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Self-affirming reactions to criticism

This is a section of a longer paper. There is a roadmap for the entire paper, and you can download the 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 behavioursOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

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