How do I learn to cope with other people's unwanted opinions about me?
June 24, 2016 12:01 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn how to set aside people's comments and assumptions about me -- brush off the unimportant interactions, but defend myself when necessary?

I'm a rather self-effacing person who doesn't deal well with compliments, puts on a good poker face and deals with the consequences of her emotions later. I struggle with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder and some early trauma. I do the whole cool and detached thing in public and then later, to deal with all the unwanted commentary/criticisms/advice about my life, I'll throw up my meals in an attempt to relieve the pent-up anxiety and feelings of paralysis from those moments. It's as if I'm being confronted by ideas that I reject, that I know are the source of many of my distorted beliefs, but I don't know how to defend myself yet.

I'm trying to learn how to brush off comments from both family, friends and strangers and not engage in conversations that are ultimately more triggering and harmful than enlightening, but I have such an intense desire to have people understand me that I have difficulty pulling back.

I tend to fixate on what people say and judge myself based on what I think their criteria are-- knowing very well that they probably aren't as harsh as I make them out to be, that it's not serving any purpose and that I'm just seizing on the moment to find a new way to criticize myself. It's not just perfectionism; it's a fear that I'm a monster that, if not beaten and checked into place, could hurt and harm everybody around me. I worry I will be too blind or arrogant to notice.

I have a very strong but unformed sense of self -- self-respect that is struggling to get control of the steering wheel. I respect myself enough to believe I am worth recovery but simultaneously doubt my own judgment. I'd really just like to trust myself and be on with things but it's taking quite a long time...

Please offer any strategies or advice about how I can create some distance from situations in the moment when people are saying things to me that are hurtful, triggering, presumptuous, or simply wrong. I don't want to stuff the feelings away -- that clearly hasn't worked -- I need to diffuse my anger and frustration and channel it in some other way, instead of toward self-destruction.

How do I create a buffer between my fragile sense of self, and what others make me out to be?
And how do I practice this in the moment?

(By the way, I have been to therapy for a few years but currently cannot because of financial problems).
posted by mmmleaf to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've interviewed a lot of politicians. And although the stereotype of a politician is not what many people would want to aspire to, I've found that the people themselves have developed a pretty thick skin. They are constantly the target of ridicule, insult and very personal attack. But they carry on relatively unscathed, in part, because they have learned how to compartmentalize the opinions of others. I think part of informing your sense of self is believing you can separate others opinions of you from your opinions of yourself. I'm not trying to be simplistic or Pollyannaish about this. But a real life example of a whole group of people who have learned not to take the criticisms of others personally and defend themselves effectively is politicians. I'm not saying run for office. But it might be worth looking at how they've learned to do it.
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:27 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here's a quote I came across in one of my notebooks earlier in the day, which you might find useful:

"Some people will love what you do. Others will hate what you do and others couldn't care less. Don't pay any attention to any of it." (C. Trungpa)
posted by tenderly at 2:27 AM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you develop thicker skin with age, and when you know yourself better (like do the things you love and stick to your values)
it somehow matters less what most peeps think. You build resiliance like a muscle, you have to work on it. Listen to it, reflect on it and, if it doesnt apply just let it go.

A lot of negative, hurtful stuff people say is more a reflection of whats going on with them than anything really to do with you.
posted by speakeasy at 4:10 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

When someone says something negative about another it is 99% of the time about them. It is a weakness in them that they will not/cannot see in themselves but do not like. This is Psychology 101.

The person who is unaccepting of some characteristic of themselves sees it in you and it triggers them. They cannot admit that subconsciously or consciously they have the same characteristic or something that reminds them of that characteristic so they have to call it out in you. Usually this is all on a subconscious level for them but know that it is not you even if you have that characteristic- it is them being uncomfortable with themselves.
posted by shaarog at 5:03 AM on June 24, 2016

I say to myself (in the words of Snoop Dogg) "I don't do it for the haters, I do it for the players."
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 5:44 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hiya, fellow person who responds to anxiety by wanting to come up with a defined plan to control their exact responses to discomfort. With much sympathy, I'm going to suggest you think about being more tolerant of your own emotional discomfort, as a transient state, instead of developing a specific behavior to somehow diffuse those feelings or resorting to your self destructive coping mechanism. I know "just be more okay with feeling like shit!" may sound like the ultimate in stupid magical thinking when you're in the thick of it, but it's kind of the idea behind Acceptance and Committment Therapy, and honestly, becoming more comfortable with sitting with shitty emotions for a bit and not doing anything or fixating on trying to fix them can be pretty effective at dissipating those feelings over the long haul. So: maybe something worth reading and thinking about?
posted by deludingmyself at 6:20 AM on June 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

Sometimes when someone else' criticism is glancing or accidental it is easier to shrug off. But when people are harsh on purpose and hurt my feelings there is an additional amount of fear that comes from knowing that there is someone around me that is willing to hurt me.
posted by puddledork at 6:22 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Please offer any strategies or advice about how I can create some distance from situations in the moment when people are saying things to me that are hurtful, triggering, presumptuous, or simply wrong. I don't want to stuff the feelings away --

Do your best to not engage their points and try to change the subject or leave. If specific people are doing this to you a lot, do your best to exit the relationship or minimize contact with them.

