I’ve never dealt well with criticism. Because I grew up with a narcissistic father who could rarely find anything that I did right, I learned to take any criticism of me as a vicious assault.
Even mild criticism — or joking insults — can feel like a painful attack on me as a person. I don’t like reacting this way and I’ve learned not to lash out as I once did, but I haven’t been able to change the part of me inside which feels like a child who’s fighting for his life.
When you write for the public, there are going to be people who don’t like what you write — often because they didn’t understand it — and some of those people are going to write to tell you so. In fact, some are going to say horrible things about you and call you names. It’s impossible not to take it personally. It’s hard not to want to strike out and hurt those people.
I happened to get two nasty messages today about things I’ve written lately. The comments were written poorly enough that I can’t even tell what the people disagreed with me about. The only thing that was clear is that these two people read something which I’d written — and somehow decided they hated me.
I got the two messages today within a five-minute period, so that probably didn’t help. The first one was a profanity-laced message telling me what a terrible person I am. I don’t even know what I wrote that upset him so much, because he wasn’t coherent enough to say. The other one told me that I’m a “passive aggressive wimp” who needs to “grow a pair.” Based on what little he did say, it was obvious that he completely misunderstood what I wrote.
My first reaction to such criticism has two sides.
One side of me feels like a scolded child who’s gotten in trouble with my father. That side feels as though I’ve done something terribly wrong and that I need to make up for it.
The other side of me feels angry and violent. That part is cold and emotionless. Despite my desire to be a better person and to show love for others, in that moment, I want nothing more than to hurt such people — to kill them if possible.
That’s a lethal combination of shame and anger.
When I feel such a thing, I have to get control of my feelings quickly, because it’s easy to spiral down into something worse. Today, I spent about 15 minutes at work being very unproductive while I felt cold resentment and then hot rage.
As I drove home from work — mostly examining my bruised feelings — I started thinking about something which famed commodities trader Ed Seykota says all the time. This pioneer in systems trading still has the mind of the engineer he was first trained to be. He teaches his trading students to put their emotions aside and be rational. When people write to him to say all sorts of things — and especially when they criticize him — he has a famous phrase I’ve seen him use again and again.
“Thank you for sharing your process,” Seykota will write in response.
When I first started following his work, I didn’t understand that, but as his way of thinking started making more sense, I got it. Every time someone responds to you — even if it’s full of anger and criticism — that person is saying more about his own internal thinking processes than he is about you.
Seykota doesn’t respond to people’s criticism. He simply thanks them for sharing how their own internal thinking process works. And then he leaves it alone and moves on.
Then I thought about what the great marketing guru Seth Godin says about criticism. He says that when people criticize your work, they’re acknowledging that your work isn’t for them. Godin says that if your work were to be for everyone — if everybody liked it — you would probably be doing something so vanilla and uninteresting that it wasn’t worth doing.
Godin says that you don’t want your work to appeal to everybody. You don’t need to worry about it if many people misunderstand you. You need to do work that is passionately sought out by the minimum viable audience. In other words, you can make a living by developing a passionate following of a thousand people — what writer Kevin Kelly calls “a Thousand True Fans.”
You don’t need everybody. Depending on what you’re doing, you might need a thousand fans or you might need a million fans. But you don’t need everybody’s approval.
And what of those people outside that group — the critics who don’t understand your work? Godin speaks about those people, too.
“What I learned: Shun nonbelievers,” Godin writes. “Ignore critics. Do your best for people who want to dance with you.”
I’m still struggling to figure out how to get my best work to those few people who will care passionately about what I need to say. I’ve been working again lately — on my third fresh draft now — on a book about narcissistic families, based on my own experience. I’ve also been trying to figure out how to do companion video podcasts about family and related issues. (I could write a long piece about what I’ve learned doesn’t work. Maybe I’ll explain that sometime.)
When I do my best work, I don’t expect it to reach everybody. I expect most people to yawn. I expect some people to disagree. I expect some others to feel angry and threatened by what they hear.
And that’s OK. I just hope to find a minimum viable group of people who will be passionately interested in what I have to say and maybe even in films I also want to make. I don’t know how many people that might be, but it will be more than the thousand or so people who currently show up here to read every day. (And, yes, I do appreciate you thousand or so.)
I’m going to trust Godin’s advice and shun my “nonbelievers.” I’m going to ignore critics. I’m going to hope that enough of you will want to dance with me.
So now that I have my feelings under control — and I no longer want to hurt the people who attacked me today — I’ll simply say to them, “Thank you for sharing your process.”
And now I can put them behind me and move on.