Criticism isn't always bad--the constructive kind really can build you up and make you stronger. But criticism that's not justified or that is impossibly relentless has the opposite effect. Here's why people dish that form out, and what you can do to protect yourself.

1. They want a problem to fix.

While people might say they want a hassle free life and work experience, the cultural expectation is that solving problems is part of the process of progress. If there isn't a flaw to find and pick on, people can feel like they personally aren't doing anything worthwhile and aren't moving forward. So they might pick on you to "help", create an environment that fits the model they have been taught to expect, avoid criticism from their own higher-ups, and bump their own sense of purpose.

The fix:

  • Clarify goals and expectations through projects so you can demonstrate with clarity that you are doing exactly what they want.
  • Praise other areas of their leadership outside of their ability to locate areas to tweak.
  • Point out the cost-benefit of unnecessary changes, both financially and in terms of productivity.
  • Propose new, reasonable projects you're interested in that can refocus their attention and combat the illusion that you're idle or incompetent.

2. They feel powerless.

You can consider unwarranted, persistent criticism as a form of bullying. And the popular belief in psychology is that bullying often stems from feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and hurt.

If a person is having a hard time, they might lash out with criticism because they themselves feel left out, flawed or incompetent. They might feel like they have to reaffirm their own position or work harder to be heard because they feel threatened by you. Criticizing also can be a way of trying to ward off any negative consequences that might come from them not having control.

The fix:

  • Be compassionate and empathetic. Show an interest in them and let them confide in you.
  • Be their advocate when it is warranted to build trust.
  • Use joint language and invite them to work with you for the solution. Show them you're not the competition.
  • Clarify boundaries and responsibilities.
  • Present small opportunities and choices that can give them wins to build their confidence.
  • Ask for their opinion ahead of the criticism to help them feel more like a valued expert.
  • Provide consistent reassurance.

3. They think you criticize them.

 

Some people might dish out exactly what they're given. This is both a defensive tit-for-tat and learned behavior from what they have modeled for them. So if someone won't lay off you, it's worth looking in the mirror to assess your own habits of finding fault.

That said, sometimes people will perceive you as critical even when you aren't due to their own insecurities.

The fix:

  • Open more lines of communication to make it easier for them to express concerns or ideas. Ask for feedback regularly so they don't hold in frustration and spew it out as criticism.
  • Use third party tools to show that your assessments or conclusions aren't personal.
  • End conversations with what they're doing well or what you appreciate so they mentally finish with you on a high note.

4. They're just like you.

If a person is truly similar to you, they might recognize that similarity subconsciously or consciously. But they then might take issue with any differences because those differences prevent you from being exactly like them--that is, "ideal". They want to fix the dissonance your individuality makes, so they criticize to whip you into shape. And in some cases, they might project and see you as an opportunity to fix what they don't believe they can fix in themselves.

The fix:

  • Point out as many personality differences as possible, portraying each in a positive way.
  • Be forthcoming about how the similarities might get in the way. Agree to disagree and draw reasonable boundaries.
  • Note the precise flaws they point out and inconspicuously help them personally improve in those areas. Offer plenty of praise through their progress.

5. They struggle with empathy.

A lack of empathy sometimes is a simple personality flaw--some people are just more egocentric or narcissistic than others. But empathy by definition is an understanding how people feel, and that often comes from having experienced the same or similar things. A person might not realize how hurtful they are being when they criticize you--or not even realize they're doing so--because they've walked a different path.

The fix:

  • Clarify how their criticism bothers you and identify the reason for your perspective.
  • Offer some alternative language they can use to express themselves without being harsh to you.
  • Encourage them to participate in events or communities they've never done or been in. This can help them get the experience they need to build the empathy they lack.
Published on: May 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.