job of educating kids about socio-emotional issues than in the past. But change is slow, and we have a long way to go.

Julianne - August 5, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb,
You are so spot on!
My whole childhood being was trained for performance and appearance. No wonder my report cards always stated, “Does not take criticism well.” I had to be perfect from the get-go.

I love your “flooded by emotions that render them helpless at the moment”.
I struggled with a mother whose words always had hidden manipulation to feed her narcissism. I would always freeze my thinking/emotions when she spoke because there was no honesty, just selfish maneuvering.
So when my boyfriend asked me to marry him, I couldn’t even speak. It should have been so easy to yes (he is the greatest!) but I was flooded with a torrent of emotions: “Let’s see….um .think….think…what does this mean? Is there a hidden meaning? Is he using me in some way? If I say yes, what will happen? What will this look like to others? etc, etc.” Ugh. Thankfully my boyfriend was very patient and IS now my husband of 38 years. He has taught me that unconditional love and an honest relationship can exist.
Thank you for your BRILLIANT insights. I find your wording to be accurate describing my life.
I refer many of my patients to your book and website. (I work in women’s healthcare).
Thank you again.

    Jonice - August 6, 2019 Reply

    It is amazing how much of our adult emotions stem from how our parents treated us. your story illustrates that perfectly. Thank you for sharing your experience, and also for your support of my work.

Lisa - August 5, 2019 Reply

I’m 58 years old, have read so many self help books, been through therapy, and am still way too sensitive to criticism. I have been married to my outspoken husband for 28 years, and I still regularly feel hurt by things he says. His opinion is way too important to me. I don’t have much hope of ever getting over this. My opinion of myself has always been so low that any criticism from others is just more than I can take.

    Jonice - August 5, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lisa, there is a thin line between “outspoken” and “brutally honest.” I wonder where your husband falls on this? I suggest you go see a couples therapist with your husband because his communication style provides you with a good opportunity to work through your sensitivity to criticism.

      Lisa - August 6, 2019 Reply

      If only I could get him to go. He is convinced that we are who we are, and our personalities are not going to change, so it is what it is and we just have to live with it. I say that yes, our basic personalities probably won’t change, but at least we can learn to get along better than we do.

        Jonice - August 6, 2019 Reply

        You are right Lisa. Don’t give up. Your husband probably doesn’t have a good understanding of therapy or how effective it can be. Keep working on him!

    Carol - August 7, 2019 Reply

    Lisa, when I read your comment, I realized that we are in the same boat! I am a gentle soul with CEN and my husband is an outspoken, typical Type A personality. Many times our worlds collide and my feelings get hurt. He is not mean but he can be brash altho I don’t believe he realizes it or if he does, he says, ‘that’s just the way I am.’ He doesn’t know it but he prob brings me to tears at least 3x a week. Truly, I thnk we need a live-in therapist for about a month. Most of the time I feel like a pressure cooker with so many trapped emotions and feelings. He feels the same way your husband does.

      Jonice - August 7, 2019 Reply

      Carol, this is not a good way to live your life, internalizing hurt and pain 3 times a week. I hope you can get your husband to go to a couples therapist with you. It will benefit your husband also because he’ll be far better heard by you if he says things in a compassionate way that you can take in.

      Lisa - August 7, 2019 Reply

      So sorry to hear that, Carol. I hope things improve for you.

Brian - August 5, 2019 Reply

It’s amazing how “child-like” one can become in the face of criticism, justified or not (and in the moment you can’t even tell which). I am swamped by a feeling of “it’s not fair!”, certainly coming from when I was a kid, which renders me incapable of logic, analysis, understanding… more like a computer with a single response. If I try to go back, think about times when I was perhaps unfairly treated as a child, I can’t work it out any more than yesterday. Was it me? Was it them? Blank. I can cope relatively well, and do lots of (I think!) amazing things. Therapy, and your book and blog, help. Still, it’s there, ready to neurotically reduce me to an idiot!

    Jonice - August 5, 2019 Reply

    Dear Brian, you are describing your default settings from childhood. We all have them! I think your next step is to get some help from outside yourself. Please call a therapist from the Find A CEN Therapist list on my website. Talk this through with an objective professional. You can reprogram your settings.

LG - August 4, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb, what are your thoughts about NPD and criticism?

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    Narcissistic personalities are very sensitive to criticism. They appear to have very high self-esteem but they actually require a lot of admiration from others to assure them they are good enough.

Ty - August 4, 2019 Reply

When your a child many parents tie their love and attention directly to your performance or attractiveness. Performance can mean anything from simply charming people as a two year old or earning more money than all of your peers as an adult.

As a child the attention of your parents can mean the difference between life and death so when carried into adulthood unexamined criticism of any kind takes on the same weight as a death threat.

CBT has helped me very much in this regard for the here and now. I think this and emotionally processing all those “failures” would go a long way to living a more content self-possessed life.

I also believe that handling criticism well at work can be a asset. The Peter Principle dictates that most managers will suck at their jobs yet, with their given responsibility, have the power to not just screw up their lives but the lives of everyone who reports to them. If, during your review, you can tease out that one gold thread from the self-serving semi-aware bilge of a review that they give you without drama they will consider you such an asset that they will ensure that you are last on their list for the next round of layoffs.

