One of the first exercises we had to do as journalism undergraduates at university was read out our work and have it constructively criticised in front of the whole class.
It was one of those moments when fear struck and the words ‘I am not good enough’ hung in the air above all 20 of us.
Not only did the atmosphere above us change, but I also think I heard all of our stomachs hit the floor and stay there.
We all pleaded with our eyes, ‘Please don’t be too harsh.’
But, you know what, our lecturer was pretty harsh and it was a valuable lesson.
Sure, it wasn’t fun hearing your lead was sloppy or that your story sounded more like a novel than fact.
But that’s how we all learned. We learned how to write better, we learned how to build a safe space to share, laugh and encourage one another.
And, most importantly, we learned how to handle criticism.
Because when you write something and put it out for the world to read, people are going to say something about it.
In fact, you want them to talk about it.
Of course, what you really want is for them to talk about it, at worst, kindly and, at best, with reverence.
But writing is subjective and kind of like a coin – it’s always 50:50 how someone is going to react to your work. Like, or don’t like.
I could argue I learned the lesson even earlier when my high school English teacher wrote ‘Ugh’ repeatedly on my work, except I didn’t because all I could see then was a cruel three-letter-word and not his motivations to help me write better.
I still hold that there are better, kinder ways of motivating people and teaching them how to handle criticism.
But the point is, I did learn.
And yet, that didn’t stop my ears from burning and the tears from flowing the first time I published an opinion piece about the live export industry and animal welfare.
I was confronted with comments telling me how stupid I was, I had no clue what I was writing about, that my opinion was nonsense and I had zero credibility.
It was like that nasty voice in my head – my inner critic – had escaped and taken on multiple real-life human personas. Nasty. Cruel. Ugh.
That was when I really learned how to handle criticism.
Blast from the past: criticism today
So, yesterday when one of my blog posts was published by news.com.au (you can read it here) and the negative comments started reeling in, my first impulse was to laugh.
‘Oh, I forgot about this part of it all’, I thought to myself.
And I was just so darned excited to see other people commenting and tagging friends, ‘This is me. This is us.’
That was so cool.
What was even cooler – actually, I’m going to switch adjectives here to beautiful – was the messages that flowed in from my family and friends checking in to make sure I was okay.
To ensure I didn’t believe any of the brazen comments and describing how the comments made them feel. They were feeling pain and anger and hurt for me.
One person even started justifying what I had written: “But, you were just saying…don’t they get that?!”
I felt so loved in that moment.
How could I be angry with the mean commentators when they had brought me all this extra kindness?
I mean, really, how could I?
Well, it turns out, I could. I could definitely get angry. Or, at least a bit miffed.
You see, I went back a few times to see if there were more nice comments and had to scroll past the nasty ones, which incidentally meant I reread them and saw how many extra likes a particularly mean comment had gotten since my last check in.
After about the third time, I started hearing a voice in my head, and although it was soft, I knew it’s familiar deadbeat drum and decided to log out and enjoy my day.
Only the damage had already been done. I had primed my day with negativity and found my patience even shorter than usual as I was squished between thousands of people at a flea market, and pushed and shoved.
And this was after me, a learned criticism-handler let’s remember, had repeatedly assured everyone that mean commentary had more to do with the people commenting than it did about me.
After all, I figured, you’ve got to be hurting quite a bit to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and contribute bad juju into the world.
Reminding myself of that and getting the heck out of that infestation of humans at the flea market brought me back to even keel.
I certainly wasn’t going to perpetuate the cycle of nastiness by transferring my annoyance to the woman who just shoulder barged me.
And, you know what, I ended up having a really nice day.
I soon forgot about the article entirely and that people could even say mean things.
It’s your job, get over it
Criticism is part and parcel of journalism, I get that, and I willingly take it on and agree to deal with it if it means I get to publish work that I think matters, or work that I think is fun, or work that is just verbose and personal.
But, there’s a difference between criticism and bullying.
I don’t feel bullied by anything that people wrote on my article, not at all, but I have felt and been bullied before.
And, I don’t want this article to make anyone feel like they just have to deal when they are hurting from what another person has said to them.
Even if it is part and parcel of your job.
And I was reminded of that today by none other than Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love).
On one of her podcast episodes (it’s called Magic Lessons and it’s awesome), Liz said even she doesn’t read her reviews because she feels like it won’t serve her to potentially be cut by glass.
The universe knew what I needed to hear and what I needed to tell others and sent directly to my iPod (a message from Steve Jobs if you will).
If a best-selling novelist who has a tonne of life experience and is a mindfulness master isn’t even willing to be cut by someone else’s words*, than you definitely don’t have to either. Neither do I.
If you do happen to read something awful, what I will say is that accepting who I am and not needing other people to affirm that they also accept me helps.
It helps take away the sting like nothing else can.
*I say mean words specifically because I am still building this muscle when it comes to working with people who undermine me.
If this post was far too wordy and whingey and filled with too many first world problems for you, I’ve summarised it below in a song.
You should go and love yourself
When Justin Bieber’s song Love Yourself came out, I thought it was so powerful. A guy making space for his ex to go and work on herself and learn to love who she is? Right on. It turns out that’s not exactly what he meant. I was sharing my passion for the song with my friends when they enlightened me that love yourself is a bit of a more literal turn of phrase and should be read more as go f*$% yourself. Oh. But, for the purposes of any bullies, trolls, or mean commentary you’re dealing with right now, or in the past or in the future, I want you to sing** this modified version of Bieber’s song with my original analysis of its meaning in mind. Honestly, some lines didn’t have to be changed at all – they work perfectly as is. I knew Bieber had more than one reason for writing this song!
For all the times that you rain on my parade
And all the abuse you write using my name
You think you broke my heart, oh girl, for goodness sake
You think I’m crying on my own, well I ain’t.
And I didn’t want to write this post
‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care
But you still hit my phone up.
And honey I’ve been moving on,
And I think you should be someone
Whose got your friends’ back.
Maybe you should know that…
My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone
But don’t worry that doesn’t have to be for long
And I’ve been so caught up in my joy
Didn’t see what’s going on
But now I know, I’m better helping you on your throne.
‘Cause if you like the way you troll that much, oh baby
You should go and love yourself
And if you think that I’m a threat to you and who you are
You should go and love yourself
When you told me that you hated my post
The only problem was with you needin’ a boast
And every time you told me my opinion was wrong
And tried to make me forget where I come from
…Love yourself. Love yourself. LOVE YOURSELF!
*Singing is great and all, but also don’t feel like you have to be brave and just get over something that hurts. Please reach out to somebody and let yourself be reminded how much you are loved.