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The Shy Writer’s Guide To Dealing With Constructive Criticism

September 26th, 2014 3 comments

Plenty of people have decried the softening of our society. How every kid gets a star and a trophy and a medal and a pony just for finishing the one mile fun run. But the truth is, there is still plenty of criticism in the world, and despite our backpacks full of trophies and ribbons and our massive armies of ponies, most of us run into criticism on a fairly regular basis.

Let me just throw this revolutionary observation out there – criticism sucks. Especially constructive criticism. Plain old criticism can usually be dismissed, but constructive criticism is your friends and family actually trying to help you by pointing out that you really shouldn’t be wearing those jeans, or keeping all your ponies indoors has made your home an inhospitable sty that everyone loathes to visit.

Constructive criticism, at least the kind that comes from those who really care, is especially cutting because it’s usually true and it comes from someone that actually matters to you.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has trouble with criticism, but for shy people it’s even worse. We tend to ever so slightly blow things out of proportion.

A boyfriend will say, “I’d appreciate it if you could clean your dirty dishes” and what you hear is, “Your failure to clean your own dishes bespeaks a fundamental flaw in your personality. You disgust me, and I disavow you as a human being. Please leave and find a family of gorillas to live with. You’ll be among your own people then.”

Unfortunately for those of us who are thin-skinned, we actually need constructive criticism in order to grow and improve. Think of it this way, if you get something caught in your teeth, wouldn’t you want a good friend to take you aside and mention it? Sure, it makes you a little embarrassed, but it’s so much better than coming home after a dinner party and seeing your entire salad in the mirror when you smile.

As a writer, I need feedback to improve my stories and novels. Flattery and compliments are awesome. Really, really awesome. But constructive feedback is even better. I need to know if a reader gets confused anywhere in the book. I want to know if they have a strong negative reaction where I wasn’t intending. It’s important for my critique partners and beta readers to let me know if they are interpreting a character’s actions, personality, or motivation in a way that I did not foresee.

It’s not fun to hear that one of my critique partners hated my character or thought a chapter was really bland, but I know my critique partner has my best interests at heart. If she finds issues in my writing, chances are future readers are going to stumble at the same places, and they won’t be so forgiving or supportive.

At some point, you need to accept constructive criticism, even invite it.

Now the caveats.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the term “constructive criticism.” Constructive as in “meant to help” not “beat the living crap out of your self-esteem.” Bear in mind that not all constructive criticism is equal. People who outright criticize are usually bullies. Most bullies aren’t that smart, successful, or generally happy with their lives. Pay them no heed.

There are, however, some smart bullies. These are the ones you need to watch out for. They get their kicks by cloaking their attack in the form of constructive criticism. By claiming they have your best interests at heart, they then give themselves free reign to unleash criticism which may be cruel, unfair, and definitely unhelpful.

There are even those who are truly trying to help, but who are flat out wrong. Remember that everyone has a bias, and we all tend to skew toward the status quo of their upbringing, religious beliefs, and what feels “safe” to us. They may not like the way you dress because it’s not the way they would dress, or they may not like your romance book because they hate all things romance.

When seeking constructive criticism, choose your sources wisely. Let these people guide you and help you along your life’s journey. Try and ignore all the rest. If you ever have doubts about anyone, try to figure out their motivation. If they feed off of human tears, then they are probably not the best people to be taking advice from.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to let criticism get to us, especially us shy people.  Which is why we need to learn to deal with criticism. So, I’ve come up with a few better tactics, though crying is always on the table as a last result:

Vet Your Sources

I’ve made it a policy to only care about criticism and opinions that come from carefully vetted sources. These are people who have shown that they are not insane, not mean hearted and who usually take up to 3+ seconds to think before opening their mouths.

I have a carefully guarded inner circle. Membership is somewhat tough to get, but once you’re in, you’re in. This distinction makes it easier for me to turn off all the noise outside. It’s not always easy, but put up velvet ropes around your self-esteem. Create a guest list. Put some beefy, mean-looking body guards at the door and don’t let in any party crashers.

Play nice

I try to be respectful and nice to others. I find that if you aren’t a total jack ass all the time, most people will give you a fair shake. There are always exceptions, but, for the most part, you get out what you put in. Stand up to the bullies, but play nice with everyone else. You don’t have to point out people’s flaws unless they ask or unless you really think they’re hurting themselves.

You know that golden rule thing? It’s gold for a reason.

Know Your Flaws

A little introspection can go a looooong way towards protecting yourself from the outside world. Take a look at yourself and recognize those things you still need to work on or those things that you just plain suck at.

I am terrible at directions. Terrible. It’s practically a handicap. I know this about myself. I grudgingly accept it (not hard when I get lost almost every day). Once you accept a flaw, you disempower those who would wield it against you.

If you accept that you’re overweight or have acne or happen to get lost going to a place you’ve been at least ten times (I was coming from a different direction!), then when people point this out to you, you’re already prepared.

Get A Little Love

Nothing salves criticism like a little positive reinforcement. Make sure you have a supportive circle of family and friends around you and a supportive spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend. These need to be people who will accept you even if your feet smell on occasion, you get fired from your job, or lock your keys in your car. Just knowing that you are loved and accepted unconditionally will give you untold strength.

I’m not sure that it is possible to stress this enough. Besides your soul/you-ness and those innate passions and talents that give you bliss, your relationships are the most valuable asset you have in your life. They are more important than money, than success, than winning the “greatest person in the known universe” award.

Keep good people around you. Period. They protect you. They bandage your little internal hurts. Hugs heal self-esteem.

Cry

Yeah, go ahead and cry when you get an especially hard jab, but I highly recommend crying privately in the comfort of your own home. Crying in public makes everything worse, hurts your reputation as a person who is not a total sissy, and makes lots of people really uncomfortable. Excuse yourself politely and then weep soulfully into your pillow. It will help in the short term, but start building up your walls, coating your skin with some layers of sealant, and then consider where the criticism is coming from.

Also, never let the fear of criticism stop you from taking a risk. This is so much easier said than done, but it’s still good advice. If you let fear of criticism stop you from doing that amazing thing you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll regret it forever and ever.

Publishing my first novel was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. So was telling my friends and family about it. But I did it. Now I have three books and a handful of short stories out on the public market — poor, vulnerable little eggs that anyone with an Amazon account can smash to pieces. It’s scary as hell, but I’ve got my velvet ropes up, my body guards in place, and a big fluffy pillow to cry into if need be.

Bring it on.

Categories: Essay, Shyness, Taking Risks Tags: