Classical Conditioning

Some stimuli naturally result in a certain response such as a dog salivating when he sees food or a sudden loud noise frightening a baby. The stimulus and response are unconditioned because they occur naturally. A stimulus that doesn’t result in that response is called a neutral stimulus. Here is an example from the Little Albert experiment involving a 9 month old baby:

Albert was frightened by the loud noise but liked playing with the rat. On five separate occasions, the researcher made a loud noise immediately after presenting the rat to baby Albert to see how he would respond.

In subsequent visits, the neutral stimulus (seeing the lab rat) evoked the same response (fear) as the unconditioned, naturally occurring stimulus (sudden loud noise), even when the naturally occurring stimulus (loud noise) wasn’t present as shown in the example below.

The experiment showed that pairing a neutral stimulus (rat) with an unconditioned stimulus (loud noise) can condition people to respond to a neutral stimulus the same way they’d respond to the unconditioned stimulus. Classical conditioning has been shown to play a role in phobias, PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety, and other emotions.

Sensitivity to Criticism in Autism

Let’s see how classical conditioning can cause some autistic people to become sensitive to criticism. People tend to get frustrated, stressed, or disappointed when they don’t like how their children or peers act especially if they think there’s nothing wrong with them. If people criticized your behavior and you were unable to change your behavior to please them, you may have blamed yourself and thought there was something wrong with you or you may have interpreted their frustration and disappointment as evidence they didn’t like you. This could have happened when you were a toddler or when you started going to school. While feeling inferior or rejected normally results in painful emotions, criticism is a neutral stimulus for most people as shown below:

Being criticized for your behavior and feeling inferior or rejected after being unable to change it to please others can cause your mind to associate criticism with feeling inferior and/or rejected as shown below:

Once your mind associates criticism with feeling inferior or rejected, it will result in a conditioned response to criticism that causes you to experience painful emotions when you are criticized.

Studies show conditioned emotional responses occur automatically within a fraction of a second and that painful emotions alter brain function which means your thinking will be impaired before you’re able to process the criticism. That’s why you may have tried to not let criticism bother you and not been successful. If it started when you were a toddler, it may seem like your sensitivity to criticism is genetic since you don’t remember not being sensitive.

If you were criticized for your behavior while being yourself, it can make you uncomfortable, hesitant, or afraid to be yourself. That may have caused you to mask, or hide, any perceived differences to avoid criticism. While it may have been necessary to avoid being overwhelmed with painful emotions, it’s hard to feel like you belong and that people accept you if they don’t really know you. Being yourself and working to become less sensitive can greatly reduce the unwanted emotions you experience.

Reducing Conditioned Emotional Responses

The good news is that unlike genes, conditioned responses can be reduced or eliminated. That means you can be yourself and not feel worse when people criticize you which can greatly reduce your stress and help you feel less alone.

How Conditioned Emotional Responses Work

You can think of it as a connection or “wire” in the brain. If your mind associates criticism with rejection, every time you’re criticized and feel rejected afterward, the association between criticism and feeling rejected will strengthen. If you are criticized and don’t feel rejected, the association between criticism and feeling rejected will weaken. If you are criticized enough times without feeling rejected, your brain will no longer associate criticism with rejection which can eliminate your sensitivity to criticism so you don’t feel worse when you are criticized.

Not sure why you’re sensitive to criticism?

Since a conditioned response to criticism may have started when you were a toddler, you may not know what your mind associated it with since you probably can’t remember what you were thinking when you were 1 or 2 years old and may have trouble understanding which emotions you’re experiencing due to alexithymia which is common in autism. Fortunately, you can figure it out based on what you think about after you are criticized. If you have negative thoughts about yourself after you’re criticized, your mind probably associated criticism with negative beliefs about yourself. Even if that’s not the case, improving your self-esteem will still be beneficial. If you have negative thoughts about other people after being criticized, your mind probably associated criticism with negative beliefs about other people (such as being rejected, believing most people are mean, intolerant,

Treatment

The most effective treatment to reduce conditioned responses is exposure therapy which involves deliberately seeking out the neutral stimulus until your mind no longer associates it with the unconditioned stimulus. See below for important additional information for specific types of conditioned responses.

