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."


12 months ago, 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 1 year ago, 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 1 year ago, 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 1 year ago, 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 1 year ago, 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 2 years ago, said...

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


over 2 years ago, 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 3 years ago, 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 3 years ago, said...

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


almost 3 years ago, said...

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


about 3 years ago, 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 3 years ago, 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 3 years ago, 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.


over 3 years ago, said...

Barnie is right. A fault-finder is so insecure, they will twist around anything you say to make you feel bad about yourself, including calling you "too sensitive." I'm wondering what would happen if you looked them in the eye and stood your ground firmly, without appearing confrontational and simply turned it around on them and asked them a question, such as Why did you say I never do anything right? or whatever their put-down was, and don't back down until you get a straight answer. Or you could say confidently (without sounding confrontational) "I respect your opionion, but I feel strongly that...(etc.)" It's really hard dealing with this type of person. They usually fall into that Narcissistic Personality Disorder category, which is nearly impossible to deal with because ANY interaction feeds their need to beat you down. Usually the advice for these types is to disengage and avoid them. Not always feasible, but you can also ignore their derogatory comments, not react in any way (your defensive reaction is what they love) and continue doing your thing with confidence, showing them that what they say has no power over you. Hope this helps. I'm still trying to learn ways to deal with these obnoxious toxic menaces.


over 3 years ago, said...

For suggestion #1 ("I statements"), I'd like to know how to follow up. 90%+ of the time, if you tell a fault-finder "I'm hurt by your words", they reply with "I'm only being honest, and you're much too sensitive. How should I come back to such a response??


almost 4 years ago, said...

Oops, that sentance should have said "I"m sure I have gained weight."


almost 4 years ago, said...

One thing I have done which has worked sometimes is just agree with the difficult person. It can sometimes disarm them. What can they say if you agree with them? Responses like "I'm sure I have lost weight while you look directly at them. Or,"Yes the food tastes bad" while you keep eating Don't try at all to defend yourself. It's a losing battle.


almost 4 years ago, said...

Especially point number one! My sister-in-law has hurt me many times by her words.


almost 4 years ago, said...

@scampernanny: You have to recognize that it's not the person who's laying all that criticism upon you, it's their disease -- the disease of Alzheimer's, which takes hostage anyone whose body is its host. I know my grandma used to do and say some really vile things to Mom and me (my dad, for some unknown reason, really knew how to pacify her) and make us cry, Mom (her daughter) especially. On one hand, sure, we were wounded by what Grandma said, but on the other we also recognized that this isn't what Grandma was saying, it was her Alzheimer's. Her Alzheimer's had completely taken over Grandma (BTW, she had it manifested in her as early as when I was eight, so I never got the stereotypical warm and nurturing experience with my grandma) so that was where her words originated. I think you'll find Paula's article more useful if you take them as suggestions for people who are still completely present of mind, people who are trying to stir up trouble with you or otherwise treat you maliciously.