Are You Hearing Criticism That Isn’t There?


Ideally, conversations would be calm and thoughtful. Meanings and intentions would be clear and considerate. In reality, even the most mundane interaction can be rife with hurt and misunderstanding.

Many of us are quick to hear criticism in other people’s words. Sometimes we may throw back harsh words of our own. Other times we might retreat and replay those words over and over in our mind.

Why do we do this? Why do we jump to conclusions and assume the worst?

Maybe we hear so many criticisms and judgments and attacks because we’re looking for them. It’s natural for us to want to protect ourselves so we’re on the lookout for danger. The thing is, when we make a habit of searching interactions for potential threats, we’re likely to find them.

We tend to be especially vigilant in areas we already feel insecure. We watch for evidence confirming our worst fears about ourselves. We’re less likely to feel defensive in areas we’re confident or that don’t matter to us.

It can be frustrating to be on both sides of a misunderstanding. I know I sometimes hear judgment that isn’t really there. I’ve also been surprised by the ways others have interpreted my words and hurt that they believed I would be so cruel.

So what do we do? Shifting our default way of interpreting meaning and changing our go-to reactions can take some patience and practice. Here are some things that might help…

Practice questioning your interpretation

In quieter moments we can question the meanings we’re attributing to an interaction and consider how we’d prefer to respond. It’s easy to default to what feels familiar, but, if we keep practicing, new patterns of thought and behavior will become more comfortable.

One way to do this is to separate the facts of a situation from the stories we tell ourselves about it. On one side of a sheet of paper, write down only the bare facts of what happened. On the other side, write out the story of how you interpret that interaction. What other interpretations could you draw from the same set of facts?

Byron Katie’s The Work is another exercise that can help us examine whether the beliefs we’re holding are true and helpful , as well as how those beliefs shape our reactions.

Practicing when we’re calm is helpful, but we don’t have time to work through these exercises in the middle of a conversation. How do we bring that calmer perspective to the original moment of interaction? With practice, asking ourselves a question as simple as what else could this mean? can remind us to look for other possibilities when we’re jumping to an upsetting conclusion. Of course, that requires us to notice when we’re assuming the worst…

Pay attention to how you feel

The more we learn to identify our emotions and become aware of our default way of acting when we’re experiencing those emotions, the more likely we are to recognize when we’re getting upset.

Our bodies give us signs if we’re paying attention. For example, my face feels hot and tingly when I’m feeling upset and defensive. Since I know that, I can use it as a cue to remind me I’m trying to choose a different response. Now, when I notice my face get hot and tingly in reaction to something someone else said, I can pause, take a deep breath, and ask myself what else they might mean. This is definitely a work in progress, but it helps.

What physical cues does your body give you? Shaky hands? Churning stomach? Rapid breathing? Something else?

Give yourself some space

Creating a little space between someone’s words and your reaction gives you a chance to question your interpretation and choose your response. Creating space can be as simple as taking a deep breath.

When things get heated, step away if possible before responding. It’s ok to ask for some time to calm down and think before continuing a conversation. Remember that you can revisit a conversation if you’re not satisfied with the way it ended. Once you’re calm, you can clarify with the other person to see whether you understood what they said correctly.

Look inside

What do you get out of assuming the other person is being critical, judgmental, or just plain mean? While it might seem like we’d get more out of assuming everyone is kind and supportive, blaming them can let us avoid looking at what’s really going on inside us.

Think about when you react defensively. Do you notice any patterns? Does it happen with specific people? Around certain topics? Is there any connection to what is going on in other areas of your life?

Dig deeper into those patterns. What is it about that person? Are you trying to earn their approval? Did they hurt you in the past? Do they have something you wish you had?

Why is that topic so sensitive for you? Are you afraid you’re making the wrong choice or worried you don’t measure up? Do you feel misunderstood? What would it take for you to feel ok without validation from anyone else?

Have you been dealing with a lot of stress or fear? Are you taking frustration with one person out on someone else? What needs aren’t being filled right now?

Set your intention

We tend to find what we’re looking for. It can be helpful to set our intention before interactions whenever possible, especially ones we know will be tricky. With practice, it will become more natural to look for connection instead of criticism.

I have a tendency to go into interactions looking for others to tell me it’s ok to be who I am. When I do that, any differences between us can feel like criticism. If, however, I make a point of looking for connection instead of validation , I’m much more likely to find what I hope for instead of what I fear.

When I notice a habit of assuming criticism, it can help to set an intention to assume the best . Now, this doesn’t mean naively pretending something is ok if it’s not. Rather, it helps me shift from a stance of constant defensiveness to a calmer, more generous space where I can choose my response instead of just reacting.

I’d love to know…what is your go-to response when you hear something that upsets you? What helps you take a calmer approach?