Considering the source

In the comment thread of last week’s post, “The art of acceptance,” someone wrote about the harsh criticism she was receiving from a coworker. Within the context of acceptance, she wrote:

I can choose to be in that small quiet room, and believe that someone else’s issue with me does not define me or even describe me, and I can choose to be accepting of the moment, without accepting the condemnation.

I thought that was beautiful and true, and also crazy-frustrating. I don’t know the details of that situation, but I do know what it feels like to be attacked. I’m guessing we all do. Anyone who is brave enough to put their art out into the world, or have an opinion, or publicly stand for something is at risk, and when it happens, when you find yourself the target of someone else’s ugliness, it can be quite devastating.

I’m not talking about simple differences of opinion here, or constructive criticism; that’s the basis of healthy debate, and I’m all for it. I recently posted on Facebook this quote from Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow:

Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth.

Some people objected to Anne Lamott’s (and by extension my) seeming to give the adult bookstore a free pass. One person asked if the items in the bookstore, which invariably degrade women, might cause the very sexism the quote decries. Good point! I argued that it misses the bigger point of the quote though, at least for me, that the greater travesty is a hardened heart, a person who lacks generosity or compassion. You can protest the adult bookstore all you want, but far more important than your righteous indignation is the question of how you’re living your life. Are you choosing kindness? Love? Non-judgment? Compassion?

Someone else objected (humorously) to the word “sin,” in part I’m sure because it’s not a word I often use, what with my heathen tendencies.

I was grateful for both comments. Neither commenter attacked me; they just voiced an alternative line of thought. That’s good. That’s how criticism, discourse, and debate should be.

What infuriates me is the meanness of some people who claim to simply be stating a difference of opinion, or offering a critique (often unsolicited). They invariably say, “I was just being honest,” but honesty rarely requires verbal brutality. I’ve come to believe that the more visceral the attack, the less it is about me and the more it says about the attacker.

When I was writing the Love Essays chronicling 2011, my year of fearless love, I got a Facebook message from a friend (well, I thought we were friends) telling me that she never understood what I meant by fearless love. She said she could never tell how I really felt because my writing amounted to the sentiments contained in a Hallmark greeting card.

Ouch.

Her criticism came out of left field for me; I wrote and deleted a number of responses before deciding that I wouldn’t respond. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t write at all. Every time I sat down, her words ran noisily through my head, silencing my own. I’d been writing more and more personally over the year or so prior, coming up against the edges of what I was willing to reveal, and her comment made me feel that I’d failed. I doubted everything I wrote, questioned whether it was enough. Could I be more naked? Should I be? I was a mess.

Sometimes it takes a tribe to get past something like that, and I’m grateful for the community of generous souls who rallied to help me. One friend asked, “Would you EVER say something like that to someone? Think of how angry you’d have to be. Clearly, it’s not about you or your writing. It’s about her and her issues.”

I have wise friends, and I’ve come to believe those words of wisdom. I’ve never (before or since) been criticized quite that harshly, but I have had occasion to say to myself, “this is clearly not about me.” I say it when the severity of the response seems out of proportion to the thing that inspired it. I say it, I believe it, and then I move on – writing, doodling, having opinions.

In statistical analysis, before statisticians even begin to interpret their findings, it is not uncommon for them to look at the raw data and eliminate the outliers, numbers that are too high or too low, way out of the normal distribution. I think we should do that too. All opinions are not equal, and the ones that are expressed with malice and assholery matter least of all.

Toss ’em.

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21 Responses to Considering the source

  1. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) October 3, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    Wow. Way to hit home, j. Someone said something nasty to me just this week, and even though I know I shouldn’t care about it, I’ve been unable to let it go. But of course you’re right. Their jabs at me really aren’t about me; they’re about this person. I’m going to try to take your post to heart this week and see how I do. Thanks, as always, for the thoughtfulness here.

    • j October 3, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      You’re welcome. I think jabs are almost always about the person doing the jabbing. (Hugs.)

  2. Jb October 3, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    So true! In my son’s elementary school, this quote is posted in the classrooms: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” The answer must be YES to all three questions or you don’t say it outloud. Simple.

    I’m (still) learning to use that quote when I’m attacked: “Was that true? Was it helpful? Was it kind?” It helps me separate the message from the method. I learn what I can without being (quite as) devastated by a bully.

    Oh and “assholery” is my new favorite word. Brilliant!

