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How to handle criticism without breaking down

Some criticism can be downright harsh (and entirely unproductive)—but even gentler, constructive feedback can make you panic and over-think everything. That’s because “criticism can sometimes trigger underlying negative beliefs we hold about ourselves,” Nelly Seo, PsyD, a psychologist specializing in anxiety and trauma at Therapists of New York, tells SELF. Maybe you can’t let go of that one critique from your performance review because deep down you’re worried you’re not qualified for your job, for example. Or perhaps you had a hyper-critical parent who made you feel like you never measured up, so every suggestion about your cleaning habits feels like a direct hit to your self-worth.

You can’t go through life getting only five-star reviews—no matter how perfect you try to be—so it’s important to learn how to navigate these inevitable situations without letting them chip away at your self esteem. The next time you’re convinced you’re a total screw-up or failure (seriously, you’re not!), give some of these expert-approved coping strategies a try.

Excuse yourself and try to find a moment alone.

Maybe your manager picked apart every detail of that project you worked so hard on. Or you and your partner just got into a nasty argument, where they called out the fact that you always check your phone on date nights.

When you feel your eyes watering up, your voice cracking, or your heart racing in these moments, the first thing you should do, according to Dr. Seo, is step away if you can—whether that means taking a breather outside or excusing yourself to hide in a bathroom stall.

For one, physically walking away from a stressful environment (and the person who triggered your teary-eyed response) can help you gain a clearer perspective when your mind is clouded with anxiety, she says. Plus, you’ll be able to regulate your emotions in private—without the pressure to put on a happy face in front of others.

Do a quick body scan to shift your attention away from your spiraling thoughts.

While you’re collecting yourself, Dr. Seo also recommends doing an easy mindfulness exercise called a body scan. Like the name implies, you focus on different parts of your body, one by one, starting at your feet and making your way up to your head, then back down to your feet. As you’re doing this, take notice of any sensations in each area: Are your toes feeling particularly cold or warm? Is there any tingling or tightness in your legs? Tension in your chest?

Research has shown that this popular mindfulness technique can help decrease anxiety. By bringing your attention to physical sensations, Dr. Seo explains, you interrupt any intrusive thoughts. “Our bodies are always in the present,” she says, “whereas our minds can travel between the past, present, and future.”

Distract yourself with the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise.

Another trick to get out of your head and back into the present moment is something called the 5-4-3-2-1 method, Elisa Martinez, LMFT, a San Francisco–based therapist who specializes in anxiety and self-esteem, tells SELF.

Here’s how it works: Start by identifying five things you can see around you. It could be anything from a book on your shelf to a granola bar wrapper on your desk. Next, look for four things you can touch (your clothes count!); then, three things you can hear (maybe the sound of distant traffic or the refrigerator humming); two things you can smell (like the perfume of your office mate or the lingering scent of the lavender candle you lit earlier); and finally, one thing you can taste—like your bittersweet, ice-cold coffee or a refreshing piece of mint gum.

“Engaging your senses with a body-based activity [like a body scan or the 5-4-3-2-1 method] can help shift your focus away from upsetting emotions to bring you into a more balanced state,” Martinez says. But if tackling all five senses feels too overwhelming, you can always stick with just one and really zero in on it, Dr. Seo adds.

Recognize—and challenge—any worst-case scenarios in your head.

You might find yourself catastrophizing after a friend calls out your frequent tardiness (They’re never gonna hang out with me again!) or a coworker corrects a typo on your presentation (I suck at my job, and I’m gonna get fired!). But don’t jump to such extreme conclusions just yet.

Often, when you're spiraling, your thoughts are fueled by emotions rather than facts, Dr. Seo says. That’s why she recommends asking yourself a few questions, like “What proof do I actually have to support that this person doesn’t like me?” or “Are there any other explanations for the situation?” With the first example above, it’s more likely that your pal is pointing out a bad habit because they value the friendship. And regarding the feedback from a colleague, consider that they might be giving you constructive criticism to help you improve—not because you’re completely incompetent.

The point of giving yourself this little cross-examination: When you take a few minutes to reflect on how rational your thoughts are, you’ll discover other possible perspectives that can offer a more realistic, less emotionally charged view of the situation, Martinez adds.

Get a second opinion from someone who knows you best.

Not only can a close friend or family member hype you up and provide a safe space to vent when you’re reeling from negative feedback, but it can also be helpful to ask them for their input on the issue, Martinez says. Their advice as an outsider may be the reality check you need to see that your self-criticism isn’t entirely accurate or productive.

“Hearing different perspectives can expand your own about the situation and help you think in a less rigid, narrow way,” she adds. After ranting to your mom, she might help you realize that your roommate’s remark, say, was more about a specific behavior (like your tendency to hog all the hot water during your lengthy showers)—not a judgment of you as a person.

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you’re stuck in a cycle of paranoia and self-doubt. So again, that’s why talking to someone you trust can be a friendly reminder that your rumination isn’t necessarily based on facts.

Instead of dwelling on what already happened, focus on changes you can make now.

The last thing you want to do when you’re spiraling is be even harder on yourself. However, if the criticism you received was actually helpful, it’s worth taking a moment (once you’ve calmed down) to seek clarity about how to improve your time management skills, perhaps, or your habit of canceling plans at the last minute.

Thinking about what you can do better next time—instead of fixating on what already happened—is an effective way to feel more confident and in control. “Curiosity is a powerful tool that can move us out of the space of negativity and into the mindset of agency and empowerment,” Dr. Seo says. By reflecting on both why you’re being criticized (again, it’s not because you suck!) and how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, the critique will start to feel less like a personal attack and more like an opportunity for growth.

Remind yourself of your strengths with a list of your proudest accomplishments or favorite qualities.

“I find that positive affirmations are most helpful when they’re individualized to your core beliefs,” Dr. Seo says. So instead of relying on clichés, come up with some motivating statements that speak directly to your specific strengths and values.

For example, if you struggle with feeling unloved or isolated after receiving criticism, try jotting down something along the lines of, “I’m so grateful to have so many supportive friends in my life who love me for me” in your notes app or journal—rather than the generic “I am loved.” You can also keep a list of your biggest work accomplishments or positive feedback you’ve received from your boss at your office desk, so you can rely on it to boost your spirits the next time you’re disheartened after your 1:1.

Still struggling to come up with affirmations on your own? Martinez recommends asking your loved ones for some inspiration: They might see great qualities that you hadn’t even considered, like your creativity, your selflessness, or perhaps your delightfully sarcastic sense of humor. By regularly challenging negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll strengthen your self-esteem, she says—so that you can rise above even the harshest of critiques in the future.

The original article can be found on SELF

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