Personal development, Psychology, Self-awareness

How we handle Confrontation and Criticism

We should all probably become aware how we characteristically respond to confrontation and criticism. Each throws light on fairly weighty aspects of our psyches; our self-worth, for example. They’re also a fairly reliable predictor of our ability to establish and sustain intimacy in close relationships.

the confrontation styles

We don’t exactly lack opportunities to figure out our confrontation style. Rudeness from bad tempered colleagues; poor customer service. Daily life administers a steady supply of aggravators to assist us with the assessment. 

Among the confrontation styles is perennially popular slur of our time; passive aggression. But does it mean exactly, to be passive aggressive? 

passive aggression 

One description is that it’s an unsuccessful attempt to cover up our truer feelings about things that others do, that we don’t like. For example, we might say ‘no, it’s fine, I don’t really want any fuss on my birthday’, but are privately enraged when our friends actually take us at our word. Or it is thinking ‘X is a hopeless narcissist’ and avoiding their calls, instead of raising their seeming indifference to our welfare with them directly. 

There is hostility bubbling underneath the surface, and everyone is aware of it, but nobody wants to acknowledge the elephant.

It seems like poor self-esteem gets the blame for everything, doesn’t it? But it is difficult to reach an alternative interpretation when we behave passive aggressively, than that we just don’t feel like we deserve to deliver a direct critique. We may also project our own fragile egos onto others, assuming that directness will be annihilating for the person. The compromise that we establish – a thinly disguised attack – is neither happy or satisfying. Of course, this makes us a nightmare to be around in relationships. 

If we are consistently quick to accuse others of passive aggression, we are probably doing it ourselves. We know this from the reliable defence mechanism of psychological projection.

assertive style 

One estimate shows that only around 20% of us handle our grievances in a direct and mature way. It might be best to assume you aren’t one of them – or at least that you aren’t as direct as you might think.

Those with an assertive style are clear about when someone has behaved badly towards them or is causing a problem. They aren’t happy about it, but their main aim is to find a solution. As they consider it normal to treat people well, if someone falls below standard, they aren’t embarrassed to communicate that in no uncertain terms. No dramas or grudges.

It seems to be deceivingly difficult to do. Here are just a few of the potential inhibitors we face to deploying a direct style:

  • we learned that it isn’t ‘appropriate’ to assert ourselves and say what we think
  • feel like we don’t deserve to make a fuss
  • we (misguidedly) think that we will hurt others more by being direct
  • being direct is too productive to be genuinely appealing

the others 

Between the two extremes, there are two other possibilities for confrontation style:

Passive: Accepting things overly willingly. It’s not worth the upset. You might feel resentful, but life goes on. 

Aggressive: Getting angry and annoyed, and seeing no good reason to keep that a secret.

Of course, you could use different strategies at different times. You may be passive-aggressive, passive and aggressive, depending on the circumstance. 

Figuring out which is yours

Because we do all have the blinkers on when it comes to this aspect of ourselves, here is an exercise from the Ascendance-Submission study by the American psychologist Gordon Allport that can help you to identify your style:

Someone tries to push ahead of you in line. You have been waiting for some time, and can’t wait much longer. The intruder is the same sex as you. Do you usually:

  • remonstrate with the intrude
  • ‘look daggers’ at the intruder or make clearly audible comments to your neighbour
  • decide not to wait and go away
  • do nothing

You can probably accurately guess which reaction is indicative of which style.

Another American psychologist, Dr Saul Rosenzweig, came up with the Picture Frustration test, which shows a number of frustrating situations and invites us to fill in the blanks (have fun with that).


Criticism is always challenging, but for some of us it is especially unwelcome. I can recall being very sensitive to criticism from certain people during my twenties. Now, after a protracted period of self-discovery and ruthless self-examination, not so much. 

If we are on the fragile side, our approaches to criticism take one of two variations:

  • pure defensiveness: the judger must be entirely wrong.
  • we take criticism to our cores, don’t question it, and make it mean we don’t deserve to exist.

As for how we wind up with those, we’ll get to that in a moment.

It is reassuring to learn that a third possibility exists. Our assailants may be correct and we can be OK. Vitally – we are able to confine the criticism to the issue at hand – not magnify it into an assassination of our identity. 

You can figure out your style if you don’t know it already: reflect on how you react when someone points out that a piece of your work is less than perfect. 

how our response to criticism is formed 

I’m sure it doesn’t come as too much of a shock to learn that our default responses form in childhood. It is the task of all parents to communicate the bad news to us that our efforts have missed the mark. Obviously, there are different ways of going about this, and if our parents did a disappointing job and we have yet to rectify it, we may still be paying the price.

The best sort of criticism leaves a child feeling that the criticism is local; that they remain loved and adored. And the implicit view is that everyone makes mistakes.

However, criticism that is delivered in a manner which says ‘you are wrong’ as opposed to ‘what you did was wrong’ causes a child to believe that they are entirely worthless. And then throughout adulthood, the slightest critique can evoke the shame and smallness we felt. 

Something else: the psychologist Martin Seligman has produced research showing that pessimists tend to unconsciously apply a global meaning to complaints and criticism, and localise compliments, or dismiss them altogether. Those with a more optimistic style tend to do the opposite. 

What did you learn about criticism in your childhood? How did your mother/father make you feel when they criticised you? It is worthwhile to reflect, and ultimately seek to develop a more well-balanced approach. 


Bringing awareness to our response to confrontation and criticism is useful. Many of us cause ourselves and others unnecessary suffering otherwise. We can improve the results we get in relationships and personal goals once we learn to master our responses to criticism and confrontation. 

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  1. […] Attitude towards criticism. […]

About Rezzan Hussey

Hi, I'm Rez, and this is my personal development blog. The articles here draw on ideas from across psychology, philosophy and spirituality. I'm currently posting once per week. Stay and look around :)