Phobias

Using the Little Albert experiment as an example, if your family wanted a pet rat but your mind associated rats with fear, you could look at rats, pet them, and play with them until you realized there was nothing to be afraid of and if you did it long enough you would no longer be afraid of rats.

If you’re afraid to express an opinion because your mind associated it with being harshly rebuked or ridiculed in the past, you could practice telling people what you think and you’ll probably find that most people won’t rebuke you or ridicule you for it which will lessen your fear until it eventually goes away.

If you’re afraid to try exposure therapy because your fear is great or you are at risk of having a panic attack, you can start slow and gradually increase how much you expose yourself to whatever it is that scares you.

Criticism and Feeling Inferior

In order to not feel like you’re stupid, inferior, or defective after you are criticized, it helps to improve your self-esteem and learn that those labels are overgeneralizations. Everyone has weaknesses. They’re part of what makes you human. If you didn’t have any flaws, you wouldn’t be normal. Regardless of your flaws, they are only part of who you are and don’t define you as a person. You probably wouldn’t tell a friend or relative who is bad at something that he is a loser so why treat yourself so harshly and unfairly?

Every time you are criticized while thinking and knowing you’re not inferior will lessen your mind’s association between criticism and feeling inferior. It helps to seek out criticism (by saying or doing something that might result in criticism or just being yourself) when you’re having a good day or not particularly stressed because stress can affect your thinking and increase the likelihood that you’ll feel inferior afterward. Remind yourself before saying or doing something that will likely result in criticism that none of your weaknesses make you any less worthy as anyone else and that nothing anyone says can change that fact. It’s okay if you feel worse after you are criticized for awhile. What’s important is that you don’t think that you’re inferior or that something is wrong with you. Once the association between criticism and feeling worse is broken, you won’t feel worse about yourself when you are criticized.

Criticism and Feeling Rejected

If you just sought out criticism from many people, you might get a bunch of negative reactions, conclude no one likes you, and end up strengthening your mind’s association between criticism and rejection. To prevent that from happening, it helps to understand why people react the way they do so you’re less likely to feel rejected when you’re criticized.

Although it may feel like you’re being rejected or that you’re being attacked because you’re autistic, know that it may be the result of your mind associating criticism with rejection and that the emotions you feel may be affecting your thinking. After you break that association and overcome your sensitivity to criticism, you’ll probably find that most of the time people are just uncomfortable, misunderstanding you, or expressing a different opinion and not actually rejecting you or even disliking you.

Most people are naturally more cautious, suspicious, anxious, and less trusting around people they don’t know very well since everyone is different and some people might want to harm them. It’s harder to trust people if you don’t understand them which is why people tend to get uncomfortable or avoid people who act differently. They primarily do it to stay safe and protect themselves from potential harm and not because they don’t like you.

The key to not feeling worse after you are criticized is to change the way you think about it before you are criticized and seek out criticism when you are prepared and best able to handle it. If you wait until you’re criticized, when you’re more likely to be having a bad day, experiencing more stress than usual, and less prepared to respond to it, you’re more likely to interpret their criticism as rejection and strengthen your mind’s association between criticism and rejection.

If you seek out criticism when you’re not particularly stressed, have control over the situation, and can prepare how to think about it immediately before you are criticized, it will increase the likelihood that you won’t feel rejected afterward.

If you know someone supportive who is willing to help, you can role play responding to different types of criticism. For example, you can pick a topic, express an opinion and have that person criticize or respond harshly to whatever you say so you can practice changing how you think about criticism so you won’t feel rejected when you’re criticized. Asking that person to say positive things about you afterward can help you break your mind’s association between criticism and feeling rejected more quickly.

If you think most people are mean, intolerant, judgmental and lying in wait to attack you when you do something odd or make a mistake, it’s going to be more difficult to not feel rejected afterward than if you considered that people might be misunderstanding you or are just uncomfortable around you because they don’t know why your behavior is odd. The more favorably you’re able to view those criticizing you, the easier it will be to break your mind’s association between criticism and rejection. It’s in your best interest to assume the best in people instead of the worst while working to break that association. It also helps to focus on how you’re like other people instead of focusing on your differences.