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    Being able to take criticism at work is indeed a tremendous asset. But any job review does require healthy boundaries that help you sort out the true, helpful feedback (even if it’s painful to hear) from the parts that are unreasonable or misplaced.

Miss Anita Pearce - August 4, 2019 Reply

Sorry to contradict and I can’t claim to be certain about this, but i would say that the feelings you mention that are felt by those with CEN when criticised – shame and anger – are not what I feel. I feel fear – anxety and despair.
I am being told a lot by people nowadays that I need to “move on”. I am stuck in the past i.e. childhood and school experiences, early adulthood friendships and jobs,etc and then the relationships that went wrong. I don’t know how to move on from them and find hope for a better future. I feel I am doomed because of the faulty behaviour and blame inflicted on me by my mother; that I have inflicted since made others suffer; and I fear my anxiety, that my Mother and grandmother had, to different degrees – is a genetic curse.

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    I would bet that the anxiety and despair you feel are leftover feelings from your childhood; probably how you felt when you received criticism from your mom. Please see a therapist to talk about all this. There is no genetic curse. These are issues you can work through with help!

J - August 4, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb,
Although I had learned to not respond defensively, hearing criticism from anyone was very difficult for me. I was so hypersensitive to even a hint of criticism, and even heard it when it was not there. My therapist would comment on something he saw occurring with only an observation and I would hear it as something that I “should” have already corrected before and therefore a criticism and immediately feel shame and hurt. I didn’t feel supported by him because he was criticizing me. My self image is so bad that I couldn’t even reject what he was saying, because I believed what I thought he was saying was true.
I finally have been able to tell him about the pain of what felt like almost constant criticism and I have realized that he hasn’t been criticizing me at all. He has been trying to help me by making observations about what he sees is happening in nonjudgmental language but apparently I have been so affected by the emotional neglect I experienced as a very young child and perhaps other experiences that I could not understand why my therapist kept hurting me like that with his criticism. I’m beginning to realize that what I thought was happening every session wasn’t happening at all. I just became aware of this about two couple weeks ago, so your writing about this topic this week is quite serendipitous. Thank you

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    Wow, that sounds like amazing work you are doing with a very solid therapist. What an important realization. Keep up the good work!

      J - August 5, 2019 Reply

      Yes, Dr. WEBB, it is a very meaningful
      change for me, since my previous point of view kept me from benefitting from the therapy. Cognitively, I could not accept what my therapist would say, because it seemed like he didn’t care and only wanted to criticize and constantly change me. It seemed like I was never getting any encouragement. Emotionally, I felt very beat down.
      This is not an over night change. I’m not sure what happened to help me to stop thinking as I had been, but to begin to realize that my therapist is really caring is coming after our biggest break in our relationship where I was ready to throw in the towel. This time I had to consciously decide to continue and purposefully take different actions so that our relationship could heal.
      I suspect that it was part of those changes that allowed me to begin to believe that perhaps this miscommunication was coming from me and my damaged emotions and thinking, instead of from my therapist’s technique or words. I have had to become humble enough to realize it was probably me! Don’t know why that wasn’t obvious!
      My therapist’s patience with my arguments and obstinate behavior and willingness to continue with me all this time (about 2 1/2 years) has been really life-saving and is beginning to transmit to me that maybe I have some worth. But that’s getting ahead of myself! This is where my awareness of the effects of CEN have really helped.

      I hope that others reading this might also have the possibility of learning that they have value, too. I’m beginning to have some hope.

      Thank you to my therapist and to you, Dr. Webb for the insight which you provide to people daily. You are helping to ease the pain.

        Jonice - August 6, 2019 Reply

        Thanks for sharing more of your story. It will help inspire many people, I am sure!

Catherine - August 4, 2019 Reply

A wise mother figure (i.e. not my emotionally immature birth mother) told me that if criticism is sudden, out of the blue, and angry, it is probably projection of the other person’s faults onto me. Genuine, helpful criticism is thoughtful and calmly delivered.

I feel like I’m working well on items 1 and 2 in your list, I need to work harder on items 3 and 4. But they will come.

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    Sometimes sudden, angry criticism happens when we hold in our feelings for a long time; then they tend to come out in a hurtful burst. I’m glad you’re working on this. You are right, they will come!

Tracy - August 4, 2019 Reply

My experience with criticism being hard to take has had more to do with never feeling the other took the care to try to understand my side of things. Therefore, the criticism itself always felt incomplete & incompetent. I have actually longed for wise criticism, a mentor, guiding wisdom, other than my own. Another point I wonder if others may share, is that I have found that others respond SO defensively to my criticism, even though I feel I tie myself into a pretzel practically to find ways to criticize productively..I make sure and say positive things, keep myself open for communication, and criticize the act, not the whole character of the person. Still, it has happened several times throughout life, that they say when I criticize they feel “attacked”. I’m baffled by this because I have worked to skill myself on this ongoing problem. Any suggestions?

    Jonice - August 4, 2019 Reply

    Everyone has a hard time with criticism, some more so than others. So we have all had experiences with well-meaning feedback backfiring. I’ve found that ppl who are raised by overly harsh, critical parents are more likely to view feedback from well-meaning people as hostile and incompetent throughout their entire lives. I think we all can get better at sorting out what’s real and should be taken in vs. what to screen out.

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