Clinical Psychologist (Wheaton & Naperville)
If you are a highly sensitive person, many things that others say or do may appear like a rejection or a personal, critical remark. Why? Sensitivity is often related to low self esteem and anxiety, both of which tend to shrink your attention span to perpetually scan your social environment for signs of “threats” and negativity. As a highly sensitive person, you tend to notice it more often, at the expense of ignoring the good things that may come your way, and you may react to it in a more intense way than other people. So, when feeling that someone is telling you something negative and critical and getting emotional about it, it is important to calm down first. Here are some steps:
- Take deep breaths. Frustration and anger cause physical reactions in the body, related to increase in cortisol, a stress hormone. As a result, you may feel an increased rate of breathing and heart beating, start sweating and trembling, to mention just a few physiological markers of stress. Making a few slow and deep inhales and exhales sends more oxygen to your brain, helping to relax both, physically and emotionally.
- Take a break, step away. The more emotional you feel, the less rational you become. When cortisol is high, the blood flow is drained away from the brain, and channeled into muscles instead, preparing you for the biologically instilled readiness “to fight or flight”. You need to remove yourself from the stressful situation, in order to cool off. After giving yourself this brief “time out”, you are ready to return and revisit the stressful situation. Only then, you are ready to respond more calmly and rationally. Sometimes the needed break may be 15-20 minutes, and sometimes it may require a day or two.
- Refocus. Distract yourself from the stressful situation with an activity like walking or reading. When feeling overly emotional, we tend to obsess about the issue, making rash emotional interpretations, not able to see alternatives. Switching to another activity will help to resume a more “cool” and rational line of reasoning. You can examine what is bothering you more logically and come up with a good action plan.
Once feeling calmer, let yourself evaluate what you perceived as “critical comments” more objectively. What other person said to you, their opinion of you, and if it has any credence and impact on your and your life? You can accept the feedback or respectfully disagree and ignore. Either way, it is important to process and examine the negative feedback, rather than being drawn to the extremes of believing it, taking it all to heart, or avoiding and defensively dismissing anything said to you. Consider these points:
- Why this person is giving me this feedback? Examine why this person is giving you the negative feedback. For example: is it based only on a small sampling of your behavior that this person has witnessed? Maybe something took place when you were feeling sick or highly stressed out, and it does not represent your behavior at large. Perhaps the person was stressed out by someone or something else and acted out, being rash and critical with you. Maybe the person has a history of disrupted relationships with other people, and what is said to you needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Or, perhaps, even if the feedback feels like a bitter pill, it has some truth? Maybe the person cares about you, wanting you to perform better or act nicer? You need to calm down, reflect and accept some of the the feedback. Then, think of what are some corrective steps you are willing to consider to avoid the same problems in future.
- What evidence is there that what is told to me is true? For example, if your coworker is complaining about you being lazy, look for evidence of times when you haven’t worked hard and received similar complains from others. Or when your friend is telling you that are blunt and lack sensitivity, think of times when other people commented on you being anger prone and excessively forward. As an old saying goes: “First time something happens, it is an incident. Second time it happens, it is a coincidence. Third time it happens, it is a pattern.” So, if it is a negative pattern, maybe it is time to change.
- Do I want to change any of my behavior? Remember that when people are telling you something, it is their input and perhaps a call for action, but they can’t make you do anything differently. You are free to create changes because you want to, not because you have to. So, if when thinking calmly and rationally, you admit that the negative feedback has some reality basis and you are willing to improve your behavior, it is a step toward emotional growth. Let go of frustration. Don’t get defensive and argue, but devote your energy into learning from the feedback and starting to act differently. Change their mind about you and your behavior through positive action.
Understanding that you have a choice in most things you do, think, and feel can be very freeing. If you spent most of your life being highly anxious, shying away from taking chances, and avoiding dealing with people and new situations, maybe it is time to make small mindful changes. You have a power to stop feeling like a victim and start creating a better life, learning from your mistakes. Over time you will develop a better sense of who you are, have a higher self esteem, and reduce social anxiety. You will be able to interact with people less reactively, becoming less prone to the extremes of avoidance and denial or taking things too personally. You will also learn to listen to people better: what are they really saying to you and why, how can you learn from it, and how to grow as a result?