I recently had the most amazing experience with criticism.
But first, let me take you back to where I started from. I started out as a girl so damn afraid of criticism that the harsh words my English professors said during college (your short story just “doesn’t go anywhere”, your writing is “clunky”, and so on) were so wounding to me that I didn’t write for years after graduating. Years.
And then, over the past years, that changed. A first step was realizing that if I was going to write, I needed to write for myself–not for praise. A second step was getting used to people writing harsh comments about my work and realizing I was always going to get both praise and criticism. Thank you Huffington Post, for being a great bootcamp for getting used to that.
Another step was practicing, for years, the tool I now teach: interpreting feedback as telling me useful information about the person giving the feedback, not about myself.
It was not lost on me, of course, how ironic it was that I then was asked to write an essay about this topic for The New York Times. I had to deal with my own inner spaz about whether the world was going to praise my essay on unhooking from praise. Ha ha, universe, very funny.
What happened was just what I talked about in the article: all substantive work draws both positive and negative feedback. Lots of people loved the piece. I got tons of positive feedback. It was the #1 Most Emailed story of the week. And some people really didn’t like the essay. A few women journalists and bloggers wrote other articles, at popular sites, about what they felt was missing from it and wrong with it.
And here’s what was so amazing. I was honestly happy for those women. I really really was. I was happy for them because they were sharing what they felt had been unsaid about the issue, and they were actually getting their voices out, and publishing, and I know so well how hard that is and how much courage it takes. I was also happy for them because they weren’t being bound by “nice-girl” norms that could have prevented them from vocally disagreeing, from writing a piece that was fundamentally a critique of another.
I felt like we were all sitting at a round table and I was sharing my point of view, and they theirs. I felt so free because as I wrote my essay, and afterward, I’d given myself permission to not address every possible objection, to not cover all my bases, so to speak. I didn’t ask myself to do that. I asked myself to stay firmly rooted in my subjective slice of the truth and share that. And our conversation as a collective is only whole if other people do the same. We live in a world of multiple truths, countless layers of the truth, different prisms on the truth. My job was not to say it all, it was to say my part.
As I felt my way through that strange experience of responding to the critical essays by having this new kind of “I’m so happy for you that you are getting your voice out there!” feeling, to my own surprise, the phrase that kept coming into my consciousness was “a kind of spiritual generosity.”
This was something I had never thought about before, that there is a spiritual generosity we can extend in welcoming, allowing other people’s criticism of our work, when that criticism is part of what it looks like for them to share their perspective. They would of course be “allowed” to do it no matter how I felt about it, but I believe somehow energetically it matters for them, and for me, that I welcome it and respect it.
Now, if that criticism had come in a conversation with me, maybe this would have been an entirely different experience for me, one that required different skills and different recovery, but in our virtual roundtable, so to speak, this was my experience.
And, at the same time, I protected my fragile artist-writer self. I skimmed their work – I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t feel the need to form an opinion about it or to respond.
But I was, and am, genuinely happy that they were taking their seat at the table, and I mine.
How can you extend the spiritual generosity to others to more fully allow them their seat at the table – even if that entails criticism of your ideas?
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