How to Deal with Critics: Personal Boundaries, Part 3

Mulla Nasruddin had invited a self-important but famous scholar to his house for a meal. When the scholar arrived at Mulla’s house, he knocked and knocked, but there was no answer – Mulla had forgotten about the appointment.

The scholar looked through the windows, but there was no one at home, and he got angrier and angrier. How dare he keep ME waiting?, he thought. In a fit of fury, he took a brush and inscribed, as largely as he could, the word “IDIOT!” on Mulla’s door. Then he threw the brush down and left in a huff.

Nasruddin returned home not long after and saw what the scholar had left for him. Immediately he began running after the scholar.

I am so sorry! I am so sorry! he yelled. I had completely forgotten; I only remembered when I saw that you had left your name on my door!

Setting Boundaries

This post is a follow-up to the Personal Boundaries series. The first two were quite broad; this post goes in slightly more depth. How do we deal with the various intrusions on our boundaries?

You can find the first two parts here:

Understanding Human Nature

Mulla Nasruddin is one of my favourite characters; his childish persona conceals much wisdom. And he demonstrated one vital point in that story:

When someone abuses you, perhaps, just perhaps – the problem does not lie with you, it lies with them!

If someone is harsh and critical, there are so many possibilities. Why make it into a problem with you? Perhaps they were just tired; going through a difficult period in their lives. They might be looking at a negative stereotype, a caricature in their head and not who you really are – why take their words to heart?

Perhaps you just happened to be in the way of their pain. Their anger had to be let loose, and if you weren’t there, they would have done the same thing to someone else. Realise this deeply, carry it in your heart when you walk the world. By and by you will become immune to the barbs and wires of such men and women.

Does the Problem Lie With Us?

However, the opposite can sometimes be true – is that person really violating our boundaries, or are we over-reacting? Just as a critic can react harshly to an innocent comment, so can we. Perhaps we have genuinely made a mistake, and they have every right to be angry. How do we know where the problem lies?

It is important to realise we never see the world as it is. Our emotional state, our physiological state – perhaps even the movie we saw last night – and countless other factors constantly influence the way we see the world. If I was in a good mood, for example, I might ignore a driver who cuts me off on the highway. What if I haven’t slept in days, or if I just had an argument with my best friend? The same driver, the same action – a very different reaction.

Similarly, core issues also influence the way we see things. I once knew a girl who suffered from abandonment issues – she feared being left alone more than anything else. One day she called me up in a panic. She had come back from a holiday and her boyfriend was twenty minutes late to pick her up from the airport – and she automatically assumed he didn’t want her anymore. The more logical explanation was also the real reason – he was stuck in traffic.

A Rational View

With this in mind, then, the first step is obvious – get a rational, realistic perception of the situation. Who is truly at fault? Do you need to make amends? Are they truly attacking you, or are your emotions colouring your perception? What actions do you need to take?

Study the list of cognitive distortions – watch for them – both on your part, and theirs!

Further Reading: Knowing and Mastering Your Thoughts with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Our Reaction

The next thing is to consider our reaction. There will be many times where we simply have to protect ourselves, or defuse the situation so nobody gets hurt. Very often – when there is a threat of physical violence, perhaps – the best thing to do is to simply remove yourself and cut off all contact.

But attacks can come in such subtle ways – snide verbal attacks and backhanded compliments on your character, your value, your worth. How does one react? It is beneficial to first know how one is not to respond.

The Wrong Responses

These responses can be broadly categorised into aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive.

Aggressive responses:

Aggression might feel good for a while, and it might even seem effective because some people will retreat. But – and this is common knowledge! – aggression breeds aggression. Others will cut themselves off from you; yet others will retaliate, and all you end up with is more pain.

We have to realise that sarcasm is also a form of aggression, the disguised attack of a coward. Yet this is a very natural tendency, and one has to be on the alert for it in all its various forms. I know enough not to raise my voice in anger when I am under attack, but if I meet someone who is snide, cocky – my natural urge is to cut them down in a similar fashion.

Defensiveness is in the gray zone between aggression and passiveness. It is still reactivity, trying to brush off the attack, pretending it doesn’t hurt, or awkwardly changing the topic. Naturally, it is important to note defensiveness is different from protection – protection should always be a priority.

