How do you respond to criticism?
The answer can say a lot about your level of self-confidence and well-being.
Whether or not the criticism is justified or realistic, your response to being criticized gives valuable insights into what you can improve.
I used to respond to criticism by instinctively lashing out and feeling defensive, but nowadays I’m slower to respond and don’t take it as personally.
The reason is because I took a look at how I react and what it means and then did some inner work to change how I feel about criticism and how I react.
Let’s dive in and look at various reactions to criticism that indicate low self-esteem.
1) Hitting back
Like I said, this used to be my go-to reaction:
When somebody criticized me, I’d criticize them right back as soon as possible.
Even if it was constructive criticism, I’d go with my cut.
And my gut told me “this person just cut you down, get a dig back at them right away.”
I did this because I was insecure. I didn’t feel very secure in myself, so being criticized (even fairly) made me feel insulted and vulnerable in a way that I didn’t like.
I responded by trying to “lower” the other person accordingly, in hopes it would alleviate the emotional injury I felt.
Another response to criticism that shows low self-esteem is defensiveness.
This can come in many forms but it means that you react by denying the criticism.
For example, take an unfair criticism lobbed at you:
“You’re so annoying, I hate the way you talk so much.”
In reality, you may just be very friendly and kind. You’re hurt. But if you have low self-esteem you don’t respond by asking why the person feels that way or leaving the situation.
Instead, you defend yourself:
“No I’m not. I have barely even been talking. What are you even talking about? I’m just trying to be friendly.”
Your defensiveness may be true, but the instinct to defend yourself is a sign of low self-value.
Somebody who’s falsely accusing you of something and being overly critical doesn’t deserve your defense.
Some of us are more paranoid than others, generally speaking.
But if you react to criticism with paranoia then it shows you have issues with your self-esteem.
Criticism is what it is: sometimes it’s skewed and inaccurate. Sometimes it has a grain of truth. Sometimes it’s highly constructive or even true in a way we don’t like to face.
But paranoia takes it to the next level:
Criticism is part of a larger plot against us or “nobody” truly appreciating us or getting us.
If you find that criticism makes you feel like everyone is out to get you, it can be a sign that you’re quite insecure and are falling into a victim mindset.
4) Dwelling on the criticism
When somebody criticizes you, it’s usually not pleasant.
If you have high self-esteem and feel secure, however, it can sometimes be useful.
For example in your relationship or at work a criticism that you’re a bad listener can help you start listening more.
However, when you have low self-esteem it’s almost impossible to let a criticism go.
Even a random stranger criticizing you weighs on your mind.
You ask other people what they think: “was the stranger right?”
You stay up at night wondering: “did they have a point?”
You’re beset by worries triggered by the criticism, because your self-image was already quite low.
5) Ignoring the criticism
Another reaction to criticism that indicates low self-esteem is simply pretending it didn’t happen.
This is like denial that I mentioned earlier, except this is even more hardcore.
You don’t specifically deny the criticism or say it’s unfair or untrue:
You just pretend it never happened.
You erase it from your mind, heart and memories as soon as it happens.
Even if it’s your spouse, your parent or your closest friend, any words they spoke to you which could be construed as a criticism (even a mild criticism) roll off your back.
You don’t stop for even a split second to consider if there’s anything to them. You just completely ignore the criticism and pretend nothing was said.
6) Saying sorry a lot
On the more passive side, we get those who respond to criticism by saying sorry too much.
If this is you, then you know how it feels to be criticized and immediately feel an urge to say sorry.
Even if the criticism is completely unwarranted, you find yourself apologizing over and over.
You say you’re sorry for what you did, what you didn’t do, how the other person feels, how they don’t feel:
You name it, you’re sorry!
Deep under all those apologies is a deep-seated fear of being inadequate or “shameful” in some way that rises to the surface as soon as somebody criticizes you.
A close cousin to over-apologizing is appeasement.
This is where the criticism makes you give in to whatever the person wants who is criticizing you.
It is the equivalent of holding up the white flag of surrender:
“Please don’t hurt me or criticize me more, I agree with you! I’ll do whatever you say and even criticize myself, too.”
This shows you have very low self-esteem.
A person criticizing you is not inherently right or well-intentioned. They may be trying to manipulate you or hurt you.
The truth about being criticized
Just as it’s very possible to overreact and become upset or defensive against criticism, it’s also possible to overreact in a submissive way to criticism and assume it’s justified or valid.
The sweet spot is to take criticism with a grain of salt and be skeptical while still being open to the possibility that at least some of it is justified some of the time.
Those who criticize you can at least be asked why they’re doing this and what they want.
Your decision what to do from there is on you.
Handling criticism constructively
Handling criticism constructively is a two-fold process.
First of all, determine if this criticism has any merit. Who is it coming from and why?
Be patient and assume it might have something you can learn.
If there is some merit or value to the criticism, try to remain emotionally stable and ask questions to find out more about why this person is criticizing you.
What can you learn from what they’re saying? How can you change?
How can you take this criticism in a way that helps you act more responsibly and effectively but that isn’t over-apologizing or having a negative view of yourself?
In other words how can you take value from this criticism but also not take it personally?
If you’re sure it’s groundless criticism or unfair and targeted in a malicious way, learn to remain tranquil and don’t get involved.
Try to exit the situation as soon as possible and realize that the person criticizing you likely suffers from very low self-esteem themselves.