In this article, I discuss thinking skills you can use to take the emotional ‘sting’ out of being criticized.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

In my previous two articles on how to respond effectively to criticism, I discussed how what to say and when to say it can improve your chances of giving an effective response. In this article, I discuss how what you think when you are criticized can also determine the effectiveness of your response. I will focus on strategies to help you think in a manner which will contribute to an effective response.

Why thinking is part of an effective response to criticism: Hot thoughts

The reason it is important to monitor your thinking when you are criticized is that criticism often leads to hot thoughts. These are negative thoughts which enter your mind automatically in response to events you encounter. The negative nature of hot thoughts stems from their tendency to focus on negative information and to overlook positive information. As such, hot thoughts are more akin to negatively skewed beliefs than to accurate or factual views of events.

For example, were your supervisor to criticize your performance on a task you performed, you may experience hot thoughts such as “My supervisor doesn’t like me,” and “I’m not a good worker”. Having one or both of these hot thoughts stemming from such a criticism would add to your distress in the form of strong emotions such as anger, frustration, guilt and anxiety. In turn, your experiencing these intense emotional states would make it difficult for you to respond constructively to your supervisor’s criticism in your words or actions.


How to lessen the negative impact of hot thoughts: Use ‘assertive defense of the self’

Fortunately, there are skills from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which you can use to lessen the negative impact of hot thoughts stemming from being criticized. One such skill is ‘assertive defense of the self’ which was pioneered by psychologist Dr. Christine Padesky.

In this technique, you make an assertive defense for each hot thought stemming from the criticism in order to lessen its negative emotional impact on you. In many instances, you can make an assertive defense by refuting the hot thought with evidence. Using the example in which your supervisor criticized your performance on a task at work, an assertive defense to the hot thought “I’m not a good worker” would be “Although my supervisor criticized my performance on some tasks today, I have demonstrated consistently that I am a good worker”.

You can practice responding to hot thoughts stemming from criticisms with assertive defenses. This practice can be done by yourself or with another person (e.g., friend, family member, psychologist). While practicing, rate how strong your emotions are on a 1-10 scale when you give your assertive defense following the hot thought. A drop in the intensity level indicates that the assertive defense you made is a If there is little or no drop in intensity, you should come up with a better assertive defense for that hot thought.

How thinking skills lead to constructive responses to criticism

As I indicated in my last article, it is much easier to respond constructively to criticism when you are in the relatively calm ‘green light’ state than when you are in the emotionally charged ‘red light’ state. ‘Talking back’ to your hot thoughts with assertive defenses will help you to shift from a state of red light to green light following criticisms which will, in turn, facilitate constructive responses. The more you practice this thinking skill, the better you will become at lessening the negative emotional impact of criticism and at responding effectively if and when you choose to do so.

How to respond effectively to criticism is one of many skills I help my clients learn in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.

May you use thinking skills to lessen the sting of criticism,

-Dr. Pat