What do you do if your partner, parent, colleague or friend habitually criticizes or belittles you? Friendships often will fizzle out if both people are not enjoying and supporting each other. When a work atmosphere gets bad enough, people often exit and find a new job.
In relationships in which we are deeply bonded emotionally, invested financially, or which give structure and security to our lives, it is not easy to leave. When we are struggling with the dark emotional atmosphere that criticism creates in relationship, it’s hard to recognize the choices and solutions that are possible in paving the way to change.
People often tell me about their painful emotional experiences, enduring years with a partner who criticizes and judges them. Hanging in there, living with high levels of anxiety, and hoping that the other person will somehow magically change is all too common.
People often want to figure out how to say just the right thing that will turn the conversation around in order to create a fair, compassionate, considerate and safe playing field.
Sometimes others’ criticism is analytical and unemotional. Sometimes it loud, strident and raw. Either way, being told that we are flawed, wrong, or not good enough hurts deeply and causes emotional and spiritual damage. Self-doubt, shame and walking on eggshells tamps down our authenticity and affects our physical health. Trying to change someone who is frequently emotionally triggered usually does not work.
The pathway to change starts by engaging with one of our best resources- the brain. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry imaged the brains of women who had experienced long-term emotional abuse. This research demonstrated that the pre-frontal cortex and related areas of the brain that are responsible for self-awareness and regulating emotions were thinner because, like our muscles, the brain develops through stimulation. Depression, moodiness and dulled emotional responses can result from emotional abuse, noted Jens Pruessner, one of the researchers for this study.
Because our brains are so “plastic” and respond to stimulation, we can change our neurological wiring and dramatically increase our ability to recognize painful and destructive thoughts and behaviors and make choices that re-pattern our responses.
Paradoxically, even without direct cooperation from the other person, we often can influence the dynamics in a difficult relationship. The starting point is inside ourselves, not on the other person. Focusing on working skillfully with our own thoughts, feelings, needs and ways to support ourselves in the face of criticism is the first step in consciously creating change.
We can activate our inner advocate, connecting with our innate wisdom and giving ourselves the support and emotional nourishment that returns us to a state of peace and steady clarity, even in the most difficult situations.
Three Essential Tips for Shifting Criticism in Relationships
1. Step back and focus on yourself. Emotional triggering is contagious. Instead of lashing out or collapsing into a swamp of intense emotion, give your self first aid. Take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. Bring in warm compassion, support and empathy for yourself. Connecting to our genuine feelings and needs is a healing balm and helps us return to the present moment with resources and clarity. A simple silent acknowledgment like “I’m feeling hurt and I want respect and understanding in my relationships,” allows us to hold space for ourselves no matter what is happening with others.
2. Once we feel more resourced, we can bring in compassion and curiosity about the other person. Wondering what they might be feeling and needing acknowledges that underneath the behavior that we don’t like, this person is struggling with distressing emotions and needs that they are trying to meet the best way they know how. When someone is behaving in hurtful ways, this is not easy, but worth the effort. Compassion in action has great healing power.
However, offering compassion and understanding does not mean we have to tolerate hurtful words or behavior.
By connecting with ourselves and generating empathy for the other person, we are laying the groundwork for a positive relationship dynamic.
3. Once we are calm and resourced, we can get creative about action steps.
Interrupting and telling the other person you need time to calm down reflect on what just happened, and that you’ll be ready at a particular time to come back and engage can be helpful.
Part of your inner resourcing work can be to get clear on your boundaries and around behavior and words that are acceptable. Inviting this person to decide together on ground rules that support respectful conversation is another idea. We all say and do hurtful things in our relationships and the art and skill of repair is essential so we can reconnect in a healthy way. If the other person is not willing or able to manage their emotions and criticism, you may let them know in advance that you will leave the room if they raise their voice or become critical.
Setting boundaries and communicating our values around how we want to connect and communicate is not only an act of self-care, it also opens the relationship to new possibilities. Expressing your feelings and needs in a vulnerable way can soften and disarm the other person, if you feel safe doing this.
An intense relationship pattern like criticism usually has deep roots and may take time and effort to change. Acquiring a toolbox of communication and connection skills and strategies gives us the power and clarity to invite others in creating caring, trusting and respectful relationships. The other person may not accept our invitation, but once we start expressing and modeling healthy behaviors and attitudes, the dynamics of the relationship often improve.