Healthy Responses to Criticism and Blame
Are there times in your romantic relationship when you feel that you are on the receiving end of criticism, blame, and judgment from your partner? Added to that criticism, maybe your partner delivers it with what feels to you like “unbridled emotion”? Roughly, unbridled emotion means that the expression of the emotional tone (e.g., sadness, frustration, anger, irritation) of what they are sharing is at a higher degree of intensity than what meets your needs for ease, respect, and care.
In response to these situations, some coaches, therapists, and loved ones might offer the following advice: “As a first step, establish healthy boundaries.” In this article, I’ll begin to unpack what that means, why it is useful, and (probably most importantly) how to do it.
The good news is I have heard from my relationship coaching clients that boundaries are helpful for gaining more ease & space. With more space and ease, you can get unstuck from a pattern (e.g., some common ones are criticism -> escalation, or criticism -> withdrawal) that allows for addressing what’s at the root of expressing feedback as criticism.
What are boundaries?
You’ll hear the term ‘boundary’ used in many ways:
- Protective boundary – a set of skills for taking care of yourself and staying grounded when on the receiving end of blame, judgment, and/or criticism
- Setting limits – a set of skills for (i) gaining clarity on what categories of behaviors meet your needs, and (ii) making requests to your partner to ask for different ways of relating that would meet your needs
- Containment boundary – a set of skills for engaging intention & criteria to choose what & how to share with others that is intimate, direct, and kind
All of these skills are useful and important. In this article I’ll focus primarily on the first one: protective boundary. If you are interested in all three, I plan to share more about the other two in future posts.
I have mixed feelings about the word “boundary”. A boundary is easy to understand – e.g., like your skin protects your body, a protective boundary is in service of your feelings. And I have heard from many clients that a boundary is easy to imagine. Some find it comforting to imagine being in control of a protective boundary around them when in an uncomfortable conversation with their partner.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the term “protective boundary” is it is a noun. A boundary as a thing may diminish the focus on the set of skills that you do to protect yourself in these circumstances. An analogy: If critters are eating out of your garden and you don’t want them to, one option is to put up a fence. But what if you’ve never built a fence? What materials do you use? How do you place the posts? How do you make it easy to get in and out of it when needed? You probably get the picture – saying ‘put up a boundary’ does not offer how to do it.
That’s why this article will end with a section about how you “boundary” – I know it sounds weird. If you have suggestions about another verb to use, I welcome them!
Why protective boundaries are useful?
When I started my personal journey in therapy decades ago, I was unaware that I had a choice when on the receiving end of blame, judgment, criticism, or unbridled emotions. I thought that it was “my duty” in a romantic relationship to hear my partner’s feedback and to be with their upset. Luckily, my journey has led me to understand that those assumptions I learned early on were not healthy. It is not anyone’s duty to feel forced to stay in a conversation past the time when they discern that it is healthy & helpful. I draw upon this experience in working with my clients to understand what it may feel like and why they may be enabling hurtful interactions.
That leads me to some of the reasons why protective boundaries are so useful:
- Gain Clarity – Gaining some groundedness in the moments of being on the receiving end of criticism and/or unbridled emotions is a place to begin to consider what is actually happening, connecting to your choice, and deciding what you want.
- Take appropriate responsibility – You’ll be able to attribute their feelings and their behavior to what is going on in them. You’ll own what you did and any impacts to them, but will not take responsibility for their feelings.
- Minimize hurt – The skills we’ll explore at the end of this article allow you to hear your partner in a way that minimizes the hurtful impact on you. This part involves some fundamental shifts in where you place your attention and what meaning you attribute to what they are saying.
- Find your voice – A place of clarity, mutual responsibility, and groundedness is a great place to find your voice. That voice is one that can be both direct and kind.
How do you engage a protective boundary when you need it?
As a way to explore the steps in enough detail, let’s start with an example:
You come home from work 1 hour later than usual. You open the front door and as soon as you walk through the threshold, you see your partner standing in front of you. They begin to share with you:
“You’re late. You couldn’t think about me and the impacts on me. You are so selfish. I bet you didn’t even stop to consider what it would be like for me.”
You attempt to respond: “Honey, I can see you’re upset …”
They continue “Oh, you can see that I am upset. You’re a relationship genius. How did you figure that one out, Sherlock. You bet I am upset!”
Again, you try to share: “Would it be okay if I put my things down and grab a bite to eat? I have been busy all day and I am hungry …”
They continue “Me, me, me, me, me. It’s all about what you want. You’ve been busy. You’re hungry.”
