How to handle insults and harsh criticism
Most people, most of the time, experience negative psychological and cognitive effects when they are criticized. This is especially true when the criticism is interpreted as a personal attack.
There are productive and less hurtful ways to criticize others. But you cannot control how others criticize you. They may simply not know they are being unhelpful. They may be angry or thoughtless. In many cases, you are being personally attacked. Your critic might be trying to hurt your feelings on purpose.
It may surprise you to know that many people welcome criticism! Even if they are personally attacked, and even if the criticism is meant to hurt them, they are glad to hear it. Why would they feel that way? Because they have reserved for themselves the right to be their own judge. They often hear criticism and insults as opportunities to consider new information about themselves and ultimately judge for themselves whether they should improve something. They see it as feedback, and they will decide on their own whether they consider the feedback to be fair or accurate — and how much they will care.
In the classic book on assertiveness, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, Manuel Smith laid out a verbal skill that can help you assert your right to judge your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. It is called fogging your critic.
What is fogging? It is when you do not deny the criticism, nor do you retaliate. You instead agree in some way with the criticism as true or as being possible. Why is it called fogging? Because you choose not to fight your critic. You can’t fight the fog, and fog doesn’t fight you back. It’s just fog, and it doesn’t go away no matter what you do.
I’ll give a personal example. When I hit puberty, my nose got big. I wouldn’t have noticed it, but everyone else seemed to notice. I know this because people often used it as a way to insult me.
My mistake at that time was to argue against the insult:
“Wow, check out the big nose on Mike.”
“It’s not that big!”
This habit of arguing the point acknowledged that they were the judge of how much I should care about my big nose. By arguing against it, I implicitly agreed that having a big nose is bad for me, and that I should feel bad about it.
Here is a way to fog an insult.
“Wow, you really have a big nose (chuckles). Good luck getting any dates with that honker.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It is a big nose. A lot of girls won’t like that.”
If you are reading between the lines, you can imagine the tone of voice. In the second example, my critic and I both agree that I have a big nose, and that it will be seen as unattractive.
In the first instance where I deny the size of my nose, I’m agreeing with my critic that it’s bad to have a big nose.
In the second instance I don’t deny the fact that I have a big nose, but instead I reserve the right to judge whether I care or not.
- Denying the insult = I agree I should feel bad, so I deny the truth of it.
- Fogging the insult = I agree with the truth, and I’m OK with it.
You can practice other ways of fogging, like agreeing with the probability of the truth, or even admitting that it bothers you.
“Yeah, it’s probably pretty big.”
“Right. I’ll probably have a harder time getting dates having this nose.”
“It is big. Sometimes that bothers me, sometimes it doesn’t.” (You can use your tone and manner to show that now is not one of those times.)
Luckily for me, my face eventually grew to fit my nose a little bit better. It’s still big though, and some people definitely don’t like the way it looks.
Try out some fogging on your own. Role play with a friend if you want. Fogging is an effective way of deciding for yourself how you should feel, especially if someone seems intent on making you feel bad.