Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dealing with Criticism

Christian writers like myself almost never get mainstream media coverage. But, thanks to Susan Cain and her instant blockbuster Quiet my name is getting thrown out in all kinds of venues. It has been gratifying to get my work recognized, especially more than two years after my book was initially released.

Unfortunately, my new-found notoriety comes with some downsides. In the past couple of weeks I and my intentions have been misrepresented in a couple of places, which has happened in the past, but is particularly hurtful when it happens in publications with such large market share and lofty reputations. You spend 5 years carefully honing a message, trying to present it in the most balanced and helpful way, and then it gets caricatured and dismissed in a paragraph by someone who will be writing about something completely different the next day.

So I want to talk a little about how I deal with criticism, and I would love your input and suggestions for how you deal with criticism. This post is a lot of self-talk, to be honest, as I'm trying to work this out for myself.

Here are some of the guidelines I have come up with. They are enumerated but not necessarily because I move through them chronologically.

1. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction. This is the first thing I do. This is where I try to stay as far away from a computer as I can. No Twitter, Facebook, or blogging. 99% of the time the quick-hit reaction is unhelpful. There is a reason why the word "reactionary" has such a negative connotation - it describes someone who speaks from a raw and angry place. These reactions do not help the conversation and usually only come across as immature and insecure.

In dealing with critics of my work, I actually almost never respond at all. I have responded one time, after a couple of days of cooling down, but if I had the chance to do it again, I would stay silent. In the case of a personal relationship, a response may be necessary, but a knee-jerk response is even more destructive. This is why marriage counselors pretty much universally encourage couples to do "time-outs" when the emotions in the room become so high that constructive conversation is impossible.

2. Listen to the feelings. One response for coping with criticism is to pretend the feelings aren't there, but they are, and if you don't acknowledge them they will only fester and come out in unhealthy ways. People will usually feel angry at first but anger is usually hiding the deeper feelings: hurt, rejection, shame, fear. Say hello to your feelings - they are there for a good reason and they are meant to help you. And then listen to those feelings. What are they teaching you? What are they revealing about yourself? Are these feelings reminiscent of feelings you have had at other times?

3. Remember your identity. The reason why some criticism burns away at us so much is because they bring into question our identity. It's one thing to be corrected for something you did that was wrong, but it's something else entirely when "wrong" is a way that you have subconsciously defined yourself or others in your past have defined you. Sometimes a small criticism can tap unintentionally into a raging river of self-hatred and inadequacy. When you believe something about yourself to be true then the smallest critique can set that off. On the other hand, if someone says something about you that you don't truly believe to be true then it won't affect you much. Criticism is a good opportunity to learn what you truly believe about yourself, in your heart-of-hearts.

This is where, if you are a Christian, it is helpful to review all the words the scriptures say about you: image of God, son or daughter of the Father, brother or sister of Christ, redeemed, justified, beloved.

4. Ask what's true. There is this funny little story in the life of David in 2 Samuel 16, in which this random guy named Shimei starts throwing rocks and cursing David. David's army wants to do away with him, but David orders them not to respond, because, as he explains, the Lord may have instructed him to curse the king. I believe that some criticism comes our way as a helpful corrective, even if it is not said in the most ameliorating spirit. This is why, after I have let me emotions settle, that I will ask "Is there anything true about was said?"

5. Get out of your head. I purposefully put this one last, because I do not want people to think that this means not to acknowledge the emotions. After I have done all the internal work, I have gotten out of the experience what I can. If I keep stewing at this point, the criticism burns away at me like an acid. I find that in directing my attention elsewhere - and usually to a non-intellectual or emotional end - that the effect will quickly wear off. A conversation with a friend, a round of golf, a movie, doing something with my hands, and I'm usually okay.

How do you deal with criticism? What would you add to this list?