When you have social anxiety, being criticized can feel like being under attack in a war zone! It is your worst fear coming true. This is what you dread – facing the criticism nukes. Individuals with social anxiety would like to avoid all situations where there is even a small likelihood of being criticized. However, unless one chooses complete isolation and avoids all human contact, this is not possible or even desirable.
Attempting to be perfect in order to not be criticized is another solution that would allow one to escape being targeted for criticism. Although this makes logical sense, it does not work in the real world. This is clearly exemplified by social media trolls who troll people who are great looking and high achieving! Excessive perfectionism that is fueled by fear of judgment has also been found to cause one to experience high levels of distress.
The best solution would be to arm oneself with skills that will allow one to face the criticism effectively. Done in baby steps and with a self-encouraging attitude, it is very doable. The more the skills are practiced, the less the criticism stings and the more empowered you become.
When criticism hurts
When one is socially anxious there is a tendency to be so focused on being judged that the validity of the criticism is not questioned. In the moment of being criticized all you feel is the sense of shame at being found deficient. Remember that not all criticism is valid, so do question it. One needs to also question whether the criticism serves any purpose at all, even if it is valid. Furthermore, even if the criticism is valid and necessary the delivery needs to be respectful. Being deficient does not justify being disrespected. Everyone makes mistakes and has shortcomings, including the person who is being critical. Accepting that you are as human as everyone else will help you to develop a different mindset and belief about being a worthy person regardless of your deficiencies and errors.
Responding to criticism
Criticism can present itself in different ways in our lives. Here are some ways in which one can respond to criticism:
- When the criticism is valid, constructive, and respectful in delivery, it may still cause one to feel upset to some degree. This is the case particularly for individuals with social anxiety. To cope it would be helpful to stay focused on what the other person is saying while you calm yourself by taking some deep slow breaths. It is likely that as the minutes tick by you will be able to focus more on what is being said and recognize that this is not an ‘attack’. When calmer, you will also find yourself in a better position to ask for clarification and also explain your position, if the helpful criticism is not completely valid.
- Remember that in instances where the criticism is not fair and your behavior is within your rights it is appropriate to clarify and explain without offering lengthy excuses or apologies. Defending yourself and not accepting unfair criticism in whatever way you see fit is your right so long as it is done with respect. This is what assertive communication is all about. For example, if a co-worker were to say you were a tardy person when you were late to work on a rare occasion you could respond by saying “being late occasionally does not make me a tardy person”. This is likely to be challenging initially. The trick is to set small goals when you start and to say more as you become more comfortable. So, the initial goal may be to speak up in situations that are less anxiety provoking and to simply object. For example, saying “I don’t agree” to someone you are fairly comfortable with may be all that you aim for initially. Do give yourself credit for taking those initial steps of speaking up, even if it is brief and the situation is not too challenging. Remember to not beat up on yourself if you do not speak up in more challenging situations as you move forward in your journey to becoming more assertive. As the anxiety begins to decrease you will be able to move towards addressing more challenging situations.
- When the criticism is invalid, unnecessary and given disrespectfully, it would very naturally trigger considerable distress. At such times, it would be good to follow the strategy of focusing on calming yourself initially. This can vary from doing slow breathing exercises, to counting backwards or focusing on something extraneous to distract yourself from the unpleasant situation. If you find yourself in a situation where your emotional response is intense, leave the situation if possible and go to a quiet place, like a rest room, where you can take some time to calm yourself before returning to the situation. You also have the option to respond to the criticism by saying that you would like to think about what has been said and talk about it later. It is okay to not respond immediately and take your time to reduce distress, figure out the best course of action and respond with more composure. It is important to give yourself permission to respond later and not be hard on yourself for not responding immediately in the earlier phases of skill building.
- Sometimes, in the case of manipulative and emotionally abusive persons the intention of the criticism is get you to react and get upset. In such cases ignoring or not reacting would be the best way to go.
- Agreeing with bullies is another strategy that can knock the wind out of their sails since it demonstrates that you are not taking them seriously. Typically, such individuals nitpick and point out deficiencies or mistakes that everyone makes including themselves! So, agreeing to the mistakes and deficiencies is no weakness but an attitude of “I have these deficiencies and make these mistakes, so what?”
- Sometimes unhealthy criticisms are indirect. They can be conveyed through facial expressions and body language. At other times criticism are veiled and implied. In such instances, it would be good to ask for clarifications. For example, if someone were to state that they dislike your line of work or profession without addressing you directly you could ask them to explain what they mean. This causes such people to experience the discomfort of explaining their passively aggressive statements and not repeat these kinds of veiled attacks.
- When people make blanket judgmental criticisms, it is also good to ask for clarifications. For example, if a friend were to say that you are always selfish, asking them to specify the instances that demonstrate your selfishness would help create room for clarification and problem solving.
- When one is being criticized in the presence of other people a big part of the distress is associated with the sense of being shamed in the presence of other people. The criticism then takes on a collective quality where the judgment causes one to feel isolated into a shamed corner. However, the reality is that it is the person who is displaying the unkind behavior who gets judged for bad behavior by others. The person who is the target of disrespectful behavior usually gains the support, of those who witness such behavior whether the criticism is valid or not.
Learn from it or let it roll off of you
Hilary Rodham Clinton once said “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.” This can be easier said than done. If you have difficulty dealing with criticism, you are not alone. Nobody likes criticism or dealing with it. However, criticism and negative feedback can be valuable teachers too. Sifting the worthwhile from the toxic feedback and learning how to deal with criticism will allow you to be well armed in the battle of life. The more you practice and hone your skills of dealing with criticism the easier it becomes to stay strong and remain self-accepting.
How to Get Help for Social Anxiety
The National Social Anxiety Center is a national association of regional clinics with certified cognitive therapists specializing in social anxiety and anxiety-related problems. We have compassionate therapists who can help you to reduce social anxiety. Currently, we have regional clinics in San Francisco, District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago, Newport Beach / Orange County, Houston / Sugar Land, St. Louis, Phoenix, South Florida, Silicon Valley / Sacramento Valley, Dallas, and Des Moines. Contact our national headquarters at (202) 656-8566 or visit our Regional Clinics contact page to find help in your local area.