Why sensitive people struggle with critical words and what helps

GPT20 cartoon scared hedgehog and angry jackalNobody likes to encounter critical words or thoughts about them.

For the more sensitive folk though, judgments can be hugely disruptive to the flow of work and wellbeing.

One reader described it this way:

“I still cannot find how I feel in the presence of another – unless they are calm and patient and curious – and I’ve been studying communication for 10 years!

If you’re upset in relation to me, all I get is YOUR feelings. It confuses people. I seem to be empathic when with them – and I am – but later on I have all those other feelings.”

What contributes to the struggle?

If you too find criticism very difficult to handle, know that it’s relatively harder for you for a good reason.

Several good reasons actually, but I’m jumping ahead.

First consider this.

Collectively, as a species, humans are still evolving from what Inbal Kashtan called “a crisis of imagination”.

When we don’t have our needs met right away, we interpret it as a sign of lack and feel threatened.

Perceived lack produces the state of inner alarm and our thoughts focus on survival and self-defence.

Stressed thoughts take us to whatever default, automated self-protection we’ve developed untill that point.

If you’re next to someone whose self-protection is taking the form of passing the buck, you may become a recipient of their speaking/thinking about YOU as their problem in an attempt to feel better.

If you’re a sensitive adult today, you may easily confuse such expression of THEIR unmet needs as revealing something bad about YOU.

YOUR self-defensive reaction, your self-protection, in turn, would have grown out of compensating for your parents, peers and teachers worrying about who you are.


Because it wasn’t until the 1990‘s that heightened sensitivity was discovered for the normal, healthy trait it is and it’s still largely unknown and often feared.

When you were a child, your ways of being would have seemed “wrong” compared to the 80% of the not-as-sensitive majority.

In order to be safe and to belong, you’d have learned to worry about and hide what is most true about you.

You’d have underestimated your strengths and got anxious about your perceived weaknesses (i.e. places where you were different than the rest).

In short, you learned to experience criticism as painful confirmation of your deficiency.

Yet, you’re NOT deficient

Have you seen the cartoon with a line of animals (say a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, fish, a dog and a hedgehog) taking an exam? Their task – ‘‘for fair selection’’ – is to climb a tree.

This scenario is more tragic than funny because of the price of concluding, after such an “education”, that who you are must be… amiss.

Then, when you struggle in life, e.g with the un-gentle energy of critical words, you experience it as a brokenness rather than something worthwhile, helpful and worth appreciating.

It’s as if a hedgehog, the nocturnal animal it is, worried about STILL not loving the sun like a cat.

Hedgehogs and sensitive people are a lot alike, by the way.

Both thrive on calm, gentle energy.

Both get overwhelmed by more intense vibes.

Sensitive people get overwhelmed by intense things such as upset or criticism.

But only the “humanhog” 😉 judges overwhelm as weakness.

The animal, free from distortion of ‘fair education’, uses it as life intended: for support.

Using critical words as support

How COULD something as painful as criticism or overwhelm from it be used as support?

What I’m about to say won’t be an easy fix but it is very good news all the same.

Even though overwhelm from critical words or from any overstimulating experience is not fun, it IS healthy and there to help you.

All emotion is part of healthy human experience.

Especially the so-called negative emotions are your allies because they highlight moments in your life when you’re thinking something that’s not aligned with thriving.

Negative emotion arises when you’re thinking something other than compassion and appreciation for yourself.

For example.

There’s a world of difference between seeing yourself as someone who has a problem with handling criticism and appreciating yourself for caring about life so deeply that many forms of harshness are shocking to you.

Can you feel the difference in your body?

Can you feel the contraction when you’re thinking who you are is a problem?

Can you feel the softening and appreciation of beauty when you connect with how much you care about life and how much you want kindness and gentleness for everyone?

The teaching of the hedgehog

I believe that the humble hedgehog is a powerful teacher of responding to potentially toxic energy with softness and safety.

Hedgehogs are beautiful role models of empowerment.

Small and unimposing that they are, they can take on much stronger-seeming snakes.

How do hedgehogs stay safe around snakes?

First of all, they make life choices with deep respect for their gentle nature.

As much as possible, hedgehogs will steer clear of things that are too much for them such as bright light or snakes.

If, however, a hedgehog gets exposed to “too much” or “too harsh” energy, it’ll use overwhelm (curling up in a ball) as support to allow the INBUILT process of transmuting toxins to take place.

A hedgehog couldn’t survive a snake bite if – after the shock of being bitten – it bled its energy on added self-attack.

In the same way, it’s very hard to face others’ disgruntlement about us, if we follow it up with self-worry.

This is the paradoxical way that critical words can serve us.

On the receiving end of criticism, we either learn to become really present and compassionate to the deepest truth about us or we register the undiluted toxicity of the literal meaning of critical words.

Please note that the “medicine” for toxic exposure is not changing, healing or improving who you are.

Nor is the solution in hoping for others to be gentler than they can be.

Rather, you can use the gift of overwhelm to reconnect with yourself more deeply, including finding compassion in yourself for the misguided soul who criticised you in search for their own safety.

What helps to struggle less

Let’s summarise what’s helpful in response to criticism.

1. Remember compassion towards your experience however dissatisfying it may be.

There are always good reasons for everything and if there’s a voice screaming worry in your head, let’s assume there’re good reasons for it too, whether or not it’s currently known.

PLEASE DO NOT add insult to injury by worrying about what feelings “mean” about you.

QUESTION: How could you receive what you’re feeling or what you’re thinking about yourself in this moment and add a pinch of compassion to it?

2. Remember that you’re a strong creature who thrives on gentleness.

The general culture has it backwards. It’s not a weakness to feel emotions. It’s not a strength to be so afraid of feelings that you become what Marshall Rosenberg used to call “a nice dead person”.

PLEASE DO NOT judge yourself for overwhelm.

QUESTION: Could you be more willing to experience overwhelm (and therefore less worried about criticism) if you used that state for better self-connection?

3. Remember the alchemy of the hedgehog.

Even if something is “toxic” or painful, you can transmute it into something positive, such as return to health or learning to live better.

Dissolving toxic energy is not something you do. It is something your system does all by itself if you don’t interfere by making things worse.

PLEASE DO NOT follow critical words with more words.

QUESTION: How could you take a break from toxicity? What’s your equivalent of curling into a ball and just being, allowing and transmuting?

Here’s to allowing oodles of gentleness when you need it.

If this article has helped you want to do that, do shoot me an email to say how?

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