Obviously this short description of an example interaction does not do justice to the tone, body language, and pacing. My guess is you can fill in those details from your relevant experience.
First, let’s acknowledge that a number of things about this example (and many realistic examples of being on the receiving end of criticism and unbridled emotion) are very difficult:
- Your Level of Resources. You just got home. You’re hungry. Maybe you’re tired. And my guess is you may be surprised and confused by what is happening.
- What Information You Have and Don’t Have. You can guess that there is more to your partner’s upset than what you are hearing. There is some meaning to it or impact for them beyond what they have shared with you so far. You may be curious and longing for that understanding while at the same time listening to what they are sharing.
So how do you engage your protective boundary?
As an overarching strategy, a good place to start is to remind yourself that you can always ask to pause this interaction. You do not have to stay in it to be a “good partner” or out of obligation. All interactions are a choice. Either or both partners can choose to request a pause. It is very helpful for couples to establish agreements for when and how to request a pause so in the throes of a tense conversation, you have them in place. Most likely, connecting to your choice to stay engaged or not will bring a sense of ease associated with your needs for autonomy and respect. That ease will help if you choose to walk through the sequence of steps below for engaging a protective boundary. Note: if your partner does not honor your request for a pause in this conversation, then that is a separate item to be addressed – trying to control each other is what Terry Real calls a ‘losing strategy.’
- Step 1: Self-compassion. Self-compassion is one of the most fundamental skills in a romantic relationship.
It allows you to connect to how you are feeling in the moment and to be a warm loving presence to yourself.
What’s offered below may sound like a lot of steps, and with practice you can proceed through them in seconds. When you’re learning how to offer yourself compassion, it will take longer. In a nutshell:
- Bring you awareness to the felt sense of what you are feeling in your body right now. This step is feeling not naming – where is it in your body and what does it feel like? Is it a heat or cold, energy, weight, contraction, movement, tingle, etc.? During this step, if you notice any thoughts arise (e.g., “I want to get out of here” or “This does not feel good. I want it to stop.”) and if it feels possible, let the thoughts go for now and return your attention to your bodily sensations. The rationale is that thoughts can influence your experience of bodily sensations and trying to attend to both thoughts & bodily sensations can be overwhelming.
- Allow and acknowledge what you are feeling.
At this step, you might make some silent guesses as to the name of the feeling: “This is fear and surprise.”
- Be a warm loving presence to yourself.
One way to get good at it is to practice. My experience is that many people find it difficult to be a warm loving presence to themselves. One way to practice is to pretend that you are your best friend. If your best friend was experiencing what you are experiencing now, what would you say to them? Maybe something like: “This is really tough. It sounds really uncomfortable. I can understand why you may be wanting to get away from it to get some space and ease.”
- If possible given the intensity of how you are feeling, a helpful step is to translate your feelings into what is most important to you right now: “I am feeling fear, surprise, and confusion. I long for ease, respect, mutuality, to be heard, and clarity.”
- What are some possible options to get more of what you are needing right now?
- As you walk through these steps, what do you notice in your body? Have the sensations shifted in quality or intensity?
- Step 2: Is any self-criticism arising?
Often, when they go unnoticed, your own self-criticisms are added to what your partner is saying and they get compounded to be even more overwhelming. Note: If you tend to criticize and judge yourself harshly, you may benefit from some support from a coach while practicing this step.
- What criticisms am I thinking about myself?
In this case, “I am a bad partner. I should have called them when I was running late.”
- Offer yourself some understanding.
In this case, “It was a hectic day. I was running around and struggling to keep up. On the way home, my mind was on the big presentation I am delivering to a new client tomorrow morning.” Note that this step of understanding is not dismissing or diminishing your contribution to what happened. Instead, it is adding to it to achieve more of a balanced perspective. In most cases, there were ways that you contributed to what is happening now and there is an important context in which it happened.
- Step 3: Do you notice any criticism of your partner right now?
When criticism of your partner is alive in you, it will have an influence on how you hear them (and whether you hear them) and your tone & body language. Often unacknowledged criticism of your partner escalates the intensity of your feelings and your partner picks up on the unstated criticism in your body language & tone. It is a helpful step to acknowledge any criticism of your partner arising in you so it can be explored.
- What criticisms of your partner are arising in you?
In this case maybe something like “I can’t believe you are jumping on me right as I walk through the door. Can’t you even have the courtesy to give me a moment to rest and settle in after a busy day at work? Are you so selfish that you are so wrapped up in your own upset that you have no space for what it is like for me?”
