There’s a Difference Between Cruel and Constructive Criticism
Can We Quit it With the Pearl-Clutching?
A few years ago, I read a blog post which signaled the crashing halt of a blogger’s online career. I hadn’t intended on reading the comments of this particular post — one that featured a series of pretty dresses sponsored by an affordable clothing brand — however, I found myself scrolling through notes left by many disappointed readers.
I was startled to see how many people were heartbroken over how the author, who was once effusive, creative and relatable, had devolved into someone who peddled sponsored posts like cheap trinkets. Long-time readers expressed frustration over the forced shill after shill, and instead of accepting this constructive feedback with grace, the blogger tore into her readers in the comments section in the most defensive tirade I’d ever seen.
We live in an age where don’t read the comments has become a sermon and survival tactic because it’s easier for people hiding behind screens to be cruel. It’s easier to spout hate when you’re in the confines of your home. You’ll never see the person on the other side. You’ll never know the extent of how your words burrowed deep into them and remained.
Lately, I’ve stumbled onto Medium posts that espouse the notion of playing nice; people parade out the adage if you can’t see something nice…and talk of cultivating a kinder, gentler community where dissenting words cease to exist. I’ve seen people who’ve left heartfelt, constructive comments labeled as bullies and haters. They volley about the term, mean girls, without realizing the weight of the words they’re using — weight swings both ways.
Let me make something clear. There’s a difference between someone who routinely stalks another person’s site and social channels to terrorize them versus someone who leaves a snarky comment. There’s a difference between someone who ridicules someone else’s appearance, gender, age, weight, or sexual orientation versus someone who expresses despair over the fact that the business of blogging has changed the person they used to admire and not for the better. There’s a difference between being cruel and constructive.
And there’s a difference between vitriol and the direct, honest feedback you may not want to hear.
Throughout my 20+ career as a marketer and writer, I’ve had to shoulder some uncomfortable conversations about my attitude (I had a problem with authority early on in my career, among other things). I had to sit through annual performance reviews where my weak points were spelled out in excruciating detail. I’ve had direct reports who’ve told me that how I managed a situation was not okay. For four years my mentor routinely called me into his office to give me feedback on how I could have managed a meeting, call, staff member, or crisis, better. I’ve seen more redlines on my writing from editors and friends than I care to admit. A great love once told me I was impenetrable. My yoga teacher once said to me that my ego was getting in the way of progress in my practice. Do you have to hold on to your anger so hard, my dad once posited. Another time, he shook his head. Always with the hangovers, the damn wine lips. My long-time agent, who I resigned a few years ago, was right when he told me the first draft of a new novel was a hot mess.
Over the years I’d cry in bathrooms or sit in front of the television, catatonic, eating pizza. Words are like barnacles — they have the propensity to bind and hurt. More than once I’d complained to my friends. Fuck them. They don’t know the whole of me. Not really.
Actually, they did.
If I’d only perceived feedback was coming from a place of hate versus help, how would I have been able to grow personally and professionally? If I’d ignored the advice from people who wanted my success, yet felt it necessary to show me that sometimes I put myself in my way, how would I be where I am now?
People who’ve invested in you and your work, who care to take the time to deliver constructive criticism because they want you to be the best you, are not haters and trolls. Feedback is not binary — you have to consider the source and nature of the input and how it’s delivered because if you go through your life ignoring every critic, every dissenting, well-meaning voice, you will never grow. A mentor once told me to take the advice that best serves me and discard the rest.
You’ll never progress if you’re always tending to your fragile ego or if you’re shutting your eyes to words you don’t want to read just because you find it hard to read them. Criticism isn’t meant to be painless — it’s a bandaid you need to rip off instead of inching it off ever so slowly. The sting goes away. Once it does, be honest with yourself. If the person wasn’t attacking you or your character personally, why is it that you felt the need to respond so defensively instead of with calm, compassion and presence? Is it because there’s truth to what they’re saying, and you don’t want to admit it because admitting to it requires a shift or change for which you’re not ready? Or maybe you only prefer the Greek chorus of fawning fans.
Once, I snapped at my mentor when he pulled me in for yet another “how can Felicia manage better session” to which he responded, I don’t have to invest in you. I can use my time on someone willing to work on becoming a better leader. His words remained with me, and I’m grateful for his feedback because he was investing in my success. I’m a better manager and leader because of, not in spite of, him.
I received anonymous feedback from my team that my early morning emails made them anxious. They felt compelled to respond to my pre-dawn requests lest they are penalized. I was shocked because I sent emails in the morning because that’s when I do my best thinking. I never considered the effect of my actions, and instead of snapping at my staff I thanked them. I told them while I won’t be able to change overnight, I’m listening, and I will make every effort to grow.
If your writing or freelance work or life is your business, you have to treat it like one. Be prepared to accept feedback to be successful. Not every comment is going to be rife with glitter and fluffy orange kittens. People will criticize your work. If it’s constructive and is intended to help you get better at what you do, take it seriously. Suck it up. Have humility. Set your ego aside. After the dust clears and the emotions pass, allow yourself to digest what is useful and make small, measured changes grow.
Don’t be defensive. Don’t act like a petulant and pouty child in the comments section. Don’t pen twelve articles on Medium about people who are giving you helpful and constructive criticism of your work. You’re not a writer if you shirk every piece of constructive feedback — you’re an online diarist profiting from putting your innards on display. The work of being a writer isn’t only in the act of writing — it’s in the act of growing your craft, and you don’t do that by surrounding yourself by fangirls and their claps. I know this because I’ve been writing and publishing for decades and I won’t be the writer I am now if it weren’t for my readers and, more importantly, agents and editors.
And yes, if someone’s attacking you, being cold and cruel, you can discard that chump change and keep it moving.