*Trigger warning: contains bullying themes*
What is the worst thing someone has ever said to you, or about
you? The thing that stung so badly you can feel yourself plunging into a
barbed-wire pit at the memory?
Maybe you had to think about it. Maybe a dossier of vitriolic words
sprung into your mind immediately. Maybe you simply don’t care what people
think of you (if you fall into this category, I’m assuming you’re either a cat
or Lena Dunham).
I’ve written a lot about my difficulty in accepting compliments and praise, but it wasn’t until last week at a talk by prominent vulnerability
researcher and TED Talk star Brené Brown that I started thinking about the ways
criticism, and the fear of it, have shaped my choices and behaviours.
Brené, who was in Sydney to open The School Of Life, described the
eye-wateringly savage comments made about her 2010 TED Talk (which,
incidentally, remains one of the top five talks of all time). These included
nasty remarks about her appearance and her weight, and expressions of “pity”
for her husband and children. Because if you really want to wound a woman, and
you are protected by the anonymity of the world wide web, you go straight for
the jugular – her looks (which is how society measures her value) and her
worthiness to be loved by others (which is how she measures her value).
For me, the most devastating criticisms were made in my adolescence.
Unlike the other kids at my small religious school, I was not from a rich
family. I did not wear surf labels, I wore clothes handed down from my older
cousins. My dad was in the building trade, not a lawyer or accountant. I had
zero interest in watching, or participating in, sport (this was a cardinal sin
in provincial New Zealand). I was a sharp, eager learner, and I knew big words
that other kids did not. In essence, this is the (unrequested) feedback I got:
you’re different, you don’t belong, no one wants to be your friend, and, most
stingingly, no one will ever marry you. These junior emotional assassins
managed to cut through to the core desires of me and every human being: to be
loved and to belong.
While I was reflecting upon this ugly chapter of my life, I came undone
under the weight of one very heavy memory. I remember going to a school disco
and being so ridiculed for what I was wearing that I ran into the cloakroom,
climbed to the top of the locker cube and spent the entire night lying against
the wall so no one could see me, counting down the hours until Dad arrived in
his ute to pick me up. This happened more than 25 years ago, but in many ways I
am still that little girl in the pink corduroy skirt making herself as small as
possible. I am still searching for acceptance. I am forever mourning for the
cool, popular, enviable person I will never be.
That’s the thing about the most hurtful criticisms, the ones we never
forget – they maim us because they appear to confirm a belief we secretly held
about ourselves: that we are not good enough. Yes, bullying is an extreme
example, but the intensity of the criticism is not the point. When you are
criticised, either for what you’ve done or for who you are, it will make you
want to retreat and protect yourself. It will make you sorry you tried to do
that brave thing, and highly unlikely to do so ever again. It will make you
want to hurt other people. It will make you paint yourself as flawed,
inadequate and unworthy; you will be wrong on all three counts.
Bestselling author Liz Gilbert does not read reviews, an experience she
describes as biting into a sandwich of broken glass. Brené carries around a one
inch by one inch piece of paper on which she’s listed the names of the few
people whose opinions she cares about. If your name is not on the list, she
will disregard your feedback. Because if you are sitting in the cheap seats
passing judgement on others instead of standing up, baring your soul, living a
life you are proud of and risking getting your arse kicked, Brené has no time
for your opinion.
Brené absolutely 100 per cent cannot let fear of
criticism stop her from making herself vulnerable in her work, her
relationships and her life choices. Because she knows from her research that being
vulnerable is how we grow and connect. Vulnerability, she says, is showing up
and being seen when you don’t know what the outcome will be. Courage is risking
people judging you. It is unwise to stop caring what people think of you, she
notes – because then you stop connecting. Human beings are wired for connection
– and (in my opinion) those connections are what gives life meaning. For many
years I held back from connecting with people because I was not willing to risk
being truly seen. I was safe, but one-dimensional. One of the ways I have made
myself vulnerable is by being open about my ability to communicate with angels,
and risking being labelled a weirdo.
If we want to live full, satisfying, meaningful lives and experience
deep relationships, we must risk criticism, judgement and negative feedback. We
must dare to stand out even though we may be mowed down by the people who are
playing safe. If we do not, we will never know all that we can be and all that
we are capable of.
As one of my favourite quotes (the one on my Facebook page cover
picture) declares: “Our tragedy isn’t in the failing, it’s in the not trying.
We are here to risk our hearts.”