Giving People Space in Your Head

“Do you think you’re good at taking criticism?”

It’s a question I hate answering because no matter what I say it’s going to sound like a load of B.S. “No I’m not,” sounds like I’m placating the masses, “Yes I am” sounds like I don’t realize how antagonistic I come across. And the truth, like most truths, isn’t a simplistic black and white. I am both great and terrible at taking feedback. Call me Schrodinger’s cat.

It depends on who I’m dealing with.

I like to talk about the feedback I get because I find my critical analysis is useful. I tend to internalize more than the average person, reflect and run through my thoughts during any experience, and develop logical coping/comprehension methods that I truly believe are useful to other authors.

Plus rants are funny.

Knowing how people see authors—these godlike beings atop their pedestals which no mere mortal even deserves to try and climb—I don’t believe that revealing my wounds or pettiness makes for a credible appearance, but at the same time, relatability and honesty are key elements in saying anything that anyone will give a shit about. Contrary to popular belief, I do think stating an opinion online is a good thing both career-wise and for society as a whole. But I also don’t think you should treat it like a soapbox and being too obtuse to the other sides of a story will alienate people, only drawing them in via the pleasure of attacking you.

So I talked about the criticisms that I struggled with either emotionally or intellectually because I think it’s one of the better things to speak of on a writing blog. But it does, I am aware, give me this image of being an overly sensitive asshole.

Alright, you got me. Just not always to the extent presumed from first impressions.

If you ask me if I’m good at taking criticism, I’d say that I’m good at respecting and being open to the opinions of others, never discarding advice lightly—especially if it disagrees with what I want to believe. I’m good at making people enjoy themselves during critiques. I’m good at parsing apart the information given. I’m good at getting people out of their shell, figuring out what they want to be doing, communicating my ideas, and making someone feel like they matter. Most people enjoy working with me, asking me to read their work one on one, wondering where I went when I leave a group, keeping in contact for years. Recently I ran into a woman who I’d met in a group some years back tell me that I had given her one of the most helpful critiques she’d gotten in her entire career.

Now then, if you’ve read my blogs you’ll also know that I don’t believe in the “thank you” philosophy of criticism. I believe in conversation, debate, and listening should be active, not one-sided. I believe in asking questions, presenting opposing ideas, and never letting someone try and bully you into obedience. It’s your book, you do what you want. I encourage people to question their assumptions and be honest with themselves, but at the end of the day, if they want to do something I don’t agree with, that’s their prerogative, same goes for me. If I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it, no matter how stupid you think I am.

I am also prideful as hell and if someone engages me in a pissing contest, I’m going to win. I'll stand my ground and verbally bulldoze over someone who angers me, though typically I control my temper pretty well. In a seething ball of resentment sort of way.

I’ve definitely seen people worried about how I might respond to something. A good friend of mine was helping me with my query letter over the internet and when I stopped responding, deep in thought about how to fix something, he quickly went out of his way to inform me that he was not trying to be a jerk about it, obviously afraid I had taken offense.

Which was a little odd from my view of myself. Not only had he never seen me dismissive before—I rarely allow myself to be—he was one of those people who I trust, who would have to go pretty far for me to be offended. And even still, I’ve often had people I don’t like say awful things to me and not been bothered the least bit by it. I rarely (uncommonly at least) leave criticism sessions upset, not even deep down. I don’t even think I had ever told him 'no' before. I will be firm about something I’m positive about, and it’s not as though I don’t understand how my arguing my point of view might make people weary about offending me. Typically though, I’m pretty understanding and even something that takes me by surprise or touches on my insecurities won’t bother me for long when I get where it’s coming from. I work on phrasing any argument in a thoughtful and encouraging way. For those reasons, I wouldn’t say that I have thin skin at all.

“But you just said you’re an oversensitive asshole.”

When I get upset, it consumes me. As a child I was a crybaby, as a teen I had a temper. As an adult, I control these emotions, and the lower hormones definitely had an effect, but have sometimes found them to eat away at me for unreasonable durations. I have cockroach hotel skin. It’s not about how easy it is for things to get to me, it’s that once you do get under my skin you’re staying there.

Getting under my skin, pissing me off beyond all belief, isn’t that common though. I interacted with a lot of people in the writing world you won’t hear about. I say there’s one in every group, there’s a comment in every draft, but by far most people are trying to be useful, even if their egos get in the way, and if you treat them with respect they’ll reciprocate. I like the vast majority of writers I work with and have fun talking with them even when we disagree.

There are a select number of people who tell you I don’t take criticism well. These are the same people who I would say don’t take criticism well themselves.

Most writers are slightly sensitive to giving feedback, but they try to get over it:

I had a wonderful elementary school teacher who I still think is brilliant and, more importantly, fair. She doesn’t say shit just to make herself look smart or be better than you; she truly believes whatever she’s telling you will help. When she ended up in my writers group, she once told me that a sentence was awkward and, being that many people kept saying to me, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring,” I really wanted to figure out what she meant. The sentence didn’t read as awkward to me—awkward says clunky in my mind, and it wasn’t—so I was trying to understand what her definition of the word was. “Are you saying you’re not imagining what I want you to be?” The more I asked, the more flustered she got. At the end of the meeting, she came up to me and asked, sweetly, if this book was my baby. Nah.

