When Criticism Gets Personal

Darrell’s avatar

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman

The Many Faces of Criticism

Criticism. It could be the most benign and well-meaning feedback, a venomous attack, or anything that lies between the two. There are undoubtedly many varieties of criticism. Some helpful. Some not.

Consider the backhanded compliment: “It’s wonderful how you can still pull off that outfit with your figure.”

Or the “I love you, and I’m doing this for your own good” criticism: “I know this sounds harsh, but if I don’t tell you, who will?”

Or a comment from a good friend: “When I have to wait forever for you to text me back, I sometimes feel like you don’t care much about what’s going on with me.”

Or critical feedback from a caring mentor: “That didn’t quite work, did it? How do you think you can do better in the future?”

All criticism. Four different flavors.

The impact of every criticism depends on the motivation or perceived motivation of the criticizer. Does the criticizer want to help or draw blood? Some are well-meaning while others are not so much. And sometimes the two motivations are mixed, so a seemingly beneficial criticism has a barb hidden somewhere within. Criticism can be tricky stuff.

Criticism that is fair play helps us relate better and grow. Criticism with a high enough level of ill intention can destroy or damage a relationship. Psychological researcher, clinician, and author John Gottman famously calls criticism of personality or character one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” His research shows that it’s one of the things that reliably predict divorce and should be avoided at all costs in a marriage.

It’s unreasonable to think that critical feedback is something we can live completely without. We need feedback to grow. We all have blind spots, and we all make mistakes or misjudgments. It almost feels unnecessary to state that constructive criticism can be useful. So, it’s not about no criticism, if you’ll excuse the double negative. It’s about practicing the right kind and knowing when it doesn’t help – or makes things worse.

“Criticism of others is thus an oblique form of self-commendation. We think we make the picture hang straight on our wall by telling our neighbor that all his pictures are crooked.”

Fulton J. Sheen

Separating Action from Essence: When Personality Types Come into Play

One concern counselors and therapists often bring up around criticism is the separation between what a person does and who a person is. Most would agree that actions can be criticized more freely, while a person’s basic qualities are pretty much off limits. Note the difference:

Both are criticisms. Both will probably result in some measure of discomfort – perhaps, in this case, guilt and anger. Obviously, sentence B holds the potential for more discomfort than sentence A. But notice that sentence A is criticizing an action, while sentence B attacks the other’s personality. With a little effort, people can negotiate sentence A and perhaps even resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. Sentence B is a scorched-earth tactic from which the individuals involved might never recover. Once criticism seeps into the realm of fundamental character, whether it’s accurate or not, the damage is almost inevitably done.

“Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?”

Bret Easton Ellis

People have a consistent part of themselves we call a personality. These are fixed points to a great degree. No matter what, these fixed points will hum fairly reliably in the background throughout a person’s life. It’s the consistency of a characteristic that makes it part of a “personality.”

That doesn’t mean that nobody ever changes, nor that we must accept all expressions of those fixed points. Growing, balancing, and becoming better is an essential part of a person’s development. People adapt all the time despite their inherent inclinations.

It just means that there is something core and unique about people, which we call their “personalities.” It does little good to criticize these qualities because they are hard (if not impossible) to change. A criticizer slamming an Introvert because they like their own Extraverted ways better serves no purpose. Or vice versa. A good first step in fair criticism is sorting out what is changeable and what is basic to the person – and what isn’t.

While our cores may not be all that malleable, our actions are. When someone criticizes our core personality traits, they’re telling us something is wrong with a fundamental part of us. But that’s not the same as how we act in life. We may never change our core traits, but we can certainly choose what we do with them.

Others can criticize behaviors and ask us to change if they feel we are doing harm. It is up to us, then, to decide whether such criticism is reasonable, and to change (or not change) our behavior accordingly. But by staying in the realm of action and behaviors, we can all avoid the nuclear option of criticizing another’s basic personality.

In Praise of Not All of Us Being Alike

“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

One thing that comes with learning about personality types is the realization that not everybody is alike, nor should we expect them to be. Tolerance flows from that realization. We already discussed how criticizing won’t change certain things and will only hurt feelings. It’s like telling someone their nose is too large or their ears are too big. Unless we’re plastic surgeons, we tend to accept these physical things in others. Our personality traits are similarly unmalleable in some ways.

Giving feedback on how a person expresses his or her personality may be fair game. Talking about action is reasonable, but criticizing a personality can be tantamount to an emotional assault. We can talk about what people do, not who people are. With that in mind, our interactions, even our critical interactions, often take on a gentler and more compassionate tone.

A Word about Turbulent and Feeling Traits

“When art critics get together, they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together, they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

Pablo Picasso

People with the Feeling personality trait may take criticism more personally than those with the Thinking trait. They are more likely to see maintaining a good relationship with others as a primary consideration. Criticism might feel like a relationship is being threatened on some level, even if it’s not always true.

Turbulent people will project their own self-doubts onto what the criticizer says. Because of their own uncertainties about themselves, they may see a personal attack where none was intended. They may be criticizing themselves already, and criticism from others just turns up the volume even more. Or they may drive themselves far harder than anyone ever intended in an effort to “fix” the criticism.

“Sometimes I think,
I need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”

Sanober Khan

For individuals with a Feeling personality type and/or Turbulent Identity, the trick is to understand themselves well enough to lessen taking criticism personally. Knowing themselves might make it easier to say, “There I go again.” Realizing their tendencies can help defang any negative impact from criticism.

For the criticizer, they might want to be careful to design a criticism that is both reassuring and still offers the necessary feedback for people with these personality traits. There’s an old formula some managers use when doing their yearly evaluations with their employees. They start with two positive statements, throw in negative feedback, and end with another positive statement. While this would make criticism more palatable for almost anyone, this trick may be especially helpful when giving feedback to the more sensitive among us. For example:

“I like your enthusiasm in the office. It inspires others. Your paperwork is always on time, and that helps things move forward. That helps me do my job, and I appreciate that. However, you might put in a little more effort to be on time yourself. The office doesn’t work as well when you are late, and we need you here at or before 9:00 a.m. We need you to be on time because you are among our most efficient workers and you get things done. It’s important that you are here.”

That may be too formulaic for many. But the idea is still solid. Couching criticism within appreciation reflects good faith feedback and balances the negatives with a person’s positive qualities, behaviors, or worth. It’s harder to take criticism personally when it’s couched within nice compliments. Turbulent and Feeling folks may appreciate this most.

“I want freedom for the full expression of my personality.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Knowledge about Personalities Is Power

The more we know about our personality traits and those of others, the better we can use our strengths, temper our weaknesses, and get along with people. Criticism is a great example of this. When some things are off-limits, like nonnegotiable characteristics of others, we can learn to accept those things. We can also learn to address only behaviors that can be changed. That’s the difference between mutually seeking improvement and doling out pain.

What’s your experience with criticism? How do you see it reflecting your personality type? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Further Reading

Your Personality Type, Warts and All

Bearing Ill Will: Why Some Personality Types Can’t Get Over Arguments

Anger and the Four Personality Type Strategies