Coping Effectively With Criticism as an Emotionally Sensitive Person

Having Borderline Personality Disorder, for me, often means coping with emotions that show up more intensely than they may for others (especially sadness and anger and feelings that come up with loneliness and perceived rejection or abandonment). This has been a major component of my walk. Specifically, learning to cope with criticism has been a huge challenge for me for many years, as it is for many emotionally sensitive people.

I recently blogged about all of the ways in which I am seeing healing and growth in my own personal journey using Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), determination, and trusting in the process.  You can read about those, correlated to the symptoms of BPD, here.

I still, of course, face challenges. This morning I received an upsetting email. It was from someone who was upset with me for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with her self-revelation that she feels she is lacking much in her life, including the support that she desperately feels she needs and deserves.  For that, I felt compassion and empathy.  Her message went on to criticize me in a number of ways, many of which I read as having more to do with her own current problems than really about me, but it rattled me none the less. I felt badly that someone felt this way. I knew I had to put up my boundary bubble and NOT take on this person's reaction as "the truth" of my experience. Just because she felt it and expressed it vividly did NOT mean that it her perception and feelings were true for ME.  This is a huge issue for a lot of us with BPD -- discovering where others end and where we begin -- but it has been an essential part of healing for me and many others. Perhaps you have noticed improvements in your ability to cope as you learn to implement and enforce boundaries in your life.

I've talked before about how it used to be intolerable for me to cope with someone not liking me or what I do. I would bend and twist and morph to try to please everyone, because it meant more to me to please others, retain their admiration, and not "rock the boat," than it did to figure out who I really am, what I want, what my values are, and how I choose to live those out -- not to mention the need for taking care of myself when attacked verbally.  Sound selfish?  It might if we've spent most of our lives focusing on keeping everyone else happy, content, and okay and little attention directing that same love and care toward ourselves.

It isn't selfish. It's part of healing.

If I'd received this critical message even two years ago, I probably would have acted impulsively -- maybe even as extremely as removing my blog.  I'm not that same person.

Can you relate?  Do you feel a need to compensate for others criticisms?  Do you find, as an emotionally sensitive person, that you want to accommodate others and make them happy, because knowing they are unhappy with you causes distress?

Coping Effectively With Criticism 

I'm not going to say that this person's email didn't upset or hurt me, because it did.  But with continued reflection, I brought my Wise Mind online.  You can try this the next time you find yourself reacting to criticism:

  • Sometimes criticism is constructive.  Being emotionally sensitive may mean that our initial reaction is to become alarmed or upset by criticism, seeing it as an attack on who or as rejection. We can usually tell the intention behind the critical remark given the context in which it is delivered. Sometimes we also need to ask for further clarification.
  • Check your sensitivity level.  Might you be reading more into the critique because you are feeling particularly vulnerable for other reasons?  (I personally received some very upsetting, hugely triggering information about a friend of the family yesterday, and I also felt a little bit triggered by a friend's story, though ultimately I found it healing and helpful. I was in a space to receive things from an even more sensitive perspective than usual when I opened that message.)
  • Check intentions when you can. When criticism is clearly given to make you feel bad or judge you, you can often notice other messages in the person's communication that can help you see that the criticism is less about you and more about the other person. They may be hurting, lacking, feeling jealous, or seeking approval or validation.  If you pick up on this, try being a little bit kind, but also set up a boundary that you do not accept being treated badly when someone else is feeling badly about themselves.
  • Use your DBT skills to cope with the distress.  Rather than making matter worse, turn to your Distress Tolerance and Self-Soothing skills to care for yourself until the intensity of your reaction diminishes. The intense emotions and reactions that can come up with receiving criticism WILL pass. No matter how intense they feel right now, I've found it's better to wait a bit before taking any action, as we often regret behaviors that we act out in the heat of the moment and as a reaction to feeling hurt or attacked. 

Is coping effectively with criticism an issue for you?  How do you cope?  How might you use some of the ideas here to cope more effectively in the future?

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.


  1. I think that there's definitely a lot to be said in how the criticism is being framed, and what that criticisms are about. There are somethings that if I am told them I get immediately triggered and have a lot of trouble overcoming.

