I recently attended a class taught by someone who has been an excellent adviser for my business in the past. Someone I respect. In the middle of the class, he criticized me harshly in front of the entire group. His comment was not wholly untrue, but it was not wholly fair either. I did not defend myself for two reasons 1) I was stunned into silence and 2) I didn’t want to make the other people feel uncomfortable. Still, silly as this sounds, it was all I could do not to cry.
See, I was (and still am) a pleaser child. My parents never quite figured out there was no need to punish me. Their disapproval was punishment enough. So here was this person who is a bit of an authority figure (though he’s not much older than me) telling me not that I’d failed, but that I was a failure. At least that’s how I heard it. An overreaction, no doubt, though he did speak in absolutes.
It’s amazing to me how vulnerable we humans are just going through our days. Unless we stay holed up at home, the minute we put ourselves out there, we’re open to criticism, judgement, and disapproval, and we rarely see it coming. If you choose to put your art out in the world, you open yourself up even more.
Over the years, I’ve grown a thicker skin when it comes to criticism of my work. You can tell me you think my books are not that great and, though I will not enjoy hearing it, I will mostly be able to let it go. It’s your opinion, not a fact. But disapproval is harder to dismiss. Disapproval says to us, “You’re not a good artist. You’re not a good business owner. You’re not a good mother/father.” It says, “You’re not talented and probably never will be because you have these fatal flaws that will doom you.”
Disapproval causes us to hang our heads and fight back tears and hurt in our hearts because it makes us, not just our work, unworthy. While criticism can be constructive, disapproval never is.
So, during a break in the class, I scurried to the bathroom, took some deep breaths, and calmed myself. I went on as if nothing happened, and no one in the room seemed to note my distress, including the presenter. But it took me days to get over that hurt. I analyzed his comment from every angle, and my husband and I pieced together the stresses of the day that might have caused him to say it, and we took apart his comment to see if there was anything useful in it, and all of that helped.
But what helped most was realizing that the thing he criticized me for may seem on the surface to be a flaw, but is actually one of my strengths. Beyond what he was seeing as negative is my ability to spin a positive from that negative. To improve the things that are broken. “It’s actually your superpower,” my husband said. And he’s not wrong.
Later, I had to admit I wasn’t just angry at the presenter. I was angry with myself for letting that moment so affect me. How, I wondered, after a lifetime of self-work could I still fall right back into the same self-loathing I felt as a child just because I’d failed to please someone? Had I not evolved at all?
This morning, I heard this comment from an interview with Sylvia Boorstein on the On Being podcast. She said in moments of anxiety, she says to herself, “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”
So, I guess I have evolved a bit. I did admit (I am admitting) that it hurt. Then I took my deep breaths and tried to relax. Then I tried to figure out what to do. It’s the “sweetheart” part, though, that I missed. What I required in that moment was not just to “get a grip,” I needed loving kindness, and if no one else could see that I needed it, I should have given it to myself.
So yes, sweetheart, if you’re going to put yourself and your art out there, sometimes you’re going to get hurt. And when that happens, don’t just get through it. Take a moment to love yourself just a little bit more. You’re still learning, you’re still growing, you’re still evolving. Be kind to yourself. Be proud of how far you’ve come. And remember that the opposite of flaw is strength.
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