Skip to content

Self-affirming reactions to criticism

This is a section of a longer paper. To read the whole paper:

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

The way a person exhibiting SBCMB reacts to criticism is not the same in every case; it may contain one or more different elements. The elements that we have noticed in the people known to us are: ignoring, deflecting, simulating repentance, re-writing the past, endless dialogue, and explaining with conspiracy theories. While these elements seem diverse, each of them appears to be directed towards a common goal. This goal is to enable the person to continue to affirm their own worth—both to themselves and to others. Of course, to some extent, all of us react to criticism in this way, since we all need to feel a sense of self-worth when we are criticised. However, for a person exhibiting SBCMB, this self-affirming goal seems to be an overriding one. That is, the goal affirming their own worth can easily override other concerns that normally we would regard as important, such as concerns for truth, consistency, true repentance, love for others, and personal progress in godliness.

We will spell out these elements now:

Ignoring: One response to criticism by a person exhibiting SBCMB is simply to ignore it. That is, you may have a discussion with the person, and during the discussion you tell them they have done something wrong to you. For example, you may tell them that they have transgressed one of your personal boundaries, or that they have hurt you or lied about you in some significant way. The person responds to you as if they simply had not heard what you said. They may raise some other topic entirely. Or they may respond only to the positive elements of what you said. For example, if you had complimented them before criticising them, or had told them “I care about you, but…”, they may reply as if the compliment or the affirmation was the only thing that you said, thanking you for your love and graciousness but not responding at all to the issue you raised.

Deflecting: Another response is to deflect the criticism by focusing on a minor issue that is not central to the criticism. For example, if you don’t compliment them or affirm them before criticising them, they may focus on your ungracious attitude rather than on the genuine issue you raised. In this way, they can use the criticism as an opportunity to portray themselves as being further victimised.

Simulating repentance: Sometimes, especially when the criticism is very clear and impossible to ignore, a further behaviour manifests itself. The person can initially act as if they are truly sorry, and express plans to make genuine changes; they can make gracious-sounding concessions, and be effusive in their praise of you for pointing out their error. This behaviour may cause you to respond with gratitude and a reaffirmation of your loyalty and commitment to them or your esteem for them. However, later (and often sooner) it becomes clear their repentance was not genuine. They may forget your criticism entirely; or they may later express a view that the issue is not important; or they may make a small change, but express resentment and portray you as overly demanding or picky for requiring them to make the small change in the first place.

Re-writing the past: A further response to criticism by a person exhibiting SBCMB is to re-write the past. In this case, the person denies they ever did or said what they were critiqued for doing or saying. They may agree wholeheartedly with your criticism, but insist that they never thought otherwise. In fact, you may find them using your own wording in future statements of their position, as if that is what they believed all along, even though it actually contradicts previous statements of their position. They might then even criticise you for criticising them on this point—portraying themselves as the true victim in the situation. This behaviour can be particularly disorienting for those in their sphere of influence. It is a key form of the “gaslighting” behaviour we mentioned above. Recall, however, that it is difficult to tell whether the person is doing this intentionally. It may be the case that they have actually modified their own memories, and so genuinely believe themselves to be wronged in this situation. We cannot make any comment on what is actually happening in their minds; we simply want to point out the confounding effect this behaviour can have, which is the same effect as any kind of intentional “gaslighting.”

Limitless dialogue: A person exhibiting SBCMB may take a criticism from you as an opportunity to engage in (possibly limitless) dialogue. Rather than treating the criticism as a chance to rethink, repent or change themselves, they treat it as a chance to explain themselves further, and thus to increase your engagement with them. They may express a desire to change your mind so that you repent, and so demonstrate their value as somebody who can make a difference to others. Indeed, they may act as if your single act of criticising them makes you morally obliged to continue a conversation with them to give them a chance to explain themselves at length.

Explaining with conspiracy theories: When a person exhibiting SBCMB is criticised from multiple independent sources, they may adopt another approach: explaining the criticism as evidence of a conspiracy against them. In this case, they seem unable to consider the possibility that multiple criticisms from different sources might mean that they are wrong and need to repent. Rather, they explain it as proof of the existence of collusion, stemming from an irrational desire by a cabal of enemies bent primarily on discrediting them. They may identify one particular critic as the source and driver of the conspiracy, and act as if all the other critics are unthinkingly echoing that one critic’s views. Furthermore, they may claim the existence of such a conspiracy as a badge of honour, because it shows that they are special and making a difference because they are obviously threatening the “powerful people” in some way. After all, everyone loves an underdog sticking it to the evil establishment! Identifying the conspiracy thus enables the person to convert the criticism into an opportunity to further entrench themselves in their behaviour and to affirm their own worth.

