Whether constructive or otherwise received from a spouse, boss, family member or friend, criticism for some of us can provoke defensiveness, justifying, rationalizing, minimizing, and sometimes self-defeating hostility. I’ve personally seen these responses to criticism displayed more frequently in those who reported histories of trauma of some sort. Whether the trauma occurred during childhood, or as an adult, often trauma is experienced within the context of relationships, natural disasters, crimes, or in a form of terror and/or. Recently, I decided to research my observations and report my findings to others in hopes of improving our understanding of the dynamics associated with trauma survivors varied responses to criticism. I also decided to break down the information beginning with childhood trauma survivors, and then secondly, to veterans of war.

Working with children of trauma

While researching the topic of childhood trauma, I located a leading researcher in the field named Bessell Van Der Kolk. In an effort to gain a better understanding of traumatized persons presenting with at times extreme difficulties in accepting criticism, I read his books titled, “Traumatic Stress” and “The Body Keeps the Score”. Both books are excellent resources not only for research, but also for those who have experienced traumatic events in their lives or are struggling with symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress. What I discovered, in short, is that children often blame themselves for their abuse. Why is that? If you think in terms of maturity, a child’s world is all about themselves (me, me, me). Also children are naturally dependent on their parents for their survival and therefore tend to view their parents on a high pedestal and have a hard time placing fault on them. The leads to the child internalizing responsibility.

There must be something wrong with me if this is happening.

The age of the child also has an effect on this. How often the trauma occurs and whether or not it occurs during a critical/sensitive developmental period are other factors. One might ask, “what is a critical period?” According to Dr. Van Der Kolk, “pruning or selection of active neural circuits takes place throughout life, but is far more common in early childhood. Animal studies have shown that there are certain windows of time during which the young are especially sensitive to their environment.” So, if we take this information about environmental influences into consideration and add it with the previously stated information that young children will blame themselves for abuse/trauma then it is highly likely that this child will grow up having developed a personal truth or core identity surrounding the deeply held belief that something is wrong with them. As they mature chronologically, it would make sense that personal criticisms will be met with defense mechanisms that developed as a reaction to their own insecurities and self-loathing.

Veterans of war and those with PTSD are also effected.

It’s no secret that returning from war can be a difficult time emotionally and mentally for veterans. The reality is that for many brave men and women to serve and protect their country they are placed in highly traumatic situations that may involve extreme violence and death. It doesn’t take much thought to understand how these experiences would significantly redefine the personal worldview and self identity of these war veterans. Often feelings of guilt for their actions in war or personal responsibility for the death of friends can make them feel like “something is wrong” with them. Because of this, it is highly probable that they will have similarly negative responses to criticism later in life as they struggle to protect their self worth.

This idea of being inherently flawed can be triggered/activated by every day criticisms whether from spouse, boss, family member or peer. The traumatized person’s past experiences will be drawn or attracted like a moth to a flame, mentally reliving the criticism. I’ve personally observed this happening in people whose relationships have ended. Often one who has lost a partner will perceive the relationship ending as evidence or proof that something is indeed essentially wrong with them.

The road to recovery

All hope is not lost however for those who struggle with accepting criticism. First, I would suggest becoming mindful of situations in which a person talks about themselves in a repetitive, demeaning, berating or other wise negative way and make a list of all those things related to a damaged personal truth. For example, “Why am I still single?”, “Why don’t people like me?”, or “I’m so stupid” Then take this list and write beside each comment a statement more realistically aligned with who you know yourself to truly be. For example, one personal criticism I hear frequently about myself is that I’m “anti-social.” On my own list I wrote next to this statement, “I definitely keep to myself because I’m an introvert.” I changed the derogatory of “anti-social” to “introvert”, which for me is more accurate and more positive. What are the good things about keeping to myself? Does it help me get things done? Provide me with peace and rest and time to think? Does it allow me to have deeper more meaningful relationship? Don’t just do this exercise on your own, use trusted supporters as a sounding board to help you flip the negativity around.

Read your new positive list daily to remind yourself of the truths. Changing a personal truth takes time and commitment so don’t expect it to happen immediately. It may also help to reflect back in an effort to understand the origins of a damaged personal truth. The hope is that eventually you will begin to treat yourself with loving kindness and self compassion that you would those you love most in life.

I am hopeful that the information I’ve provided helps each of us to better understand ourselves and others when we observe these responses in people. If you need someone to help with this or other issues you are dealing with, don’t hesitate to contact the helpful and skilled counselors at Thriveworks Counseling in Austin. Call us at 512-649-2270 today!