Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sticks and Stones, or 3 Strategies for Facing Judgment

Most people have a tendency to (1) judge each other (and themselves), and (2) be sensitive to the judgments of others. Our struggle to maintain a positive self-image in the face of judgment is captured in childhood rhymes: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me" or "I'm rubber and you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you."

Most of us know that saying these things doesn't stop judgmental comments from hurting. We all have areas of insecurity, where judgments play into our fears of inadequacy - emotional Achilles' heels. There are also often specific people whose judgments hit us harder, because we care more about their opinions and approval. Sometimes these are key peers, but often they are family members. Commonly, the people whose opinions matter most to us make, or have made, judgments that contribute to/hit upon areas of insecurity...a pattern that makes these judgments hurt more, and exacerbates existing insecurities.

This pattern is also another reason why family holiday gatherings can be triggering for clients (and perhaps a few of us as well). "Well-meaning" family members may ask loaded question, make subtle (or not-so-subtle) criticisms or "suggestions" that leave a person feeling flawed, inadequate, and exposed. Therapists everywhere lament the set-backs clients may experience as a result. 

Instead of repairing the damage after the fact, it behooves us and our clients to prepare them as much as possible ahead of time if/when they're likely to face criticism from important people (e.g., their families). 

One strategy is inoculation - basically, reducing the impact of criticism/judgment by exposing oneself to the likely content ahead of time. Through repetition, the criticism starts to lose its impact and become "just words." Thus, if you know that your mother is going to ask questions and make comments about your relationship status, you can prepare by rehearsing, visualizing, or writing about the possible things she may say. While it's impossible to predict and prepare for all possible criticisms, many of our areas of insecurity are criticisms we have faced in the past, and are therefore quite likely to face again.

While inoculation allows you to prepare ahead of time to reduce the emotional impact of criticism, a second strategy is useful for responding to criticism in the moment. It's called fogging, though I find that name a bit...obscure. The idea is that the ways we tend to try to defend ourselves in the face of criticism may make the situation worse instead of better, because in the process we engage with the other person around the criticism, making it stronger and longer lasting than a single comment. Instead, fogging involves not engaging in defensiveness or debate around the criticism, thereby keeping it short and hopefully discouraging further criticism. How? Some strategies include: Acknowledging the other person's perspective ("I see how you might think that"); Agreeing in principle ("You may be right"); Thanking the person for the feedback without responding to its content ("Thank you for the suggestion"); or Delaying ("I'll be sure to think about that").

Another strategy that can be used during and immediately after the criticism comes from CBT: identifying cognitive distortions in the criticism (e.g., black and white thinking - "You always/never_____"), and in our response to it (e.g., magnifying or catastrophizing), and repeating to ourselves more balanced thinking and/or affirmations (e.g., "One person's opinion doesn't have to become my reality").

What strategies do you suggest to clients (or use yourself) to prepare for and face criticism or judgment from others?

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog and have been going through your posts. On the whole your posts are well written and very informative. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I do have to say in regards to this topic I as a child experienced severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Of the 3 I have to say the emotional abuse hit the hardest more then the physical pain (which is eventually forgotten) is growing up attacked by words which make you feel worthless and undeserving of life.