Critical people make rude comments, judge our decisions, talk at length about what we’re doing wrong or rarely have anything nice to say. One way to deal with them is to stop being with them altogether.
But this isn’t easy to do when the critical person is your boss, colleague, family member or your partner’s father. In other words, you can’t just stop seeing them for the rest of your life. And in some cases you might have to interact with them on a daily basis.
The problem with being around critical people is that they’re draining, said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thorn works with individuals, couples, and families in helping them improve their relationships.
“[W]e can only process so much negative emotion and take so many hits to our self-esteem before we start to become angry, depressed, anxious, etc.”
But the good news — and an important fact to remember — is that we always have a choice. “[W]hether or not a person is difficult for us to deal with depends largely on how we choose to react to them,” Thorn said.
One choice that doesn’t work is getting defensive, even though a) you really want to and b) it feels all-too natural. But this only sparks arguments, she said.
“Critical people are often not aware that they are being critical, because their criticisms are a projection of their own issues onto someone else. So, if they’re already unwilling to engage in self-awareness, chances are you lashing out at them is not going to change that.”
It’s also not helpful to stay silent, she said. That’s because a critical person may misinterpret your silence as acceptance, and “criticize even more because they assume they’re being helpful.”
What is helpful?
Thorn shared these valuable strategies.
Being assertive means maintaining respect for the other person while standing up for yourself, Thorn said. That is, you don’t blame the person or demean them, she said. Instead, you clearly and specifically communicate that their criticism is hurtful to you, or that you don’t appreciate it.
The key is to be firm but kind, she said. Thorn likened it to dealing with young kids: To set a limit with a 3-year-old, you don’t yell or belittle them. Instead, you’re clear and direct, and you can always end with mentioning what they mean to you, she said.
Thorn shared these examples:
- Your in-laws won’t stop discussing how you and your spouse should handle your finances. You tell them: “I appreciate that you’re obviously concerned about our well-being, and that we have you here for support and advice when we need it. Nonetheless, the way we manage our money is really up to us. And we will make our decisions based on what is important to us, and what we feel is best for our family.”
- Your colleague regularly comments on your clothes. You say: “I understand that you may think what you’re saying is funny or in jest. But I want you to know that it is hurtful. And because I want to maintain a good working relationship with you, I’d appreciate if you’d stop making comments about the way I dress.”
- Your partner keeps telling you that you aren’t romantic, you never listen to them and you just don’t care. You tell them: “I can see that you’re unhappy, and you would like some parts of our relationship to improve. However, when you simply blame me for things, I feel really hurt and hopeless. I really care about you, and would love to talk about ways we could work together to make our relationship more of what we both want.”
Back up words with behavior.
“[I]f someone refuses to respect a boundary you’ve set, it is perfectly acceptable for you to exit the conversation. This is how you back up your verbal requests with action and behavior,” Thorn said.
For instance, you’re talking to your uncle over the phone. He continues to criticize you, even after you’ve directly and clearly said that it bothers you. You tell him that you need to go, and then hang up the phone.
You don’t scream or slam the phone, Thorn said. You simply take an action (i.e., hanging up) that supports your boundary. (Again, this isn’t about being harsh back.)
“We teach people how to treat us by how we act, what we say, and what we do or do not allow,” Thorn said. As such, she suggested letting critical people know what is helpful.
For instance, let’s say you open up to a friend about your struggles with parenting, Thorn said. Your friend starts pointing out the things you’re doing wrong and sharing their advice. At this point, you let your friend know that this isn’t what you’re looking for. Instead, you’d appreciate them just listening to you.
In another example, your boss is being critical. According to Thorn, you say: “When you point out all the things I’m doing wrong, I feel devalued and confused. I want to do good work, and what would really help me be more effective is if you could also point out some of the things you think I’m doing well so that I can use those as a gauge for what exactly you’re looking for.”
Thorn reiterated that giving feedback isn’t about blaming the person. Rather, it’s about owning your emotion and being specific about what you want from the person, instead of criticism, she said.
Remember you’re worthwhile.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to internalize the harsh words someone says about us, and to berate ourselves even further. Thorn suggested reminding yourself that you’re so much more than what one person says.
Sure, maybe you can improve in some areas. All of us can. (This is simply learning and growing.) And either way you’re worthwhile and worthy.
Thorn suggested this additional reminder: “I matter. I don’t have to please everyone. It’s OK that I’m uncomfortable; it means I’m in tune and receiving information about how I’m feeling.”
Take a break from the relationship.
If you’ve tried to set boundaries and communicate how you feel but the person still disrespects your limits, it might be time to take a break from the relationship, Thorn said.
Of course, this isn’t so simple when the critical person is your boss. But, as she said, “It doesn’t really matter who the other person is — being constantly criticized can turn into a form of emotional abuse, and it’s not OK.”
Dealing with critical people is uncomfortable and can trigger doubts about our own worth. Being assertive is a powerful strategy to practice with anyone in our lives. Just remember that you’re a valuable person. Each of us has faults. Each of us has room to grow. That’s the beauty of being human.