- As you consider those criticisms and focus on what you are needing right now, are they pointing to things that are important to you now?
In this case, “I want ease. I want to be heard and some understanding, too.”
- Pause to savor any positive feelings that arise in you from the clarity it brings about what is important to you.
- Let the criticisms go. Now that you have translated them into what is most important to you right now, you can let them go.You are engaging with these criticisms to bring awareness to them and to gain clarity. Engaging with your criticisms is not intended to “latch on to them” as true or to “fuel the fire” of your upset.
- Step 4: What’s true and what’s not true in what your partner is offering?
When another person offers feedback, it is helpful to receive it as an offering. And as with any offering, you don’t have to take it. You can consider it and decide which parts to take in and which to let go. There’s a quote from the Buddha that goes something like “If someone offers me a gift and I choose not to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” Feedback can be considered a gift. When it is delivered as criticism, understandably it can be more difficult to perceive it that way.
- Accept what is true from what is being shared by your partner on the surface.
In this example: You did arrive home later than what is typical. You did not call or text to let your partner know that you’d be arriving home later than usual. Let everything else in the surface content go. When your partner is upset, they may say things that are “pain talk”, that is, expressions of upset and not what they really mean. It can be unpleasant and hurtful to hear pain talk, but if you can identify the parts of the pain talk that are not true for you, you can let them go: You are not selfish. You long for balance and mutuality, so it is not all about you all the time.
- Accept what is true from what is being shared by your partner at a deeper level.
This deeper level includes how they are feeling now and what is important to them. In this example, you’re probably guessing that they are very upset and angry. A reasonable guess is that respect, to be considered, and to matter are important to them.
- If possible, pause to savor what it feels like to let go of criticism of your partner and to think about what might be most important to them.
- Choose how to respond. Connect to your choice again. Factor in what is most important to you and what you guess is most important to your partner. The main categories of options are:
- Offer compassion to your partner
- Offer compassion to yourself
- Offer a proposal
Through the protective boundary process steps above, you have connected to your choice either to continue to engage or to ask to pause, you have soothed yourself, you have more clarity about what is important to you, and you have invested in what might be most important to your partner. As important, you have let go any of what your partner shared that is either “pain talk” or that is not true for you (e.g., exaggerations such as “always” or “never”, and judgments such as “You are selfish”). Often, at this stage of the process, you may feel more ease associated with greater clarity and more options. Part of the outcome may include clarity about what to do next.
In this example, if you felt up for it, a reasonable approach may be to offer your partner compassion such as:
“Honey, I hear you. I think I get it. Would you be willing to listen to me for a minute, really listen to me carefully, so I can share with you an understanding of what I did to contribute to what’s happening fo us now?”
If they say “yes”, then continuing on with something like:
“I was later than usual today. I did not call or text you to let you know. I can imagine that maybe you are feeling really frustrated because you’d like more consideration in the future when I am not going to be on schedule. Is that it?”
At this point, you may be thinking, “Wait a minute. When do we talk about the impacts of your partner’s pain talk, criticism, and unbridled emotion?” That’s a very important question …
In this example, you got clarity that you want mutuality, to matter, to be heard, to be understood. Those are all critical relationship needs. To be heard and for more balance, your partner needs to be resourced to hear you. The intention of responding first with compassion for them is to offer them understanding first and to acknowledge your responsibility in what has arisen. That’s a beginning not an end. Either in this conversation, or more likely in a future conversation, when there is more ease & connection between you two, you can raise the topic of what it was like to be you on the receiving end of this interaction. What I have seen is that in most loving relationships, your partner will be receptive to hearing you at that time.
I hope these specific steps to engage protective boundaries are helpful to you. It takes practice. It may take support from a Relationship Coach as you are getting started.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, feedback does not have to be expressed as criticism or judgment. Imagine the above scenario with a completely different starting point: “You’re home later than usual. I was worried. After you have a few minutes to get settled, do you have time to talk about it?”
If you are in a relationship in which you are on the receiving end of repeated criticism and unbridled emotions, then a protective boundary is an initial strategy to allow you to stay engaged and grounded to address the roots of the ways you and your partner are interacting. If it is not a repeated pattern in your current relationship, then a protective boundary can be a useful approach for those times when your partner’s upset impacts their skills and they criticize you as part of their “pain talk.”
Below I welcome your comments about your experiences when trying these steps or any other tips you’d like to add to them. If you know of an easy-to-remember verb that would fit for “creating a boundary”, I welcome your recommendations too!
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