Recently I have been thinking a lot about criticism. Well, not so much thinking about it as smarting from it. In March I had an epiphany on a crowded Tokyo train. I clearly saw, through my streaky goggles, that I was carrying around some old beliefs about being a foreigner in Japan that were as useful and lovely as a pile of birdshit. So I wrote—earnestly, so earnestly!—an essay about the process of letting them go. When that article was reposted to a news site, I got some of the most bile-filled, meanest, and dumbest comments and emails I’ve ever received. Naturally, since the writers were obviously thoughtless cretins who couldn’t spell let alone think, their comments didn’t bother me, right? Right? RIGHT??? Pardon me while I cackle hysterically for a few minutes. No, I am sorry to say that I slurped up all that hatefulness like it was poisoned kool-aid. Not surprisingly, afterward I felt sick.
I sought wise counsel. They pointed out that the criticism was only bothering me when it hit certain points. Specifically, it only hurt when they said things that I actually believed, or was afraid of. To wit: the comments that smarted the most were the ones that called me self-indulgent, whining, or precious. The barbs that ridiculed my taste in music, my understanding of Japanese culture, or my general stupidity – those just slid off my back with no lingering residue. In other words, I am pretty secure in my music choices, my Japan savvy, and my overall genius. But I have an old story still twisted in my mind about being a princess—a spoiled self-dramatizing baby—that resonated painfully.
This was hugely enlightening to me. I thought I was sensitive to criticism in general, but that’s not the case. The criticism only really stung when it resonated with a story that I was already telling myself. It’s like I had musical strings in me that vibrated only to particular notes. So I did some investigation.
I took myself through several “thought work” processes that I use in my coaching. I used The Work, a powerful investigative process taught by Byron Katie. I also used Self-Coaching 101, created by Brooke Castillo. I could see how my thoughts were driving my actions and my actions naturally shaped the result I got. Every time, the result proved true my thought. In this case, when I believed that I was self-indulgent or precious or overdramatic, I spiraled into lots of sad and ashamed thinking, worrying about my own flaws, gazing at my navel in despair. Helllllo! The more I believed these harsh judgmental thoughts about myself, the more I turned into the whiny princess I was so afraid of becoming!! I had proved my original thought (that I was a drama queen) and it totally stunk. I was ready to change the thought so that I would get a different result. Both the Self-Coaching 101 method and Byron Katie’s The Work are available free online, but there is also a simpler way. I asked myself three questions. Is this thought true? Is it kind? Is it useful? In each case, the beliefs that I was self-indulgent, a whiner, and a drama queen were none of the above.
I’m not enlightened enough to magically dispel crappy thoughts like that; I need to replace them with something that feels better and is totally believable to me. (I don’t believe it makes sense to recite ‘affirmations’ that you don’t believe. But just in case I'm wrong: I own a horse, I own a horse, I own a horse.) So I replaced my thoughts with the following: Life feels rich and dramatic to me, and that’s a good thing. Talking and writing about my process, rather than pretending to be perfect, is useful to me and maybe even to others. Also, I will wear a tiara if I damn well feel like it. These might sound kind of silly, but because they were true, kind, and useful, they were powerful motivators for me. And before I knew it, the poison of those hateful comments was gone.
Only then did I remember something that Julia Cameron says about criticism. I think she’s right on the money. She writes: “Ah-hah! is often the accompanying inner sound when a well-placed, accurate critical arrow makes its mark. The [person] thinks, “Yes! I can see that! That’s right! I can change that!” The criticism that damages [a person] is the criticism—well intentioned or ill—that contains no saving kernel of truth yet has a certain damning plausibility or an unassailable blanket judgment that cannot be rationally refuted.”
When I worked with my favorite writing teacher, even her most difficult criticisms left me feeling a kind of relief. I would think, “Ohhhh, that’s why that section isn’t working. Yes, I see how to fix it now.” That’s very different than a sniggering condemnation that ridicules someone for having even tried in the first place. That kind of criticism comes from misdirected pain or fear and is not useful at all. Except maybe to fertilize my flowers.
So next time I post an essay online, I’m going to carry Julia Cameron’s quote with me. And I’m also going to know better than to read the damn comments. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep delving into the process because it’s delicious. I’ll wear my tiara, from Claire’s, with the purple plastic jewels in it. I'll keep talking about it. And if a horse shows up, I’ll let you know.