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Taming the Modern Shrew

You know the shrew type person. She (or he — yes men can be shrew-ish too) is always criticizing something. No matter what you do, it isn’t enough or you aren’t enough to please them. Even when you think you are doing exactly what they want or exactly what they said they want, all that comes your way is either a begrudging acknowledgement or new demands that you do it differently. It’s frustrating. It’s angry-making. It’s painful.

With all due respect to Shakespeare, shrew-ness isn’t easily tamed. But when the shrew (the person who is constantly harping on you) is someone who is significant in your own life or in the life of someone you love, then it becomes really, really important to try. To completely break away from a relationship with an important shrew you would rather love often leaves a raw place that never quite heals.

How to Tame a Shrew

Remember it is your choice to be offended: Yes. Really. It is your choice. You can choose to rise to the bait or you can refuse the invitation to be defensive. It’s enough that you know you are okay. You don’t need to explain or apologize for who you are. In fact, explaining and apologizing only exposes an insecurity the shrew can pounce on. Simply acknowledge that you’ve heard the shrew’s comments without agreeing or putting yourself down. Just say something true but neutral that responds to their comment. Then go on your way. Useful lines are: “That’s interesting.” “I’ll have to think about that.” “I appreciate your concern.”

Don’t let the shrew control you: Doing the opposite of what a shrew wants is letting them be in control. Huh? Yep. Here’s an example. A mother keeps criticizing her middle aged daughter for using too much make-up. The daughter responds by experimenting with more and more intense eye shadow. “That will show her!” thinks the daughter. In fact, her mother is still in control. The daughter isn’t doing what she herself thinks is best but is instead reacting to her mom.

Look past the shrew-ness to the fear: Often the constant critic is really very scared. They are afraid that you will do or say something to hurt them so they head it off by being hurtful first. Or they are afraid of losing control. Or they are afraid for you — that you are doing something that will only bring you pain. Or they are afraid they might lose status or respect or significance in your life. If you can look past the criticism and snide comments to the scared person inside, you can be more forgiving.

Acknowledge your own part in the interaction: A shrew needs someone to be a shrew against. Yes. Sometimes a shrew is an equal opportunity nag who will find something to criticize just about anyone, no matter what. Often their criticism is undeserved. But sometimes, if we’re really truthful, we have to admit that we do do things to provoke (if only out of our own frustration and hurt). Sometimes it helps to apologize for our part in it. Saying something like “I’m really sorry I upset you”, may derail the onslaught.

Don’t respond in kind: It may be tempting. But being a better shrew than the original shrew only means that now there are two shrews in the room. Matching criticism for criticism (“I may be disappointing you in this way but you are disappointing me even worse. . .”) won’t get you anywhere. Now the shrew can criticize you for being critical.

Don’t ignore the shrew either: Often the only way a shrew knows they are important is by offending others. Not feeling seen or heard, a shrew panics. They then turn up the volume or get even nastier in order to make sure they have your complete attention.

Do respond with compassion: What a difficult path the shrew has chosen for their life! To always find something to judge or criticize, the shrew needs to be constantly disappointed by how others aren’t meeting their impossible standards. Being a shrew takes being willing to be seen as a bore or a nag. Picture the sad person inside the bully. You may then be able to find it in yourself to be empathetic instead of angry. Lovingly say something like, “I can see that this (whatever it is) is bothering you a lot but it will be all right.” That may settle things down some.

Reframe the behavior — at least in your own mind: Reframing means thinking about a behavior in a different way. For example: When visiting her adult daughter, a critical mother always started cleaning as soon as she came in the door. The daughter reframed her mother’s behavior as being the only way her mom had to contain her anxiety about the visits. She has decided to not be offended by her mother’s frantic re-cleaning of her clean house but instead to see it as a way her mom is trying her best to exercise self-control and to even be helpful.

Find a way to give the shrew another role in your life: You needn’t get rid of the shrew to get rid of shrew behavior. If you want or need to remain in relationship with the shrew, find another role for them besides being the best at being judgmental or troublesome. Praise them whenever they are being supportive or encouraging – even a little bit. Affirm their importance by making use of their talents and skills. Ask for their advice or help. Use some humor coupled with understanding to put a more positive spin on conversations. With persistence and patience and time, you may be able to tame the shrew.

Taming the Modern Shrew

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Taming the Modern Shrew. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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