How to deal with critical people

We all have them in our lives. People who, no matter what you do, push our buttons using criticism and complaint. It may be your partner, parent, boss, friend or relative. It’s as if no matter what you do, it is never enough. You could “stand on your head and dance a jig” as the old saying goes and it will never be enough.

So, how can we handle and cope with this? When we feel attacked or criticised, our fight, flight or freeze response kicks in and we respond in one of these ways. For example:

Partner: This house is a mess, why don’t you clean up? Automatic response: You are lazy and never help me (fight).

Boss: this report is late and the spelling is atrocious. Response: Silence and withdrawal into shame (freeze).

Partner: You spend too much, why can’t you control yourself, you need to get a job? Response: Grab car keys and drive off upset (flight).

Another way of responding which can change the unhealthy pattern is to respond in a neutral way to the criticism. For example saying “you may be right”, or “I’m not sure about that”, or “I’ll think about it”. This isn’t opting out, it gives us time to think, and take the high emotion out of the situation.

We can then assert ourselves by responding in a more healthy way. You could tell your boss you have been very busy and needed more time; organise a cleaning rota for the family; make financial decisions with your partner that will benefit you both.

People can make comparisons – a Grandparent could compare others to your child/ren: - “your sister’s children are well behaved and get good grades”. Instead of fight, flight or freeze, we could say – “I don't find comparisons helpful". 

This all may sound very strange at first as we are not used to talking like this, but as Fritz Perls MD says:

"I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, / And you are not in this world to live up to mine. / You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful. / If not, it can't be helped."

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