Time for a classic from the archives, originally published on November 9, 2013.
Raise your hand if you love being criticized.
Yeah, I thought not. Me, either. Who does?
If you want to live a big, bold, creative life, however, one of the first orders of business is learning how to deal with criticism, because the bigger and bolder you get, the more attention and feedback you’re going to get, both positive and negative.
The only other option is to stay small and timid, hiding under your shell, but that’s the opposite of living a big, bold, creative life, so it’s not really an option at all.
Learning effective tools for dealing with criticism is so important that I devote an entire module of Your Big, Bold, Creative Life Academy to it. And let me tell you, I was happy to have those tools at the ready this morning, when my business partner, Cory, forwarded the following email to me, which he’d received in response to our Creative Insurgents podcast.
Just watched Episode One. GREAT idea! But WAY too much talking. Want specifics, not Melissa’s self-indulgent blathering on about the creative process, the nature of insurgency, etc. We are not all morons like Minnie. Give me specific ideas soon or will not be attending another!
Ouch. In one fell swoop, this lady, whom I’ll call Z, accused me of being a self-indulgent blatherer who treats listeners like morons, and called Minnie a moron.
I’d be lying to you if I said this did not hurt me.
The truth is, words can and do hurt, and if I did not have power tools for neutralizing the effect of attacks like this, I’d have shut down operations years ago and moved into a yurt in the Yukon Territory. (Well, actually, perhaps an island in the Pacific, where the weather’s better.)
The reason that this particular criticism stung, though, is the same reason any criticism stings: it touched a nerve.
Someone, at some point early in my development, told me I was selfish, and I believed them. Someone, at some point, told me I talked too much. (Girls, after all, should be quiet and retiring! Girls should not make noise, solicit attention, or seek the limelight — no, siree! Girls should smile and look pretty, and that’s it.)
If I didn’t already have these old wounds, Z’s words would have meant nothing. If, rather than attacking me for my “self-indulgent blathering on,” Z had made fun of my red hair, say, or attacked me for being too cheerful, her arrow would have bounced right off. I don’t have old hurts around being a redhead or too cheerful, so it’s much easier for me to maintain neutrality around those things.
Call me “self-indulgent,” though, or sneer that I “blather on,” and the part of me that wonders if I really am and do those things wants to curl up and hide. Forever.
Thankfully, I’ve got some tools to help keep those arrows from slicing too deeply. Tools that you can use, too.
Tool #1: Know your hair triggers.
Simply knowing the negative beliefs I fear might be true about myself helps me to stay neutral when I receive criticisms aimed right at those beliefs. I’m less likely to spiral into a blob of self-doubt, convinced I should spend the rest of my days in solitary confinement, when I can recognize that, oh, my buttons just got pushed!
How do you discover your hair triggers? Simply ask yourself, “What criticism do you most fear receiving?”
If a particular criticism really pushes your buttons, if you’d just die if someone said X about you, it’s a sure sign that some part of you fears or believes that X is really true.
But just because you fear it or believe it does not make it so.
Do you have evidence that X is really true? What is the evidence that you do have?
Whenever I feel myself sliding into my old fear that I’m selfish, for example, I remind myself of all the evidence to the contrary: the many friends, acquaintances, students, clients, subscribers, who reflect back to me on a regular basis that I’m generous and thoughtful, rather than selfish.
That may not be everyone’s experience of me — clearly, it’s not Z’s experience — but that doesn’t really tell me anything about me. Instead, it tells me about her.
Which brings me to:
Tool #2: Separate fact from interpretation
I got a piece of negative feedback. So let’s look at this rationally. What does this feedback tell me about the person criticizing?
Let’s take a look. Here’s what I learned from this missive from Z:
1) Z likes the idea of the podcast, but feels there was too much talking in Episode One. (Note: I’m not sure what a podcast is supposed to contain besides talking, but that’s another story.) She wants specifics (whatever that means).
2) Z is not my Right People.
3) Z seems to feel that the threat of her non-attendance matters to Cory (whether this is true or not, I don’t know — I haven’t asked Cory).
4) Z is the kind of person who insults other people behind their backs (she chose to tell Cory that I’m a self-indulgent blatherer, and that she considers Minnie a moron, rather than telling us directly herself).
5) Z is the kind of person who says one thing, but does another: signing off with “Respectfully,” after writing a letter that was anything but respectful.
Now, in Z’s defense, it may be that she was having a very bad day. Perhaps when she wrote her email she had just stubbed her toe, or was suffering from intestinal cramping. Or maybe her dog had just died. We cannot know.
I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I will assume that Z is a really nice person most of the time, like most people. Even really nice people can flame someone in a bad moment. I’ve been known, in the heat of passion, to click send on a message that I never would have sent had cooler heads prevailed. (Soooo embarrassing…)
The point here is not to make fun of Z, but to bring some reason into play when on the receiving end of nastiness. The real question is this:
How do we know whose feedback and criticism to pay attention to, and whose to ignore?
I really like Brené Brown’s way of looking at it. In her book, Daring Greatly, she talks about those of us who are making work and putting it out there in the world being like the gladiators who are fighting in the arena. There might be thousands of people in the stands screaming, “You’re a wimp! You can’t fight your way out of a paper bag!” but they’re not in the arena themselves, are they?
It’s easy to fling attacks from the sidelines, but that feedback is rarely useful to the gladiators themselves.
“I will accept criticism,” says Brené Brown, “from people who are also out there in the arena getting their ass kicked.”
Is Z in the arena getting her ass kicked? Is her opinion something truly useful for me?
No and no.
If Z were a fellow podcaster offering a suggestion that she thought would improve our podcast and bring us more devoted fans, that would be one thing. But a name-caller offers me no useful data.
So with those two tools from my Dealing With Criticism Toolbox, I un-paralyzed myself, wrote this blog post, and got on with my day. I hope you find it helpful. It would make me happy if Z’s crappy note composted down into fertilizer for something good.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!