3 Ways to Shush a Constant Critic

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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.

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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.

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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."

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

8 months, said...

#1 will not work if the criticizer has a mental condition such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). For someone with that problem they are ABSOLUTELY always right and you will ALWAYS be wrong, regardless of the circumstances. And even if you're truly NOT at fault they will decide that for now and forever you are wrong, even if you decide to take the fall and apologize even if you shouldn't have. The best defense with a NPD person is to just not answer and don't engage. You'll never do anything right. Period.

12 months, said...

I ran across this article and boy am i glad.. so glad that I have to high five the author of this article, Paula Scott. My wife and i are literally on the verge of a marital breakup. I was finding every possible fault on her so i would feel better and so i could finally break off our marriage. She replied to my criticisms exactly the way Paula told it in this article to reply "Your words are hurtful, i feel i never do anything right anymore. You have to listen to yourself how you treat me." It stopped me from throwing further insults at her, but it didnt take long maybe a couple hours or more before i started throwing blame at her again about why our marriage is not working out and how she is stressing me out. She then told me that i need to seek a prescription or therapy from my doctor about my attitude and chronic criticism/fault-finding disorder that i have had for over 20 yrs now. Its been a part of my personality and Paula is right, fault finders never change, it' still in us and only takes a push of a button to trigger our fault finding machine. Fortunately i ran into paula's article, now i know that my wife is fine the way she is, and that the problem is me. I have shared this article to my wife and hopefully it will help patch things up since now i am aware of where the problem is. I want to change honestly because i love my wife so much, but ae just end up fighting a lot for the last 20 yrs of our marriage. We managed to hang in there and most credit goes to my wife. She is a keeper and i am just a jerk (and a bully). I hope for the other jerks out there that they read this article too so they can turn the table around and see that the problem is themselves and not the other person that they are hurting. Religion or being spiritual does not help..... im super helpful kind and generous to others but was not to my wife. I do not have low self esteem however, i do have high expectations of people doing it the way i want and set my self up for disappointment a lot because i feel im smarter and better than my partner (kinda like steve jobs' mentality). I have apologized to my wife sincerely and i owe her the world now. I will now be aware or myself and where the problem lies... and that is me, the chronic critic who makes people miserable. That explains now why i have few friends. My wife is my truest closest and only friend who stood beside me. I love her forever.

12 months, said...

I ran across this article and boy am i glad.. so glad that I have to high five the author of this article, Paula Scott. My wife and i are literally on the verge of a marital breakup

almost 2 years, said...

I agree

almost 2 years, said...

I have a supervisor who makes a big production out of finding an error, making it seem that the sky is falling and everyone listening to this confrontation just assumes that i am constantly doing everything wrong because i dont fight back. All interactions are either negative or he wont answer my questions or he rolls his eyes and does not respond. His public surprise attacks always carch me off guard. I typically stand there quietly until I can get away. But once he hops on his soap box, he just keeps dwelling on it. He has made my life miserable. If i offer suggestions, he accuses me of arguing with him. Recently, i analysed an entire episode, writing down each bad behavior. I decided that he was a big bully and he was only succeeding in tearing me down and convincing everyone i was an idiot because they only ever heard his side. I confronted bim outside and with great conviction i told him that he was going to stop talking to me the way he has been. There is no excuse for being so mean and abusive. That i was going to start defending myself, vocally. This ends today!. The next time he blindsided me with an acusation which suggested i was doing somethibg wrong or stupid. I clearly stated in great detail that he had instructed me to do it and i was following thru on getting him his answer. In other words, i let everyone know that i was doing my job correctly, and for once it was obvious that i was not the one that was an idiot. He loves reinforcing his own importance. The last thing he wants is to look stupid or wrong. He has been very causcious of me ever since. Bullys pick on people who dont defend themselves. People who allow them to behave as monsters without any conseguence. Remember, when they can escalate their own value by putting down others, their ego is getting stroked. Time to stop allowing his ego to feed off of you. Be prepared, know what you are going to say and defend yourself. Good luck

almost 3 years, said...

Ironically, one of the criticisms my criticizer has of me is that I use the words 'I feel' too much! Years ago I began using those 2 words after being taught in a class -and this article also tells one to use 'I feel'.

over 3 years, said...

