*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.”
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