She thought I was disturbed by her statement in how much I dug into it, but that wasn’t what was happening. One person out of twenty, who I thought highly of, complained about a word that no one else had yet still fit into overall consensus. I really needed to understand. But I wasn’t actually that emotional about the one word. I could have cut the whole sentence without blinking, I just didn’t believe doing so was going to help in the grand scheme of things.

She saw my question asking as criticism on her opinions, and if you watched her experience in the writers group, her ideas did tend to get shot down quite frequently by louder, larger people. She always reacted “appropriately” to that criticism—as in not arguing back—but she was obviously very aware of how people didn’t take her seriously. When I pressed for her to explain her ideas, she interpreted it as criticism and shrank away, regardless of how gentle I tried to be.

Meanwhile, the people who I actually get into heated arguments with, those are people who are there with something to prove. My best example is the retired lawyer who used courtroom tactics to badger others into agreeing with him. He was large and shouty and pointed out obvious “flaws” in something without considering the context. No one ever gave him feedback out of fear, so I never saw how he reacted to it, but he certainly did not take someone disagreeing with them well. After he pointed out a contradiction that I believed (and have every reason to still believe) was obviously intentional, I asked in a kind voice, “He doesn’t know what she’s going to do. Do I need to make it clearer?” and he shut down, unable to talk to me.

Pretty much every new group I’ve gone to—a myriad of classes as well as just critiques—one male peer has waited until he could get me alone to tell me his opinion. In some cases, I’d say he was just flirting, and in one he was definitely just excited to talk about writing with someone who also cared, but there have been those who intentionally wanted to corner me in order to tell me off. Remember how I said I’m pretty pleasant to be around if I feel the other person is trying? Well, they don’t realize that I’m on my best behavior when in a group. Get me alone to demonstrate your superiority and the monster will rise.

Even then I didn’t cuss him out, just flatly informed him on my stance in how constructive critiques should go. Being that he actually wasn’t good at arguing with logical opinions, merely barking at people until they agreed, he backed down as quickly as he stepped up.

But there’s more to it than just arrogance, I think. The posts that make it to this page, the stories I tell time and time again, typically speaking, there’s an unresolved issue, or there was at one time.

The lawyer above approached me by saying, “I want you to know you’re really defensive.”

Am I? Because my gut reaction claimed that he was just hypercompetitive and doing a surface skim for anything he could complain about. But maybe that’s what a defensive person would say.

The issue was the discrepancy in our views. For one, it truly did seem inarguable that the contradiction was intentional—I would have had to be an idiot to make that mistake.

People who skim for errors and then jump all over whatever they find not only rile me up, but their critiques tend to misdirect from actual problems and confuse the issue. It comes off as hostile while still holding enough potential of truth that the writer might not be able to be sure she’s not an egotistical asshat.

I really only began to let go of the irritation I had for this man as more facts rolled in, i.e. I witnessed how he responded to others. His criticism was never in-depth, he vigorously sought approval, and after he had tried to walk all over me, he himself became a doormat in attempts to make reparations. This only served to anger me more—you were rude when you thought you could get away with it, but turned-tail when you couldn’t?!

Later on I knew I couldn’t trust him and that made him easy to forgive.

I was once struggling with letting go of my anger towards a man (a virtual stranger) who I met at a writers conference and who quickly developed serious boundary issues. I was angry because I knew I was interchangeable with any other woman, that if I had wanted to keep his interest, he would have refused to commit to me while he leered at every girl he saw, yet at the same time refused to understand the word no.

I was accused fault by some by 'engaging him in the first place,' allowing him to have my number when I knew he was attracted to me, for “smiling” at him—which is morbidly ironic because I was so deep in depression, stress, and social anxiety that I never smiled or laughed at anything. Ever. I had gone to the writers conference with the primary intention on being more friendly, outgoing, and meeting other writers to work with and come out with some jackass constantly asking me to go out with him, demanding why I wouldn’t, and telling me I ‘misunderstood’ when I gave a reason. He ignored being ignored, being blocked, and even found me in person with a giant grin on his face as if I was the love of his life despite the fact that he would forget about me the moment another girl literally gave him the time of day.

My cousin, a very religious person, empathized with me, having gone through the same sort of undesired attention. She told me something that never even occurred to me as an option. “I try to forgive him.”

Forgiveness seemed like a powerful tool, so why hadn’t it been something I had thought of?

Because forgiveness implies they did something wrong, and I’m not sure they had. Forgiving someone when I incited it or misinterpreted it seemed conceited and counterproductive. It wasn’t going to stop it from happening again.

I could forgive someone who was acting like a controlling butt and I could forgive someone who hadn’t meant to come off as a controlling butt, but I could not forgive someone until I understood what had really gone wrong.

And here’s the important part: eventually, I’ll probably figure out it.

I’ve rehashed over old criticism again and again, fascinated with what I was missing, being lectured by people, “He was just a jackass, let it go!” when two years later I’ll be in the middle of a (hysterical) story and all of the sudden and epiphany will hit me. That’s why he was so obsessive about that one word. That’s the key factor I didn’t catch!

I don’t particularly like my obsessiveness, but I do learn a lot from it.

Am I better than average at taking criticism? Nah. I’m pretty weird about it.

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