When I was a young boy, I would often feel the sting of my father’s criticism. As a highly sensitive male (HSM), I would always take to heart his feedback and retreat to my room. No matter how hard I tried to please him, I would always find that there was something else that I could have done to improve or performed better in his eyes. It was a painful lesson I learned young, that sometimes you just can’t please everyone. Later in life, I recognized that my father was an HSM as well. Like many men of his generation, he tried to bury that fact in by not acknowledging those characteristics in himself that he saw in me. His answer was to force me to take the same route he had, which was a denial of his sensitivity.
As I grew older, I rebelled against him. It was fashionable and trendy at that time to rebel against your parents and I fell in line. We often had tense moments, I began to loathe being around him, and then abruptly, he died. I never got that opportunity to explore with him our HSP characteristics – an opportunity that would; I believe, have bridged the gap between us. His criticism still stings to this day.
This week, I’d like to discuss the receiving and giving of criticism for HSMs. Highly sensitive people are often criticized for their perceived hypersensitivity to criticism and are often accused of this primarily from people who are not very sensitive or empathetic. This is often compounded by HSPs self-admitting to being overly sensitive to harsh or brash criticism. The truth is we as HSPs do internalize criticism and become our own worst critics.
Highly sensitive people tend to have an intuitive understanding of where we are in our world, a kind of situational orientation, provided in large part by our greater sense of ourselves and the environment. We tend to overanalyze our situation, and in some cases, I believe we assume that we are right and correct because of this analysis. It’s almost a hidden agenda for us because we feel we can control the environment because we have done so much internally to analyze and prepare for it.
When we are criticized, especially unexpectedly, we tend to overcorrect because we have overthought the criticism. In other words, we don’t look for the criticism as feedback, but rather and sometimes harshly, internalize the delivery of the criticism and overlook the message. With that in mind, many HSPs tend to people please in order to avoid criticism. We quickly learn the expectations of the critic and modify our behavior to avoid the causes of their criticism. When we don’t take this tact, we often find that the external criticism coupled with our own internal criticism overwhelms us with emotion. This leads to defensiveness, withdrawal or shutting down.
When defensiveness becomes the regular coping strategy, an almost narcissistic attitude develops that we are not at fault, but rather the critic is faulty in their analysis. The walls go up and productive communication shuts down. When ego gets involved, we like most people, do not want to feel that we should be submissive to other’s critiques or if the criticism is harsh or unfounded to the devaluation of our ego. As Dr. Steven Stosny says, “the valued self, cooperates, the devalued self, resists”.
Criticism takes many forms and the deliveries reflect that. The criticism that goes wrong and fails to connect, often focuses on character and not behavior and is filled with blame. When criticism is not focused on improvement and is presented in an unconstructive manner, it is likely not to be received well. The realization by the critic and their subject that there very seldom is one absolutely correct way to do something and that the critical offering is to suggest an alternative for improvement, make the discussion about the suggestion more palatable to the person getting the feedback. This is especially true for highly sensitive people.
The reaction of oversensitivity to criticism may be learned from childhood. The childhood environment whether over critical or even non-critical can influence the child’s ability to receive criticism later in life. Oversensitivity to criticism may have roots in narcissism, perfectionism or obsessiveness. All of these traits may have been learned at the direction of the parents. If you compound the sensitive nature of HSPs with the childhood environment that may create a hypersensitivity to criticism it’s easy to see how constructive feedback or harsh attacks can be lumped together and then avoided.
HSPs tend to ruminate over conflict and this can lock us into not releasing the criticism. Releasing the criticism is like unwrapping the package and then discarding the package and keeping the gift. We tend to focus too much on the package and forget that the gift is the prize, not the wrapping. We tend to avoid conflict, which would include criticism because of some inherent feelings of vulnerability over differing opinions or just the risk and fears of disagreement. When receiving criticism we need clarification of the criticism to help us remain authentic and in preserving our sense of validation. We tend to sometimes overlook the facts and focus on the emotions involved, which attaches us too much to the suggested outcome instead of regarding it as a possibility for consideration. Research suggests that there is a correlation between our hypersensitivity to criticism and our perception of negative bias towards criticism.
Many HSMs compartmentalize feelings to avoid overwhelm. Our handling of criticism falls into this category. Sometimes delayed reactions occur as a result of bottling up the emotion, leading to withdrawal, anger or retaliation. The key to handling criticism is to remain calm, that is to say, keep the emotion objective with self-regulation of a peaceful internal state. This takes practice. Meditation, exercise, being out in nature, following a spiritual practice, Yoga, Tai-Chi or doing brain training will help aid in being able to conjure this state when needed. Your reaction to criticism is by now automatic and through mindful awareness, you can begin to control the reaction.
As males do we need to find better ways to handle criticism? Yes. Part of the problem is that many people who are in positions to critique others are miserable at offering feedback. To the larger, non-HSP population, criticism may only be a mere annoyance, but to many HSMs, it’s a personal affront. I do not think that in any way, HSPs are not capable of handling criticism in the spirit in which it is given. Yes, we tend to over sensationalize some of it, but truthfully, if given in the spirit of helping us improve, I certainly think we can handle it even if at first, we don’t agree with it. Part of what we need to do is help educate those around us, with suggestions on how to best offer us feedback. If the idea behind the criticism is to affect change, then certainly those in positions on offering us criticism should be open to criticism of their feedback.
We as humans are self-correcting organisms. As a species, we have the ability to offer correction advice to each other for the overall preservation of the group. It’s going to happen, wanted or not. In today’s online environment with social media being what it is, we are experiencing emboldened criticism of each other, some merited, some unmerited. Some of this criticism will sting and avoidance of it is impossible. The only thing we can do is to control our reaction to this criticism and realize that sometimes there is a kernel of truth and opportunity in every criticism. All feedback is good feedback. Even the harshest and most insensitive means that at some level you have affected someone else in such a way that has caused them to react to you. You are not a shadow; you live life in the open. That is a good thing.
Here are some tips for handling criticism:
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.