I have noticed faultfinders do not discriminate: they tend to "take everyone's inventory but their own," as the saying goes. When targeting me, I have replied to the offender that the accusation or comment was a "hurtful thing to say" (not that I was hurt - important distinction) in order to give notice. When telling someone who is in a rut of finding faults with everybody else that their comments are "hurtful statements," I have noticed that pleases offenders, and it does not stop them. Faultfinders do not apologize. I have guessed (I am not a psychologist) that the faultfinding personality stems from either low self-esteem and/or control issues; and until the faultfinder does something with his or her time other than find faults with everybody else, s/he will maintain low self-esteem and continue to put everyone down in order to feel better about himself or herself, and/or until the faultfinder learns how to control people in their space without resorting to manipulative crticisms, they will continue to dominate that way. I am not on a mission to rescue faultfinders. I avoid these people; and after giving them notice, they will be confined to my logical processes, i.e., no emotional attachment. If I were genuinely hurt by someone in my life (at work or home, etc.) time and again, then I could not expect that someone to change, nor could I turn into a Vulcan (e.g., Spock) and shut off emotional attachments to everyone. I could disconnect from the faultfinder, and I have a few times. Every moment is precious, and not to be misspent on baseless accusations and constant criticisms.

over 3 years, said...

Thank you. I'm at a loss with my moms husband of twelve years and I've decided if I needed to arrange my responses in a healthy way to take mom out of the line of fire and since I have to be around him even though I limit those times as much as possible. I chose courage for my one word this year and I will be brave in the pursuit to assert myself with all people in my life. This article helps.

over 3 years, said...

Thanks Paula, but obviously you have never met my mother. After saying "It really hurts me when you ridicule my (mentally disabled) daughter" (yes, she really does that), my mother says "Oh, you're just too sensitive". Any alternative rebuffs to offer? P.S. I stay away as much as possible. Thanks

over 3 years, said...

This person will explain that their criticism is just trying to help me - don't you want to improve yourself? If I stand up for myself or say that these words hurt me, I am told that I'm being defensive and attacking this person. I am criticized for all aspects down to how hight the flame is under a pot of water.

almost 4 years, said...

When I say to my husband it hurts when you are so critical he says your too sensitive

about 4 years, said...

I have actually said to him, I beg you please just try to be nice to me, please try to say kind things, please don't be so gruff. It hurts me so much and often appears out of now where, for no seeable reason? I have also tried this approach of saying I feel hurt when you say ____ to me. It did seem to work for a little while, but what then do you say when he then ignors you or says back "I don't care?" - Yet he can also be so loving and kind at other times, I just don't know what to do?

almost 5 years, said...

As a former critical person I'm continually learning more and more about my behavior. So yes, this is helpful. I am finding the Enneagram quite helpful as well for behavior modification and creating compassion.

almost 5 years, said...

The three ways of answering to unfair criticism were very objetive and will help me a lot.

almost 5 years, said...

separating stated from the implied part of the communication. Many thanks

about 5 years, said...

I have a family member who is just like this He has pointed the finger TOO many times and will say mean things to others about them also. We had to take care of our mother together and he would find something a fault that I was doing She has past (mom) and now it is my brother who need care and He finds something wrong with me as to me calling to see about him At this point I've had enough and keep my distance knowing that it is about control not love or caring for a person. At this point I must take care of my husband who has Health issues and he is my first concern.

about 5 years, said...

Great information, and it confirms what I've always believed about fault-finders -- they choose to validate themselves by belittling others. Even with the great suggestions here for handling their barbs, I wonder if chronic fault-finders will EVER recognize what they are doing, or why they do it. Will they truly recognize themselves in an article like this one?

over 5 years, said...

Using logic to fight this assumes you are dealing with a logical person. You're not, & it is useless to try. Do you commonly apologize to your aquantances for who you are? What would you do if an aquantance became hurtful & critical? You'd drop them. By putting up with this behavior, even by trying to discuss it, you are encouraging it. It is best to just ignore it, do whatever you have to do to ensure the basics are in place, & leave. If the person involved is able to learn by operant conditioning, they will--assuming they even care if you are there-- soon associate your leaving with their behaviour & stop. If they do not, you can assume they either: 1-don't care, or 2-are no longer have the ability to learn.