Passive responses:

The second unskilful response is passiveness, a form of surrender. You remain silent, or you apologise, and agree with their judgement of you. This might work temporarily, for it can be a good way of stopping a critic in their tracks. The anguish, of course, comes afterwards. The wound remains, bleeding long after the conflict is over.

As we discussed in the previous post of the series, however, a passive response can also come from someone who has dropped their boundaries – but theirs is a quietness born of strength, not of weakness. Until one has reached that level, passiveness is a destroyer of self-esteem.

Passive-Aggressive responses:

The last response is a curious mix of the first two. On the surface, it looks like surrender, and yet the aggression remains, disguised in various ways. When I was in university, for example, I was once pressured into doing a friend’s homework for her. I didn’t want to do it, for I was tired and stressed. But I could not stand up for myself – I was afraid she would not like me – and I grumbled and complained under my breath as I did it. Even worse, I did a lousy job on purpose, knowing that she will fail. So what? I reasoned. It wasn’t my fault.

Such pettiness and cowardice! In many ways this is the worst of the responses. My self-esteem was already suffering from the initial surrender, the meek yes response; and it took another blow when I realised how cowardly my counter-attack had been.

A Naturally Mature Response

All ineffective responses reveal something very strange, something deeper – you secretly agree with them! If your skin is whole, and someone scatters salt on your arm, there will be no pain. It is the same with verbal barbs and stings – a tall man can only laugh when someone calls him a midget. Where does the anger or surrender come from? He will instinctively know the fault lies with the critic, not him.

Salt can only hurt us if it reaches a cut in our skin; an insult can only sting if there is already pain in our heart. If someone was to call you hideous, worthless – would there be anger? Only if we hide a deep insecurity. Our true work, then, is to build our self-worth, to heal our wounds and our false images of unworthiness so that they no longer bleed.

A mature, effective boundary comes naturally when the metamorphosis is complete; when the butterfly has blossomed. Until then, the best we can do is a practiced, reasoned response.

Honest and Direct

The key to a mature response is honest, straightforward communication – making sure there is neither defensiveness, nor aggression. They might have made a mistake; but they are not the mistake – they do not deserve to get attacked. Correct the person, telling him or her how you wish to be treated, and state what you are or are not willing to do.

While it would be impossible to cover all scenarios, I’ve found three general guidelines to be tremendously helpful:

  • Honesty
  • Directness
  • Self-Protection and Care

An Example

A few years back, I used to work with a woman who was very rude and condescending. My tendency then was to respond in kind. She will disguise an insult as a compliment, and I would do the same. This went on for a few meetings, until I realised that I was being aggressive because I had secretly agreed with her, a sign of my low self-esteem. One day, we were at another meeting, and she began her attacks again.

I decided to simply be direct and state what we were both doing, and to honestly admit that we were both wrong. Lastly, I made sure that I was taking care of myself, and perhaps her, with the response.

“We have both been very childish,” I said. “Let’s stop insulting each other, and concentrate on the task at hand. It will make our interaction much more pleasant, and we will both get the job done in much less time.”

She was so surprised she became quiet and we finished the meeting in peace. Naturally, how polite or firm I am will differ according to the situation, and that statement might not have been the best – but it was the best I could think of on the spot.

There is another benefit to directness and honesty – just as our perceptions are clouded, so too, are theirs. They might think they are being powerful or assertive, when they are just being obnoxious and childish.

Stronger Insults

I have found these three guidelines enough for most difficult people. But there will always be some who are much more difficult or extremely self-centred. Again, the urge is to fall back to the ineffective response styles, but it is doubly important to resist the urge.

I’ve found that a good option is to state a consequence of their continued attacks. Again, this is not to threaten, or hurt – that would be falling back into aggression. Sometimes, you would have to decrease contact or simply end the relationship, refuse to give them what they want, or make a report to the authorities.

It is important to be ready to enforce the consequences. This is another reason for honesty – we cannot bluff or threaten aggressive consequences like violence.

Holding your ground in a firm but non aggressive way is challenging, but it will be an incredible learning experience. It is likely that readers will have a better tips and guidelines for such situations; I would love it if you shared them in the comments.

Further Reading:
More Assertiveness and Self-Respect