Then journal about your feelings and sort them out in private.

If you argue with people when they say hurtful things about you, it tends to just validate the idea that their opinions matter and you are required to give some kind of response. Not engaging is the most powerful way to gradually shut them down.

My policy: I don't care what people think of me. I can't control what goes through their head and people have all kinds of weird ideas about me based on partial information and prejudice. I care more about things that indicate they are genuinely a threat to me in some way. If I perceive a threat, I try to mitigate it. Otherwise, it's just an opinion and probably wrong. If it is essentially inconsequential, don't waste your time on it.
posted by Michele in California at 10:14 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with others that journaling later has helped me to create distance in the moment and then sit with the feelings such that they dissipate (instead of trying to quash them, which always led to more pain).

One thing a wise friend said recently and which I realized was also true for me after years of therapy (and continued journaling) is that now that we're more confident in ourselves we have strong boundaries and make it clear to others that their negative opinion isn't going to get the time of day. Obviously this is a long term goal that therapy can facilitate, but I get So Much Less guff in the world now that I don't look as vulnerable.

One small step to take in the meantime might be self confidence exercises like journaling things you like about yourself. If that's too hard, think of things you like about friends or family, and see if those things could be applied to yourself by people who love you.

Lastly, it's ok to leave when people say mean things. Or even if conversation is just taking you to a bad place - at the very least, take a break to head to the washroom to take some deep breaths. You can also cut things short any time to be kind to yourself.
posted by ldthomps at 10:25 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Half the people in the U S are below average intelligence and many of the rest are ignorant so there is no need to give their opinions any weight. By blowing them off you can give yourself much more room and time to consider the opinions of people who do matter.

Those you can blow off still have human feelings so there's no need to be rude to them just mentally discard their words after they're gone. My mental trick is to put them in the same category as a yappy Chihuahua.

Michele in California probably said it better than me.
posted by ridgerunner at 10:34 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I read something a long time ago that really landed for me: the wise can never be offended, for the truth cannot offend and lies are beneath notice.

It's a hard standard to meet but very effective. Take it on, discard what is not good, keep what is good. And remember that if people are telling lies then that nearly always masks a deeper truth about them.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:12 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

This was hard for me to accept, yet I've learned it's not personal. It's always about them. Always. What others say to me under the guise of being about me lets me know if they are a person with my same values. I don't judge them, I learn where they are on an emotional intelligence level. I want to be around people who value growth. Online dating has been a huge help and I never would have thought so.
posted by Lil Bit of Pepper at 1:37 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly responsive to your question, but who are all these people in your life that are criticizing you? I understand about comments from immediate family--the more negative they were to us, the more desperate we tend to be for their approval and so keep exposing ourselves to the risk of criticism--but a friend who makes you feel this bad is probably not a friend, and a stranger who criticizes you needs to be cussed out (unless you're at work or in physical danger).

Also, you don't mention your medication profile, but just in case--escitalopram (Lexapro) is generic (cheap) and works wonders for my self-criticizing anxiety brain which used to spend a lot of time worrying about what my bosses, friends, and significant others thought of me and overreacting to the things they said. Before I started taking it, trying to will those thoughts away just made things worse. And I've had several primary care doctors, who accepted health insurance, who had no problem prescribing 20mg of it. It also has some anti-depressive effects. I wish I'd started taking it at your age. Hell, I wish I'd started taking it when I was in high school.
posted by radicalawyer at 1:40 PM on June 24, 2016

Response by poster: but who are all these people in your life that are criticizing you?

Take it on, discard what is not good, keep what is good. And remember that if people are telling lies then that nearly always masks a deeper truth about them.

Well, my extended family, as a matter of cultural and generational differences, holds a lot of different beliefs about women and attractiveness and I get picked on a lot. My mom likes to make a joke to the family about how I am the youngest child and vegetarian so rather than being the smallest and thinnest, I'm tall and fat. Stuff like that.

I'm also a government watchdog reporter so I deal with a lot of people who feel threatened by what I do -- I am getting close to their livelihood and their mistakes, and they berate and insult and try to intimidate me. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it's not. So I deal with a lot of people who I cannot cut out of my life. Sometimes it's passing comment and I feel insecure, but mostly it's people being very aggressive and intimidating.