Read the next section: Energetically co-opting others to affirm themselves

Copyright © 2021 Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor

Note well: Because of time and energy constraints, we’re not personally able to respond to any queries or comments about this paper. So please realise in advance that if you send us a message about this paper, you are unlikely to receive any response from us.

To read the whole paper: Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

You may also like: Lift Your Eyes

Lift Yours Eyes is a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

All posts

Recent blog posts

  • Yes no“Paul within Judaism” and Romans 2:17–29
    My article on Romans 2:17–29 supports one key feature of the "Paul within Judaism" perspective, but undermines another common feature.
  • Photo by Engin Akyurt on UnsplashThe goals of Bible teaching (1 Timothy 1:1–11)
    In gospel ministry and Bible teaching, if you’re not committed to the right goal, or if you have the wrong goal, it’s not just a matter of being ineffective: you’ll be downright dangerous. So what is that goal? What are you seeking to achieve in your gospel ministry and Bible teaching - now and in the future? And how would you know if you’d done it right? This passage in 1 Timothy 1:1–11 speaks to this issue of the goals of ministry and teaching. It challenges us to think about our own aims in teaching, and to see how important it is to get it right. A sermon preached at Moore College Men's Chapel on 14 July, 2021.
  • Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashSlow-burn crazy-making behaviours: recognising and responding
    Do you know someone who seems to have drama and problems constantly appear around them? Whenever you relate to this person, perhaps you find yourself feeling vaguely guilty, or uncomfortable, or put down, or obligated to affirm them? Do you often feel like you’re questioning yourself and your actions because of what they say and do? You don’t feel the same way around other people; it’s just this individual who seems to attract these dramas and give rise to these feelings in you. If that’s the case, the chances are it’s not you who is the problem. It’s quite possible that the person you’re thinking of is exhibiting a pattern of behaviours that can be significantly detrimental to you and to others. This pattern of behaviours is hard to pin down; it doesn’t seem too serious in the short term, and indeed it might appear quite normal to a casual acquaintance. However, over the long term, it can cause serious problems for you and others. That’s especially true in close-knit communities, like families, churches and other Christian ministries.
  • Romans Crash CourseRomans Crash Course (video)
    A 75 minute video course in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans designed for church members and leaders.
  • The Mistranslation "Call Yourself a Jew" in Romans 2:17: A Mythbusting StoryThe mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17)
    This is a story about a scholarly myth and how I had the chance to bust it. I’m talking here about a small but significant 20th century biblical translation: “call yourself” instead of “are called” in Romans 2:17.
  • Breaking news: Religious Scandal in RomeThe named Jew and the name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29
    I've just had an article published in the journal Novum Testamentum. In it, I provide a detailed defense of my new reading of Romans 2:17–29. This passage is not primarily about Jewish salvation - rather it's primarily about Jewish teaching and God's glory.
  • Photo by Joseph d'Mello on UnsplashPreaching the Pastoral Epistles
    A one-hour audio seminar with principles and ideas for preaching the biblical books 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus ("Pastoral Epistles")
  • A Crash Course in Romans: Livestream
    Here's a <90 minute "Crash Course in Romans" I'm running on Monday evening 1 Feb 2021. It's aimed at leaders and any interested members of my church St Augustine's Neutral Bay and Church by the Bridge Kirribilli. Anyone is welcome to watch the livestream.
  • Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on UnsplashWhat’s wrong with the world? Is there hope? (Ephesians)
    Guilt, weakness, spiritual slavery, prejudice, arrogance, tribalism, conflict, war, victimhood, persecution, pain, suffering, futility, ignorance, lying, deceit, anger, theft, greed, pornography, sexual sin, darkness, fear, drunkenness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, workplace abuse, spiritual powers... In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says many things about the problems we face in this world. He also gives us wonderful reasons to find life, hope and healing in Jesus Christ. Along the way, he provides practical teachings about how to respond and live together.
  • What does Ephesians say about reconciliation?
    We humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. Reconciliation isn't easy. No matter how much you might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending the hurts didn’t happen. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says some very important, fundamental things about peace and reconciliation, and gives many other very practical teachings about how to live together in light of these truths.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor