If someone accuses me of something or yells at me, my reaction is: they must be right. In my mind, I’m always guilty, even if it’s not true. As a result, when people are verbally aggressive with me, I freeze up. What do I do? Help!
I have good news for you: There are specific skills you can practice that will help you get better at maintaining your composure and speaking your truth in these challenging moments. It will take practice, to be sure, but if you’re willing to do it, you will gain confidence in handling aggressive criticism.
The skills follow the acronym CURE.
1. Collect yourself. The reason you freeze is because your brain has coded certain cues as dangerous. Figure out what those are. You mention yelling. It could be that early in life a raised voice was followed by something threatening. It could be facial expressions. It could even be criticism of any kind. I have struggled with that myself. When emotionally significant people in my life express disapproval, I can begin to play a “DANGER” tape in my head—and go into defense mode.
The brain’s most basic function is to ensure our survival. And it is pretty good at that. In fact, too good. The brain’s design is overengineered for threat-assessment. It doesn’t care if it identifies false positives (things that prove NOT to be threatening e.g., a dust bunny in the corner that you mistake for a snarling mouse). Thus, most of us code far more things as danger cues than we need to.
The way to dismantle these is to recognize what you’ve mistakenly categorized as threatening and begin to practice a calming routine the instant one of those cues presents itself. For example, when someone raises their voice, you can breathe deeply and slowly to remind yourself that you are safe. This signals that you don’t need to be aroused for physical defense.
Noticing your feelings helps, too. Are you hurt, scared, embarrassed, ashamed? The more connected you are to these primary feelings the less you become consumed with secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or exaggerated fear. When you notice these emotions, call them out to yourself, “I am feeling scared, embarrassed, ashamed. And feeling these things is okay.” Thinking about your emotions helps you be less overwhelmed by the feeling of them. I find it calming as well to consciously connect with soothing truths, for example by repeating a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe.” or affirming truths like “If I made a mistake, it doesn’t mean I am a mistake.” Finally, if you can’t calm yourself in real time, ask for time to do so. For example, if someone is dumping on you, you can say, “I’m not in a good place to do this right now. It is important to me that I understand what you’re saying and be able to express myself as well. Let’s do this at 9:30am tomorrow.”
2. Understand. Once you’ve calmed yourself enough to engage, you can maintain your sense of safety by adopting a posture of curiosity. Ask questions and ask for examples. And then just listen. Detach yourself from what is being said as though it is being said about a third person. No matter what they say, repeat in your mind, “This is information about them not me. I will sort it out later.” This perspective helps you bypass the need to make judgments about your shortcomings in the moment. Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story. To help you avoid your inclination to give in to others, make a strong statement at the beginning, “My goal is to understand how you see this. I will then give it some thought and would like the opportunity to share my point of view as well. If that’s okay with you, let’s start.”
3. Recover. It’s sometimes best at this point to simply exit the conversation. If needed, explain that you want some time to reflect and you’ll respond when you have a chance to do so. Give yourself permission to recover from the experience before doing any evaluation of what you heard. A group I know that is really good at giving and receiving feedback has a phrase they use after getting a shovelful of criticism: “I will take a look at that.” They don’t agree. They don’t disagree. They simply promise to look sincerely at what they were told on their own timeline.
4. Engage. Examine what you were told. Don’t poke holes in the feedback. Look for truth. If it’s 90% fluff and 10% substance, look for the substance. There is almost always at least a kernel of truth in what people are telling you. Scour the message until you find it. Then, give yourself equal time to examine what others need to acknowledge. You seem to struggle with standing up for yourself. If so, imagine you were a neutral third party looking at the situation. What would a third party say was NOT your responsibility? Be sure to give all sides their due—even yours. Then, if appropriate, re-engage with the person who shared the feedback and acknowledge what you heard, what you accept, and what you commit to do. At times, this may mean sharing your view of things. If you’re doing so with no covert need for their approval, you won’t need to be defensive.
This may sound like a moon shot from where you are, but if you’ll just start with the C, you will feel some immediate effects. As you are able, add the U skills, then R, then E. Little by little you will realize you are safer than you used to think, and that listening only hurts if you make it so.