    • j October 3, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

      I love that, and I love your little spin on the receiving end – the “helpful” piece. I can’t think of an instance when being attacked is helpful. And really, if the criticism isn’t helpful (or if we have to work too hard to figure out where the kernel of usable information is), then there is no point to internalizing it. It’s just one more naysayer in our head, and most of us, unfortunately, have enough negativity going on up there that we don’t need any outside accompaniment.

      And yes, I like “assholery” too. I should make a sign: “No Assholery.” It can hang right next to the piece of paper above my desk that says, “Fuck the naysayers.” :)

  3. Clare Flourish October 3, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    I can be hurtful to myself, actually, criticising horribly. With homophobia, we tend to feel that it does not hurt unless it raises some echo in us: the echo of childhood self-judgment. Hallmark is so successful because it says what people feel, and want to say.

    • j October 3, 2013 at 11:02 am #

      Well, I do aspire to something more than Hallmark card sentiments, but I hear what you’re saying. Thank you.

      Your point is good, and it was true for me too. She happened to hit upon the very thing I was afraid of – that maybe I’d let fear get in the way of being brave and honest on the page. I think bullies can be very good at locating our emotional jugular.

  4. Cynthia Patton October 3, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    You told me about that comment before, and it took my breath away then. Still does. No, it wasn’t about you. But I know, having been at the receiving end of similar hurtful comments, that in the moment it is difficult to remember that. I’m sorry you had that experience, but glad that this beautiful post came out of it. :)

    One of my favorite Supreme Court quotes is from a Chief Justice years ago who wrote: I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it!” (Or something close to that.) I suspect fearless love (and assholery) are the same. You just know it when you see it. It is possible to be brutally honest and still do so with kindness and compassion. The comment you mentioned was neither kind nor compassionate. It wasn’t even, I suspect, honest. I’m glad you didn’t respond. When confronted with the same situation, I didn’t either. Because really, what could you possibly say?

    Beautiful, brave post.

    • j October 3, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      I’m sorry you had that experience too! And you’re right, in the moment, it’s difficult to think “it’s not about me,” which is why it’s so devastating. But later, when you’re reeling and picking yourself back up, I think it helps to imagine what you’d have said if you had that same message to deliver. That’s what helped me. I could not imagine, under any circumstances, ever saying that to another writer.

      I can’t remember what successful writer it was now, but I remember reading a post about criticism in which the author said that, in writers’ groups, critiques should leave the writer eager to get back to her work, not defeated and unable to work.

      That’s good advice, I think, for writers’ groups and for life.

  5. Miguel October 3, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    This made me think about the harshness of some of the thoughts I sometimes have of others. These are always unspoken(I just can’t be that mean) but I am feeling like maybe I should reflect on if my often severe opinions might be a result of my own insecurities.

    • j October 3, 2013 at 11:17 am #

      Oh, Miguel, I was just thinking about this too! I’m sometimes stunned by the harshness of thoughts I would never dream of saying aloud. I hadn’t thought about the harshness being possibly born of my own insecurity, but that very well may be the case. Food for thought.

      In the meantime, whenever I catch myself being brutally judgmental in my head, I immediately follow it up with a kind, counter thought. I’ll think some terrible thought about the slower-than-slow grocery clerk for example, and then I’ll think, “but what a great smile!” or “I wish my hair looked that good.” Something.

      I’m hoping to retrain my brain.

  6. Pam October 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Perversely, I’m reminded of the saying, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, sit next to me.” Ha ha ha!

    Now that I’ve been silly I’ll say I agree that mean-spirited attacks thinly disguised as earnest honesty do not merit being brooded over. They usually get it, but as they are not reflections on the attacked, but on the pettiness or unhappiness (or just plain assholery) of the attacker, they need to be assigned to that person. This is one of the learn-it-repeatedly lessons we have in life, I think.

    Sorry your commenter was such a putz. (I know it’s not kind to call someone a putz. Envision me shrugging about that.)

    xo

    • j October 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      I’ve never heard that saying. It made me laugh, but holy cow? Have you ever sat next to someone who didn’t have anything nice to say. It’s exhausting!

      I think you’re right. It’s a practice, I guess. Letting the assholery roll off like water on a duck. That’s my goal.

  7. Alarna Rose Gray October 5, 2013 at 3:13 am #

    Hey Judy, that’s an awful thing for someone to say, and I can totally understand how that would knock you down. You’re right about bullies (reading your comment above), they seem to know how to hone in on the most tender fears you have, and amplify them tenfold.