I know intellectually that these thoughts don't concern me and people are reacting to something internal rather than to me, but I can't help but feel anxious in the moment, it turns on a self-hating switch and I can't stop. Reminds me of being cornered and yelled at and berated and belittled as a child. That's why, I guess, I need to learn how be able to draw myself out of the moment. But I suppose that has less to do with what people are saying to me and more to do with being triggered - so maybe my question is more about anxiety.
posted by mmmleaf at 3:12 PM on June 24, 2016

If I were you, I would journal an enormous amount about this interesting choice you have made to be a watchdog reporter given your personal history.

I spent a lot of years as a military wife living in fear of winding up widowed at a young age. To calm myself when my husband was late from work again without calling, I would list the resources coming to me if he died, like insurance, and figure out how I was going to cope in practical terms as a young widow with an infant/small children. A friend of mine had a great phrase for this: (mentally) spending the insurance money. And I ended up feeling hugely guilty when my marriage deteriorated to the point where I halfway hoped I would be getting insurance money when I was worried sick that he was dead.

And then I got divorced and I worked for five years at an insurance company. One day, I remarked on all the years I fantasized about spending the insurance money and how I lived in dread of it and, as a claims processor, I spent the insurance company's money to pay claims and I also spent it when I got my paycheck. So, my husband did not die, but he was "gone" as I was divorced and I was spending the insurance money. My son said "The universe is laughing at you. And it isn't even being cruel."

You are in a position of real power over the lives of people berating you in a way that reminds you of being berated as a helpless child. I think this is not psychologically insignificant. I also do not think it is coincidence.

There are a lot of techniques you can learn to help you do your job more effectively and potentially with somewhat less drama. You should seek to learn them. Books like "How to win friends and influence people" and books on negotiating can help you learn to ask hard questions with less drama. And then journal the hell out of it.
posted by Michele in California at 3:59 PM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're being triggered. The emotional response you describe sounds like an "emotional flashback" (especially since it reminds you of specific moments of childhood and makes you feel like a child). You might benefit from reading up on CPTSD and self-soothing techniques for trauma survivors. I recommend reading Pete Walker's website to see if what he's talking about resonates with you; I found his book extremely helpful when I was going through an increase in trigger sensitivity.

I've found that my trauma responses get more intense when I am stressed out in general. You might want to look in to ways to reduce your stress - either through management techniques or through actual changes to your environment (reducing contact with people who nitpick you, changing to a less triggering line of work).

My main strategy is similar to yours - I cling to professionalism in the moment and fall apart later. I sometimes just have to lie down and go through my feelings and not DO anything about them. Not every feeling requires a reaction. A lot of them just need to pass through. You can survive the bad feelings even if they hurt a lot. Once you get more used to feeling your emotions, they'll get less scary, and you'll feel a little less overwhelmed by them.
posted by buteo at 6:32 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to take stuff to heart because I was raised in an environment that conditioned me to a) defer to authority, b) believe I was an inherently sinful person, c) believe everybody was smarter than me. I'm no longer in those woods, thankfully, but I don't have an easy answer as it was a very gradual and complicated process to get where I am today.

Reading a lot of good books helped. Find a school of philosophy or, if you must, theology that appeals to you immediately. Don't stick to it mindlessly - let it evolve you. For what it's worth, my introduction to philosophy and to actually thinking about things like a grown human adult was really Alain De Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy. I read it when I was however old it was when it came out, I guess 18 or 19 or thereabouts, and it was a revelation. I don't know how it holds up today, but as a primer and a guidepost to various philosophers, books and schools of thought, it was quite excellent.

I guess the most important thing I can tell you that may help is: it doesn't matter. What people say or think about you is irrelevant because their perceptions of the world simply cannot align with yours, since they are separate people and their reality is different (and, if you're me, you consider them all disgusting idiots anyway). And by different reality I don't mean, like, that they perceive the table or the dress differently to you (though they might), but different because all the invisible connections they have to the world around them, and the trillions of synapses in their brain, are so different to yours that they really might as well be space aliens.

You need to fight to be happy with your own self. Use what you have to be a good person, and while you're doing that, gather more things, and think carefully about what "good" is, and never stop thinking about that stuff and never close yourself off and never stop learning and absorbing. The more you learn about yourself and the more you think and feel, the more invisible connections you create, and the more your little universe evolves, and you carry yourself further and further away from the space aliens you once thought had a bead on you.

Something like that. Give me a break, I'm trying to eat sushi too! I just discovered how well ginger works with it - I always threw that away because I hate ginger. See? I'm already different to how I was this morning.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:53 PM on July 4, 2016

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