There’s no doubt about it: HSPs are sensitive to criticism. Are we doomed to die a thousand deaths, or can something be done?

I will never forget my first experience of public criticism. My stomach tightens up just thinking about it.

Our seventh-grade band director came up with an ingenious strategy to motivate us to practice our instruments. Once a week, each kid in a particular section of the band had to play snippets of our band pieces—in front of the entire band. He’d hear all the flutes one week, all the trumpets the next week, and so on.

Right there and then, Mr. Hawkins would reshuffle the section. Depending on how well you played, you might move up. Or you might plunge to last chair. The move was effective immediately, in front of everyone.

One day, I was putting my oboe together, minding my own business, when I heard Mr. Hawkins say, “OK, oboes! Hearing today!” I froze. Today? The oboes had a hearing today? How could I have missed this? The frozen feeling morphed rapidly into dread.

I’ll spare you the painful details of the next ten minutes. I came in dead last, with an emphasis on the “dead” part: that is, I wanted to die. (I’m pausing here for a moment of silence, in which we can acknowledge our intense gratitude that we aren’t in middle school anymore. Thank God.)

I dropped to the bottom of the section, below my nemesis Joyce, who had once asked to borrow my feather to remove the moisture from her top joint then handed it back to me covered with what looked like brown vomit.

Anatomy of an HSP being criticize: why is it so tough for us?

I’m sure you have some story of youthful mortification to match or even top mine. Let’s face it: few people enjoy being criticized, but for highly sensitive people (HSPs), criticism can feel truly devastating—including the implied criticism of being ranked for your performance.

Our dread of criticism—or, more specifically, of the way it makes us feel—motivates us to do anything and everything to avoid it. We may work overtime to do things perfectly in the first place, using preemptive self-criticism as a motivator. We may resort to self-destructive strategies, from people-pleasing to fudging the truth or even lying, to avoid being criticized.

I’ve done all those things. It’s painful to admit it. However, a compassionate understanding of one’s past choices is the essential first step to healing this kind of pattern, and I’ve worked hard to gain that understanding. Let’s unpack this intense reaction to criticism, starting with the architecture of the sensitive psyche.

All HSPs are prone to overarousal. It’s part of our trait. However, some HSPs get overaroused a lot more easily than others, because we are already living in a state of chronic nervous system dysregulation. We may not even realize it, but we are already halfway towards an unpleasantly overaroused state.

This chronic dysregulation can be caused by poor self-care, stemming from a lack of information about your HSP trait. But it is also exacerbated by the low self-esteem some HSPs have due to difficult family environments or other adverse circumstances.

These physical and emotional states cause changes in our body chemistry, increasing our cortisol load. This stimulates us to become vigilant around other people, and our relationships suffer as a result.

For human beings generally, secure connection to others is central to our sense of safety. But for kids, secure connection is quite literally a matter of survival. When we are in survival mode, we become even more fearful of criticism. It’s a vicious cycle.

The vicious cycle of vigilance

If you fell into this vicious cycle when you were very young—when you truly were dependent on the adults in your life for survival—then your reaction to criticism may still have a life-or-death quality of intensity. You may know this is not rational, but clearly, some part of you doesn’t know that.

No wonder Dr. Elaine Aron describes this problem as overreactivity to criticism, in her thoughtful article on this topic. To the average person, we may in fact be reacting more strongly than they would, and it’s a short leap from that observation to the judgment that we are overreacting.

I don’t care for the implied judgment in the term “overreactivity.” When someone tells me I’m overreacting, I definitely feel like they are criticizing me. As my dear grandmother would have said, “We already have enough of that to be getting on with.”

Instead, I prefer the phrase “sensitivity to criticism.” This is an observation, not a judgment. HSPs are more sensitive to criticism. Once I’ve accepted that, I start to feel curious. Why exactly am I so sensitive to criticism? Is there anything I can do to lessen that sensitivity?

Regarding that last question, the answer is “Yes.” You can take specific steps to lessen your sensitivity to criticism.

We’ve seen how our HSP sensitivity to criticism synergizes in a painful way with two key HSP challenges. The first is overarousal, appearing as dysregulation and exacerbated by childhood trauma. The second is low self-esteem, which negatively affects how secure you feel within yourself and in your relationships.

Fortunately, that synergy can work in a positive direction, too. Here are three ways you can counteract the negative spiral of criticism-exacerbated overarousal and lessen your sensitivity to criticism over time.

Improve your self-regulation

Even if you have learned to be vigilant, you can unlearn it. Coherent breathing is a powerful practice to re-regulate your sensitive nervous system. You can’t use this practice like you would use the emergency room at the hospital, though. It won’t work to haul it out when your overarousal and vigilance become acute.

Rather, coherent breathing is a daily practice. You have to make a commitment to it. In return, over a period of months, you will see permanent positive changes in your nervous system. These benefits, in turn, will motivate you to continue the practice.

As your nervous system calms down, you’ll be less vigilant. You’ll be less affected by the overarousal that criticism can stimulate in you. And, last but not least, you’ll be less likely to hear other’s words as criticism in the first place.

Cultivate your inner relationship

In an ideal world, each of us would be nurtured through childhood by adults who are attuned, attentive, and responsive. To the extent this adult modeling was missing from your childhood, you will be missing healthy inner relationship skills. For many HSPs, the result is a harsh internal dialogue, and an overwhelming feeling of having “nowhere to go” with their intense emotions.

You can consciously nurture a new relationship with yourself to change these harsh inner patterns. Inner Bonding and Inner Relationship Focusing are powerful tools for HSPs to address low self-esteem and vigilance and to process intense emotions.

As you learn to respond to your inner world in an attuned, attentive, and responsive way, your self-esteem will improve. Feeling better about yourself, you will be better able to take positive action on your own behalf. In addition, your vigilance will begin to dissolve. Instead of approaching other people in a scared, defensive stance, you will find yourself feeling more open and curious towards them.

Lowering your sensitivity to criticism requires commitment

Your physical self-care has a big effect on your overarousal levels, too. HSPs need to be well-fed, well-rested, and well-watered. If we skimp on basic physical self-care or push ourselves too hard, we’ll become frazzled quickly, and when we are frazzled, we quickly lose our ability to field criticism gracefully.

However, physical self-care alone will not improve your sensitivity to criticism. You need the whole package, including sturdy self-regulation skills and healthy, kind inner relationship. These are not overnight fixes. You will need to commit to these essential forms of HSP self-care, then be patient and persistent. If you do this, though, your efforts pay major dividends for your health, your relationships, and your overall well-being.

Photo: Thanks to Nick Fewings on Unsplash