I got a very critical email last week. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t constructive, and it hurt.
I’m co-presenting a three-part telecourse with my friend and mentor, the very wise Gail Larsen, author of Transformational Speaking, If You Want to Change the World, Tell a Better Story. We created the class based on her work. She’s never done a telecourse before; I’ve done lots of them. She’s got a powerful body of wonderful work that needs to spread further; I wanted to help with that by sharing my experience with it. Together, we created a plan.
After the first class, we received a flood of warm, encouraging responses. Word of mouth led others to sign up even though the class had started. Gail and I were over the moon.
Until we got one email that got personal. Very personal. And it was directed at me. Gail was wonderful and inspiring, the writer opined; I was not. And the writer explained, in unkind and pointed words, exactly why she thought I should basically shut up for the rest of the course.
My focus tunneled down, laser-like, to the hurtful words in that email. I felt the energy drain from my body as my mind raced, scattering in a thousand directions at once. I forgot all about the positive messages.
One of Gail’s powerful Transformational Speaking principles is to “use your authentic power with those who can hear you, rather than the force of argument with those who can’t.”
Obviously this person hadn’t heard me. Logically, I knew that. But telling myself to fuhgeddaboutit wasn’t enough. I needed to work though the sting and the hurt of her words so I could show up for those who could hear me, without flinching, without holding back, and without being riddled with self-doubt.
I’m fine now. In fact, I’m stronger and more committed than ever. Here’s how I got there:
Admit what’s happening inside.
I started by just admitting it–she’d gotten to me. Her words stung. I was hurt, upset, distracted, angry. Old memories spiraled up. I felt deflated, worried, ashamed. It was personal and I was taking it personally. I didn’t like it, but that was the truth.
You can start there too. Whatever it is, admit it. Admit exactly where you are and start there.
Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be upset, that anger doesn’t help or to just get over it. Don’t try to be wise or enlightened when you really want to crawl in a hole and hide or you’d like to anoint your critic’s face with thick cream pie, preferably in a very public location.
If you stuff your feelings down, they’ll surely pop up later, surprising you like some giant cosmic game of whack-a-mole. Usually at a very inconvenient time and place.
So, just admit you’re human and that you’re hurting.
Get in touch with your full reaction.
What sensations are you feeling in your body? Feel the pressure, vibration, movement, density, temperature, location, direction of your sensations. Racing, swirling, stuck, bubbling, churning—whatever they are, feel them. Curiosity helps at this point.
And stay with it. In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says it takes about 90 seconds to fully process our uncomfortable sensations and emotions. But 90 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re not used to doing this. So stay with it. Keep feeling what’s present in your body. Often it’ll completely resolve in a very short time.
What are you thinking? Let all those worrisome, shame-ridden, and nasty eye-for-an-eye thoughts rip. Write them all down. Go ahead. They’re just words.
Here’s where The Work of Byron Katie can help you realize that the worst thing that can happen is happening in your own mind. Start with the most painful thoughts and work them through with Katie’s entire process until you can face your critic’s words with neutrality.
Get some wise support if you need it.
This is where your coach, your shrink, your trusted advisor, or your imaginary league of superheroes can help. Call on them. That’s what they’re for.
Remember to BMW (bitch, moan, and whine).
Get some unenlightened support, too. That’s what friends are for. I told a couple of trusted friends about what the critic had said. They supported me lovingly, unconditionally, and without reservation. One friend’s response was delightedly over the top—filled with passionate outrage and laced with insults like “poopy-head.” Reading her email, I laughed hard and immediately felt better.
Defend, justify, and explain yourself.
Write a letter to your critic justifying the choices you made, the words you uttered, the colors you painted with. Defend yourself. Explain. Justify. Set the record straight.
Blow your critic’s words to smithereens with your vaster knowledge, your broader experience, your superior intelligence. Analyze the hell out of the situation.
Don’t forget your excuses. You were under the weather, your assistant screwed up, your grandmother was hospitalized and the dog ate your homework.
Be truthful, of course, but write it all down. Then delete the whole thing from your hard drive or tear the page into a thousand little pieces, realizing that you don’t need it.
What you needed was to hear your side and then to let it go. It’s illuminating, cathartic, and healing.
Look again at the critic’s words, take the high road, and do what is necessary.
After you’ve dealt with the sting and your hurt, when the truth begins to sink in, look again. Look past the personal, harsh words of your critic. Get on the high road and decide whether you need to respond, apologize or offer a refund. If so, do it. In this case, Gail and I both simply thanked the person for writing and made a full refund to her.
Then, again putting the harsh personal words aside, consider whether there is a kernel of truth in what was offered by your critic. Is there anything you can use to improve your work?
Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. The point is to look analytically, dispassionately, and to consider the possibility that there is something you can use buried in the vitriol.
If there is, extract the morsel from the mud, being careful not to drop any of the sludge on your shoes.
If there is no morsel to be found, let it go. ‘Nuff said.
Remind yourself that creative expression is about commitment, not consensus.
As the poet David Whyte asks, can you “live in the world with its harsh need to change you” and “look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”?
When you offer your voice or your creativity into the world, not everyone will agree with you, appreciate you, support you or like you.
Congratulations. You took a stand for something. You didn’t go for bland. You didn’t water yourself or your offering down to the consistency of baby pablum. You made a commitment, you took a risk and you let us see you. Now look back with firm eyes and say, “this is where I stand.”
That’s what coming alive is all about
Remember, you don’t need a lack of criticism in your life; you need to express yourself authentically.
Find your courage and stay the course.
To be sure, I’ve been criticized before. But in the past, I felt that there was truth contained in the message, something I could learn or use, or an apology I needed to make. As Rumi said, I used the criticism to “polish my mirror.”
This time, someone didn’t like what I had to say and the way I said it. In a class designed, at least in part, around what I had to say.
What the hell can you do with that?
I think there is only one thing any of us can do in these situations. Silently offer our thanks to our critics for helping us see more clearly and grow stronger. Then it’s time to move forward.
As the magnificent Ralph Waldo said:
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m feeling fine now. Going through this process helped. Writing about it helped, too. It’s time to let it go and move forward.
And I hope that you find a voice loud and strong and bold enough to draw criticism, too. And when that happens, even if that criticism is not kind or constructive, look back with firm eyes, map your course of action, find your courage, and follow it to the end.
There’s too much important work to do in the world to make any other choice.