Friday, June 8, 2018

Yes, Criticism is Sometimes Personal

Pretend you have a child. If you do have a child, pretend that child is in front of you instead of this computer screen. Now pretend that child tells you last minute you need to bring some sort of baked goods to whatever meeting you’re about to go to. If you have a child, this probably isn’t difficult to imagine. It probably happened yesterday.

So you run to the store, you grab the first batch of cookies you see, throw them on a plate, and go on your merry way.

The cookies are terrible. I mean, people are polite about it, but you can hear the murmurs. You look in the trash and the top is layered with them, one bite taken out of each. The rest of the cookies go uneaten.

Now, it’s possible that you don’t feel bad, that this isn’t worth your time in the least, but we can all admit that there’s a chance we do feel just a little embarrassed. The right time, place, and mood, anyone could feel rejected, downhearted, foolish, despite the fact that we did not make the cookies, we didn’t even choose the cookies, not really.

Or, if that doesn’t work for you, think of a time in which everyone in the car was hungry but no one wanted to decide where to eat. So you throw out the first restaurant you think of—not that you particularly want to go there—and everyone immediately goes, “Ew! No!

Or when a man starts laughing and mocking everything you do and logically you know he has a crush on you, but that doesn’t stop you from slamming the cash register drawer into his knee.

Even the most level headed of us have felt rejection when we really shouldn’t. In many cases, the embarrassment has more to do with the reaction than the actual events. People can shame you just by behaving as though you should feel shame.

Rejection hurts, and the worst part is it’s not always logical. You rarely can talk yourself out of the grief of rejection. Once you feel it, no matter how stupid it is, you just have to bear through it.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we don’t try to argue ourselves out of it. It also doesn’t stop our significant others from trying to reason with us either. They hate seeing you in pain, they hate feeling helpless, so they try and give you advice that, unfortunately, sometimes makes it worse.

“When people criticize your book, they’re not criticizing you.” I hear it more from authors telling it to themselves than anything else, and if it works for them, fantastic. I don’t mean to poke holes in something that can soothe irrational emotions. But the statement, while seemingly true on paper, actually promotes a problematic mentality, and can leave people feeling more helpless.

The idea is first that rejection has to be personal to hurt, that it has to be a criticism of who you are as a human being for it to be painful. It falls under the same category of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Not only can words hurt, but so can thoughts. Being judged as being inadequate, even if it has nothing to with who you are, even if it has nothing to do with what you want to be doing, can still leave you feeling inferior. The desire to be a keystone in society is what makes society work. We all want to be important and when we prove a failure in even stupid things, it touches on our fear that maybe we truly are that insignificant.

On a more logical level, being considered a failure in anything can be detrimental to our reputations. We tend to dehumanize the greats, see their qualities and flaws different as ours. “Everyone shits,” is an image we use to remember that King Arthur and Gandhi and Donald Trump are just people, and it expresses the issue nicely. You can take someone down a peg just by remembering that they have normal everyday functions.

We are the sum of our parts. Our actions are not defined on an individual basis; they are the accumulation of each other. If, when we first meet, I prove ignorant on the subject of geography, when you then find out that I’m your therapist, for many it doesn’t matter that I don’t need to know if Australia is a continent or a country to be able to analyze your personal problems with your husband, I’ve still caused you to start questioning my judgement.

So, yeah, just because something isn’t a personal attack doesn’t mean that it’s not going to affect me. It still means that I was inadequate in someone else’s eyes. And what if they’re right?

The second problem is when people say criticism isn’t personal, what they really mean is in the context they are thinking, but that’s only theoretical. In practice, it very much can be.

When I was in high school, we discussed the issue of illegal search and seizure. One boy argued that if you didn’t have something to hide, then why did it matter? If you refused them, obviously they knew that you had done something wrong.

At the time, I argued that you may not want someone going through your personal belongings, you might have something on you that, while not illegal, you didn’t particularly want other people to see. Maybe you were carrying around a pack of condoms or a diary or animal scat. Who knows?

After that argument, I spent a long time considering it, and it wasn’t until several years later that the most obvious argument occurred to me: you are assuming the cop is a good person. I, too, didn’t believe that there could be selfish and corrupt authority figures. I trusted my teachers, for instance, and it wasn’t until college that I realized you could have a professor who actually wanted you to fail.

I do still have the tendency to trust officers and teachers, but I am far more aware of why we can’t bank of self-policing when trying to solve problems. You can’t just make laws assuming that the criminal is always wrong and the cop is always good. You can’t just be obedient when a teacher spends all his energy telling you you’re going to fail and you should quit. Questioning motivations is a big part of understanding truth, and the truth is that sometimes criticism is personal.

There’s the obvious ones: “You’re fat.” If you look on Goodreads or Amazon, you’ll come across these sorts of reviews, where the reviewer goes off on the author’s appearance, race, and/or gender. It doesn’t have anything to do with the book in many cases, it’s just an insulting rant.

Then there’s the not so obvious ones, where you start to get the feeling that they have some sort of issue with the writer, but the criticism isn’t exactly insults. Their hatred is hidden by actual literary complaints, it’s just that those complaints seem a little petty, irrelevant, and maybe even contradictory to the person’s other reviews or comparisons.

Last you have the worst kind, where the criticism is intricately tied into their hatred of the writer. The reviewer genuinely believes that the author is a horrible, disgusting person because of the things the writer chose to discuss, the opinions the writer had, the things the writer cares about.

We try and separate our work from our personal selves to help us compartmentalize criticism and rejection, but to say that they are independent is inaccurate. Our books are a part of ourselves, they discuss our perspectives, examine our reality, express our desires and fears, and communicate with each other in a highly intense and difficult way.

A person criticizing you may not hate you. They may not even judge you. It’s possible that they have put you up on a pedestal so high that they have no ability to relate to the pain they’re causing you. They might just feel they’re speaking their opinion, not expecting you to take it too seriously. They may just be retelling the experience they had. They also may be assholes, trolls, bullies, or frustrated writers trying to strip your freedom down to their unrealistic standards.

In whichever case, the last thing you should do is feel guilty for the way they made you feel. You might be irrational, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to talk yourself out of it. Let yourself feel bad about the criticism, and if you feel like they’re being an asshat, they probably are.

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