While I was getting my master’s of music in viola performance, I won a prestigious, highly selective scholarship to attend the nine-week-long Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, CO. When I learned I had won it, I was shocked — and I feared everyone who knew my playing was, too. I thought the judges had made a mistake. There were other players who were far more talented than I was. I tried to keep my head up, but I felt unworthy.
While at the festival, my fears were confirmed: a fellow violist casually mentioned that she didn’t care what “other people said,” she thought I deserved the scholarship. She may as well have reached into my stomach with her bare hands and pulled out all my guts. I went back to the dorms and bawled my eyes out. The next day, I had a panic attack during my lesson. From then on, I never wanted to perform solo in front of an audience. It didn’t matter that the judges thought I was good enough to earn a scholarship. My peers had been criticizing me behind my back, and to me that mattered more than what the judges — the experts — thought.
The human ego is a tricky thing. It can be the source of steadfast confidence, despairing insecurity, or unearned arrogance. And criticism from others, depending on the level of self-confidence with which we view ourselves and from whom that criticism comes, can utterly crush our egos. At the time of the Aspen scholarship, I had not yet learned to discern whose criticism should matter most. My self-worth revolved around my level of skill (and my looks; but that’s a whole other topic) — but more than that, my self-worth revolved around how others perceived my level of skill. I was indiscriminate in whose criticism I took to heart. That was my first mistake.
Always Consider The Source
Some will say that the only opinion that should matter about how you move through the world is your own. I disagree with this. None of us are an island — we participate in families, communities, and social networks where our actions have impact. We are all connected, and most of us have at least one person in our network whose opinion we care deeply about. If my partner criticizes me, it’s for good reason. I trust their judgment. Same goes for my sister, my mom, my kids, my writing partner, and my supervisors at work.
So if you try to tell yourself that you’re just not going to give a fuck what anyone thinks, you’re likely setting yourself up to fail. You will and should care about what certain people think. The trick is to decide who in your life is allowed to breach the boundary around your ego and voice a criticism that you’re willing to take to heart.
Strangers on the internet who disagree with what I’ve written will occasionally message or email me to tell me I’m a terrible writer. I give zero fucks what these people think. Their “criticism” is never a well-considered analysis of my writing, but rather is meant to be a jab at what they assume must be a weak spot for me, since they’re unable to form a coherent rebuttal to what I’ve written. These “you’re a shitty writer” criticisms typically have typos in them, too, making them that much easier to disregard, and even laugh at.
You may have a toxic person in your life who provides unnecessary and unwanted criticism. It may wear you down to a point you start to doubt and question yourself. You may find yourself trying to live up to this person’s standards in order to avoid their criticism. You may censor yourself to avoid confrontation. Hear me: this person is no more valuable to you than the random Chads on the internet who tell me I’m a shitty writer. If they’re making you feel like shit, they can fuck off with their opinion of you.
Approach Good Criticism With A Growth Mindset
Deciding whose opinions matter to us is one thing; being able to hear and evaluate criticism from the ones we care about without feeling completely crushed is a whole other thing. When I first started working with my writing partner, she returned a piece of mine filled with her edits — it was bleeding with red ink — and I wanted the earth to swallow me up. Her opinion mattered so much to me, and I had attached myself so much to my writing, that her criticism of my writing felt like a criticism of me as a person. She hadn’t torn apart my writing; she’d torn me apart.
I needed to adjust my mindset. My writing partner was genuinely trying to help me become a better writer. She genuinely wanted me to publish a product that people would want to read. Also, all of her criticisms of my writing were her opinions. I didn’t have to accept every single edit. But because I respected her opinion so much, it made sense for me to at least consider each suggestion.
Once I peeled myself off the floor and took a day to massage my shredded ego, I was able to look at my writing partner’s criticism through the lens of wanting to improve at my craft. To a degree, this meant completely setting aside my ego: Writing is a skill at which no one is perfect. My writing is not My Self. There is always room for growth. Keep seeking ways to improve.
It’s okay if your first reaction to criticism is to feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. We’re only human. We want to get things right. It’s hard to see ourselves as fallible, and it can feel embarrassing for others to see us as failures or somehow lacking. But it’s also important to take a step back and analyze criticism from a bird’s eye view: What is the source of this criticism? Should this person’s opinion matter to you? And if the answer to that is yes, you may still have the punched-in-the-gut feeling, and that is also okay. You can still cultivate a growth mindset.
If a person’s criticism matters to you, it means you have decided that this person cares about your success. Which means they aren’t laughing at you. They aren’t here to see you fail. So pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and ask yourself how you can use their constructive criticism to help you grow and learn as a person. Certainly no one can criticize you for that.
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