It can be hard to know how to respond to those who criticize you relentlessly: "You're doing it the wrong way!" "You shouldn't have done that." "Can't you get anything right?" Too often, targets of insufferable fault-finders apologize on autopilot. Or, worse, they start believing they truly are at fault.
Here's the smart, self-protective way to rebuff a chronic critic, according to communication experts:
1. Use "I" statements that play back how the hurtful words make you feel.
What that sounds like: "I feel hurt when you talk to me like that." "I really feel upset when you criticize every decision I make." "I feel uncomfortable around you because I never know when your criticisms are coming or why you make them."
Why it works: Judgmental people tend to avoid emotional truth, says Simon Casey, a psychologist in San Clemente, California, and the author of Secrets to Emotional Wealth. They tend to have low self-esteem and low self-worth. The more worthless they feel, the more they use criticisms to deflect those feelings. Devaluing others gives them a momentary boost -- they're reassured that, at least in to their own eyes, they're "better," even if that's not true.
"If you say you're hurt by their words, though, it paralyzes them," Casey says. Talking about feelings zaps the emotional distance they like to maintain between themselves and others in order to keep freely criticizing.
This approach also helps you retain the upper hand in situations when you'd otherwise find yourself walking around on eggshells. "You feel unsafe around a judgmental person because you don't know when you'll next get shot down," Casey says.
Confrontations -- "Why would you say that?" "You're wrong!" -- don't work because they only give fault-finders an excuse to justify their criticism and to belittle you further. It's much more empowering for you to turn the discussion away from the critic's perceptions of you to your feelings. "You want to take away from the abrasive person the power to justify what he said," Casey says.
2. Don't believe what you hear.
What that sounds like (said to yourself): "I'm not a bad person." "My way might be different, but it isn't wrong." "This is about his weirdness, not my failures."
Why it works: A criticism carries two parts, says psychotherapist Steve Sultanoff, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Part one is the message about the behavior, or perceived fault: "You forgot to call." Part two is the meaning implied in that message: "And therefore you're a jerk." Chronic fault-finders tend to insert an unspoken comma after "You're doing it wrong," so what the listener hears is, "and that makes you an idiot."
"What the fault-finder is really saying is that it's not your behavior that's the problem, it's the meaning of it," Sultanoff says. "But if you choose not to buy into the 'that makes me bad' part, you're inoculated against that dart -- it's not going to hurt you."
That's important to understand because, too often, those on the receiving end start believing the accuser's words. What's really happening: When fault-finders feel threatened or insecure, it's as if they go on a finger-pointing mission, Casey says. "They tend to take others' inventory to avoid looking at themselves. They're wondering, 'How do I make you look bad so I look good?'" Casey says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of this bushwhacking behavior, fault-finders often have a hard time forming close relationships. No one is ever "good enough" in his or her eyes.
3. Apologize only if you're truly at fault.
What that sounds like: "Oh yes, I forgot to call you. I wish I hadn't done that." "I'm sorry, I messed up -- but it's not the end of the world." "Oh, I goofed, but no harm done, so please don't make more of it than it really is."
Why it works: Apologizing when you're not in the wrong -- "Oh! Sorry, so sorry!" -- only feeds bullying behavior, making you a willing target for more. Many people who are constantly criticized fall into doing this kind of knee-jerk apologizing in a misguided attempt to smooth things over. But by refusing to grovel or take unjustified blame, you stand up for yourself. That brings a quicker end to the needling.
Also, before you apologize, ask yourself: Are you sorry because you made a mistake? Or are you saying you're sorry only to pacify the critic? They're two completely different things, says Casey.
If you think the remark is accurate, say so, but don't let yourself read any more into it. And don't let the accuser do so, either.
If you think the criticism is way off-base, though, don't let the fault-finder get away with it. Go back to step one and express how the unjustified dig makes you feel. Like a bully on a playground, "someone who's abrasive and critical will target someone who's victimized easily," Casey says. "The other party takes responsibility for the bully's bad behavior, so the bully doesn't need to look too closely at himself -- and the beat goes on."