    I also have had a tendency to just take it from people that I've called friends. That I will nod and apologize and won't challenge, won't rock the boat because they are friends and I can't risk losing them.

    But you made a good point when not accepting being treated badly because someone is feeling badly about themselves. And it was a step I had to take this weekend to walk away from someone I cared about because his constant criticisms of how I was living my life was creating a really toxic atmosphere. Where I didn't even want to deal with him.

    I think sometimes, in cases like mine anyway, PLEASE skills can come in handy, and knowing when to walk away. Just because I can have compassion for someone, doesn't mean I need to enable their bad behaviour; and I have every right to not have to deal with that.

    I've also had a lot of trouble dealing with my writing - because of ADD; I have a tendency to mess up quite a bit grammatically speaking, as well if I am going to fast I could use the wrong words, ect, ect. There are a lot of issues I've had in the written format. Which is why I tend to be a bit better at public speaking then writing. That being said I have been working harder at getting better.

    It has taken a lot of work to get to where I am today to accept even someone correcting my grammar without over reacting. Sometimes even if I'm asked to clarify something, I would get upset. But now am at a place where I can take it, and need to take it because I am trying to get better at writing and to be taken more seriously.

    Anyway, I rambled on a bit here - but I definitely needed the reminders on these today. Thanks!


    1. I am the same with someone correcting my grammar. I would not do it to them. I get so bent out of shape for the littlest things like this. I will let it ruin my whole day even! madness!

    2. Oh, I hear you. I get the same way with typos (which I frequently make). I also have OCD, which further complicates things, but I find that we are often our own worst critics and are way too hard on ourselves for what are really very little things. Thank you for commenting!

    3. David,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience like this, and I'm so glad that this post has served as a helpful reminder. Huge hugs! ♥ Debbie

  2. I am the same way with my BPD. Yesterday for example, my husband gave me a constructive criticism and it threw me for a loop the whole day. My whole day was crushed. feelings of no worth, guilt, dread.
    it was awful.
    how do we change this. wish there was a pill for this!

    1. Hi Gentle,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. This really is an issue for so many of us with BPD or not. I wish there were a pill for it, but really, the only way I've found to get better at this is to practice the skills and by changing my thought processes as I've outlined in my post called Coping Effectively with Critism as an Emotionally Sensitive Person. I hope that in working on it you notice improvement with time! ♥ Debbie

  3. I know in my case my BPD is most likely a combination of genetics and being abused as a child. I think in a lot of cases of abuse as a cause/factor in BPD we are so sensitive to criticism because we've been so exposed to it all our lives it has rubbed our emotional skin raw. I've been Borderline for a long time, just in the past few years have figured out there is a name to my "issues" and a way to try and overcome them.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing part of your story, Lauren. Proud of you for being an overcomer! ♥

  4. criticism, even constructive, can be such a huge, bad trigger. i am new to DBT and working alone, but i have already had the chance to step back and see the comments someone made to me as "their thoughts" and although it hurt, they were correct in part of their criticism. the tough part is taking responsibility without beating myself up about making the mistake.
    still, there are things people said to me YEARS ago that still get to me. wish i could dissect that stuff out of my brain...i do use art (drawing) as my therapy (self-soothing, and a great way to channel pain).
    i will try to remember your post about telling your critical voice to calm down and not let things get to me so much. long road ahead! ;)

    1. Hi Christine -- this used to be a HUGE trigger for me. It is still troublesome, but a lot less so. With time, patience, and working the skills, it can get much better. Thank you so much for your comment! ♥

  5. I face some form of criticism almost every day, and I am a caretaker for a relative with dementia which adds hugely to stressers. I do not have a diagnosis of BPD but I feel like a lot of my extreme sensitivity and inability to handle or correctly express my emotions come from this because I have struggled with them since I was a very young child. I'm almost desperate for advice. I know I am damaging the most important relationship of my life because I feel a constant urge to self-protect and to assume that the other person dislikes me and doesn't want to be around me when that's not the case. But I just can't stop flying off the handle when I'm criticized, most of which is legitimate, and taking out my fear on someone I love so dearly.

    1. Very difficult situation, Abigail. Thank you so much for being willing to share. You have some really good insights about your experience!



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