    I’ve been going through some brutal stuff with a ‘friend’ of mine these last few months. And though I’ve known it was their issue, not mine, for some reason I was unable to disengage. As though I had something to prove – to them, or to myself? But finally this week I was able to realise…accepting someone for who they are doesn’t mean you have to stick around for punishment. In fact, sometimes accepting who they are – in this case, accepting their behaviour will never improve, and that it is their issue, not yours – means giving yourself permission to disengage. Because there is no reason in the world why someone else’s happiness should come at your expense.

    Seems so simple, now I say it. But it never is when you go through it. Your friends are very wise, and I’m glad you didn’t engage in that conversation. Some things just don’t deserve to be dignified with a response…

    • j October 6, 2013 at 7:36 am #

      I think these people who are toxic to us are harder to recognize when they come under the guise of a friend, don’t you? Trolls are easy to spot, easy to dispatch of, no emotional baggage attached to the disengagement. But so called friends tearing you down inexplicably, that’s much more of a mind fuck. I love your point that once you see a person for who he or she really is (at least who they are with you), it gives you permission to disengage. I think too often we feel an obligation to stay in the relationship and try to work things out, even taking responsibility for the acrimony. But once you accept the reality of the situation then it’s time to turn all that choosing-love energy on yourself and let go.

      Which I have, but it was an absurdly messy and painful process for me. Next time I hope to get to the simple truth of your observation much sooner. xo

  8. Karin October 11, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    “I’ve come to believe that the more visceral the attack, the less it is about me and the more it says about the attacker.”

    This is probably what drives me the craziest sometimes. I take criticism pretty personally as it is, and take everything someone says to heart.
    But with certain people in my life, I’ve started realizing their “helpful” critique isn’t actually quite so helpful as pushy, bossy, demanding.
    That’s really hard for me to distinguish from the other kind.

    I always kind of resent criticism, because I’m always thinking I’m doing my best (whether that’s actually true or not is another matter entirely).
    But I know people mean well, and getting a variety of opinions–not just one–usually helps me even out that rough comment I can receive from someone.

    • j October 24, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      I think when people mean well, criticism is good (if not always helpful). That doesn’t constitute the kind of mean spirited assholery I’m talking about. When you mean well, you’re not visceral. Visceral comes from someplace else, and I think it is always – ALWAYS – about the criticizer and not the criticized.

  9. Nina Badzin October 22, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Excellent advice from your friends. That’s such a good, healthy, useful way to look at such a horrible, nasty thing to say. If she truly didn’t like your style, fine, don’t read it. But why the mean comment? I think I’m traumatized by it and it didn’t even happen to me. What I have dealt with is a family member who has such a hard time not criticizing my posts that she can’t even read them anymore because she knows she can’t control herself. So it’s this weird half relationship where I can’t really talk about a whole part of my life. Obviously we aren’t close anymore.

    • j October 24, 2013 at 8:34 am #

      Grrr, and I feel mad on your behalf as well!

      I just read this on Cheryl Strayed’s Facebook wall. We should all hang it on our mirrors to remind us every day…

      “Sometimes I’m asked how I deal with the haters. I don’t deal with them. I pity them. I don’t expect everyone to love my books. In fact, I frankly expect the opposite. (In the history of books, there isn’t one everyone loves.) But I must say I marvel at the ugliness it takes to gather one’s forces in the direction of what one loathes rather than loves–to go out of one’s way to say to a writer: YOU SUCK. So I send out a little silent non-God-connected prayer to the jackass who felt the need to share his or her jack-assed-ness with me. And then, without comment, I zap them forever from this page.”

  10. Estrella Azul October 27, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Having been on the receiving end of something similar (although superbly dressed in “concern”), I know it’s hard to get past it. It’s easier said than done to keep in mind that it’s not always, not really, about us…
    A comment made on my choice of work, for example still lies within me. When I met up with an acquaintance a few years ago, while having a total of four jobs I loved, she stated “that’s nice, but why don’t you find a real job?”
    It still hurts. Especially now (for a year) that I have a 9 to 5 job, and my writing/writing-related blogger/writer and Editor position on the side – more often than not, not having enough time to properly sit down and do these latter as I am exhausted when I get home from my “real” job (and had to shut down my freelance business, and quit tutoring English).

    • j October 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      I guess I did have the advantage of being attacked by someone who was not bothering to disguise it as anything other than what it was. Passive-aggressive attacks are even worse because you often have to guess at the real meaning.

      The “real job” comment is just ridiculous and I question the values of anyone who would say that to you. We should all consider the stuff that makes us happy and lights us up inside as our “real jobs.” The other stuff? That’s what we do so we can afford to do the real jobs… our REAL work.

      You know what I always say, sweetie. Fuck the naysayers. xoxo

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