Learning to Handle Criticism Can Help You Build Healthy Self-Esteem

Most children of alcoholics have a hard time handling criticism. In fact criticism—whether real of imagined—is quite scary for adult children of alcoholics.


Simply because most alcoholic parents equate criticism with hate. Alcoholics, when criticized, accuse others of being ‘against’ them or even hating them. Rare is the child of an alcoholic who witnessed their parent or guardian handling criticism well. Most of us witnessed our parents getting very defensive and saw them feeling unloved in the face of criticism. How are we supposed to learn to handle criticism better than that?


By teaching ourselves.

Is it surprising to learn that alcoholics take everything personally? That it’s all about them? No. Alcoholics are narcissists (believers that the world and all its beings revolve around them and they have what’s called a ‘narcissistic disorder.’) If you’re raised by a self-centered person, you can easily learn how to be one, too, as it’s your only role model.

Someone who can’t handle criticism is obvious. They get mad when criticized. They defend themselves when they feel criticized. And they get angry with the person who is supposedly criticizing them. Additionally, people who have a hard time handling criticism will often perceive they’re being criticized in instances when they are not actually being criticized—the self-centered adult child of an alcoholic inside their head will distort what someone is saying so that in an instance in which you just ordered a three-scoop cup of strawberry ice cream, “I don’t like strawberry ice cream,” sounds like, “I like you less because you’re eating strawberry ice cream.” You take it personally and interpret a statement like that as having something to do with you when, actually, the person is simply telling you something about them and their tastes.

As your self-esteem becomes stronger and healthier, your tendency to interpret criticism will become more straightforward. For now, you might need to first watch out for self-centered interpretations (start paying attention to when you interpret other people’s opinions as criticisms (that is, misinterpret)). Once you start to catch yourself, you can begin to stop reacting to others as if they’re criticizing you.

More often than not, other people are telling you about themselves when they say something critical or give you feedback.

One trick to coping with criticism is to buy yourself some time by deflecting the criticism—ask a question. Check in with the other person. (This will also help you differentiate real criticism from perceived criticism.) For instance, “Why don’t you like strawberry ice cream?” Or, simply, “Really?” Or, “Why is that?” Point their comment back to them, since it’s about them anyway. Or, even better, weave in a joke:  “So, you hate strawberry ice cream, and I’ve just ordered some. I hope I don’t accidentally spill on you.” Or, “Did you hear about the United People’s Front for Strawberry Ice Cream Abolishment? You should join.”

Now if someone is really criticizing you but you didn’t request the criticism, and it’s possibly a valid criticism, then be honest about your reaction but don’t dump it all over them: “I’m a little shocked by your comment so I’m going to have to think about that.” Or, “I’m not sure where you’re coming from—can you elaborate on why you’re telling me this and why now?” Give yourself time to consider what the person said, take a couple days, then revisit the conversation once you’ve digested it and considered it from different angles. Do give their comment fair consideration and stay relaxed. Criticism—despite how it feels—is not the end of the world.

Always remember that a person is expressing how they feel about something and it’s most often about them (not you) when others are speaking critically.

One other thing. You won’t have to look far, I bet, to discover opportunities for working on your ability to handle criticism and build up healthy self-esteem through the process of learning to handle other’s opinions more easily. Why? Because children of alcoholics are usually overly self-critical, and, since like seeks like, they also tend to unconsciously seek out others who are critically minded, too. (Then there’s that critical family in which you grew up.)


  1. Dave says:

    I had a narcissitic father, so of course it’s hard for me to hear that ACOA’s are narcissistic, but I agree we think we cause everything. We are given this idea as children because it is impossible to say something is wrong with parents. I was able to say my parents were hopeless at a young age. I remember driving in car at age 12, on way home from long trip, and parents were arguing about directions. I was mortified because I knew, and these 2 people I depended on didn’t. Unhealthy narcissism can be classified in different ways. I like to name the one where we think we have control over others codependency. The one my father had, where you think you are greater than others, and don’t need people who contradict you, the real narcissists.

  2. Ali says:

    Wow, I’ve always been terrible with criticism, to the point where friends are afraid to say anything negative, because I’ll get so defensive and angry. Seeing it linked to being ACOA is blowing my mind here!
    Thanks for posting. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  3. pcala says:

    I’m in a religious group of women. They are directed by a woman, self appointd, that chooses the format and subject. They are liberal and I am termed, conservative. After being away from the group for a few years I recently was invited for a visit. I mentioned the Baltimore Catisism, and one landy jumped all over me. Her final word was the Baltimore Catisism is “passe”. I answered with, that is my own opinion.
    The next week, this normally passive, lady said, as she leaned forward, I hesitate to share, due to my outburst last week.
    One comment was, who told you that?
    The other comment was, some people need to be put into their place.
    Not wanting to upsed this passive group of liberals, (I say passive, because they all have the same beliefs, no disent.)
    I let it go.
    What’s wrong with this picture?
    Everything I say or share, there is a big sigh of Oh no.
    I have a full time job, everyone else lives on their husbands retirement. They think I like to work.

Leave a Reply