The reason we react this way has to do with the nature of the primary emotion of shame and the fact that our earliest experiences of criticism are so often powerfully associated with shame. Shame is one of the nine basic emotional responses with which we are born. Like anger, fear, and several others, it is evident in distinctly recognizable facial expressions in very young babies. Shame is the affect associated with surrender and defeat. It is a powerful basic emotion because it has survival value. The defeated dog that slinks away after the fight is demonstrating the posture of shame, and its abject posture prevents it from being killed by its enemy. It is an intensely uncomfortable affect, experienced internally as a kind of death, but it can be triggered in a young child by almost any scolding or rejection on the part of parents, older siblings, or other important figures in the child's life. As the personality develops, an individual's shame response may grow to emphasize either the impulse to submit and surrender or the surge of aggression and anger that always follows the initial surrender. If you speak sharply to a two-year-old, it is not unusual to see him cloud up in tears of shame and distress, then regroup and assault you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.
When shame is evoked as an automatic emotional response to criticism, we tend to respond in one of the two ways characteristic of shame. We may accept the criticism without question and feel guilty or miserable. Or we may reject the criticism without question and feel angry and defiant. Sometimes we bounce back and forth between the two. Whether humiliation or anger dominates the response, the intense feelings evoked interfere with a calm and objective review of the situation.
Most of us learned our own personal styles of reacting to criticism when we were very young, when criticism was most often experienced as a scolding or teasing and therefore became associated with shame. Since shame is always painful, and it is the most natural thing in life to want to avoid pain, early criticism, no matter how well intended or deserved, may soon lead to complex avoidance behaviors. So it is that some children learn to lie or blame others to avoid the pain of criticism. So it is that other children learn to criticize themselves ruthlessly, partly to anticipate and avoid external criticism, perhaps, and partly in hopes of reassurance from an external authority, a loving, forgiving parent. In Norway , cruel teasing among peers was deemed to be such a virulent problem, contributing to potential depression and violence in young people, that a curriculum was developed for dealing with teasing.
It is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate the shame response entirely from the arena of criticism. Shame is the foundation for conscience, and helps us remember the importance of other people's standards and expectations as well as our own. More often than not, however, an excessive shame response confuses the giving and accepting of criticism. So it is useful to learn methods of side stepping the intense automatic shame response and cultivating a more detached and objective view of the perspective that the critic may provide. A variety of techniques for sidestepping or modifying unwanted emotional responses have been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders, and in anger management programs. We have also learned a lot in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behavior problems, and therapy for habit control, all of which involves some learnable ability to quiet or change an internal emotional state that drives unwanted behavior. Such techniques can be applied to modifying an excessive shame response to allow for more comfortable and effective responses to criticism.
Many people may find benefit simply in adopting an attitude toward criticism based in assertiveness principles stressing our individual right to and responsibility for our own values or standards.
When we hear criticism, it is fair to assume that we are not living up to someone's standards or expectations. Since it is impossible to live up to everyone's expectations, it is important to determine whether we understand and agree with the critic's expectations before we can decide what to make of the criticism. It can be a respectful and powerful response to criticism to say: "I've thought about what you said, and I understand what you think I should have done in that situation, but I don't happen to agree. We have different values there." Of course it is also powerful to be able to say, sincerely, "I agree with your criticism and I am going to try harder in the future to meet that expectation because I believe in it, too."
Some individuals, whose early life experience may have conditioned them to have very powerful and easily triggered shame responses, will have difficulty believing that a comfortable response to criticism is possible. Constant self-criticism as well as the painful response to others' criticism has significantly marred their self-esteem. Learning new responses to criticism may require more persistent and creative intervention for these individuals, but can open a door to strikingly different perceptions of themselves. Sherri would cringe visibly when describing any situation in which she was being criticized. Despite the absence of any history of abuse, she could not imagine disagreeing openly with her husband for fear he would get angry.
The idea of analyzing criticism as non-threatening input was intriguing to her, but she was very skeptical that she could ever learn to quell her automatic fears. With some persistent, creative application of guided imagery techniques and the support of friends, however, she discovered a way to use her own sense of humor to diffuse the automatic panic associated with criticism. The resulting increase in her assertiveness and general sense of confidence was striking. And her husband's anger was not nearly the problem she had anticipated.
There is skill involved in giving criticism, too. If the object is not just to make a person feel bad, but to motivate them to change their behavior if you are not happy with it, it helps to understand the potential impact of careless criticism. Unfortunately, many people rely on intimidation or manipulation without recognizing that the shame and anger they almost certainly evoke may backfire to their detriment. An approach based on assertiveness principles entails making sure to express expectations that are clear and realistic, then asking the person if they understand and agree with these expectations. Compliance will be much more likely once misunderstandings and disagreements about expectations are worked out. A great deal of time and energy is often spent in complex avoidance and retaliation in response to criticism that is unclear, unrealistic, or poorly understood.
A better understanding of the nature of the powerful basic emotion we call shame, its prevalence in our interpersonal interaction, and its significance in the development of self-esteem, offers opportunities to redress common problems in communication at work, at home, and even within ourselves.