I was super excited about my plan. I was going to write a book, and do software development, and share about anxiety through stand-up comedy.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked a family member, doubtfully.
And that was enough to utterly deflate me. One comment! And not even a harsh one—a simple question.
I can’t imagine having enough self-belief in anything that the mockery of the entire world wouldn’t deter me. We’ve all heard the famous stories. They laughed at Edison. They laughed at Apple’s ridiculous plans to make a phone. And, as the great Bob Monkhouse said: “they all laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
Meanwhile, I can’t defeat a single questioning comment, never mind a tide of adversity.
I did write that book, and share about anxiety through comedy, and find freelance software projects. The lack of a parade in my honor when I unveiled my plan slowed me down, but—in the end, the most important beliefs turned out to be mine.
(At least, when it comes to my actions. I don’t mean to imply that I’m absolutely correct about everything.)
Looking over my life so far, I see a pattern. When I really believe I ought to do something, I’ll stick at it—even if everyone else thinks it’s a terrible idea. Conversely, when I get derailed by criticism, it’s often because I already don’t believe in what I’m doing.
In other words, my reaction to others is helpful information about what I truly believe.
An unsupportive comment resonates because the commenter is—unbeknownst to them—choosing a side in my internal war. If I take a comment personally, then it’s because it echoes my own self-doubt.
Does that mean the solution to unsupportive people is simple? “Ignore everyone else, because our beliefs are the only ones that matter.” All we have to do is believe in ourselves, and… wait…
How to extract value from criticism
Growing a thick skin and ignoring all criticism is exactly as wrong as panicking the instant anybody says anything vaguely unsupportive. Ideally, we want to absorb valid criticism, and ignore the rest.
One helpful method to extract something useful from criticism is to avoid the temptation to externalize your feelings. In other words, rather than reacting to the thought “my partner/friend/teacher/enemy thinks this is a bad idea,” try turning that thought on its head: “part of me thinks this is a bad idea.”
Explore why part of you might make the same criticism, and it’ll help you to either improve the idea, or dismiss the criticism.
But when strong emotions are involved, it’s often difficult to tell what’s valid. These questions might also help:
- Why do I believe in what I’m doing?
- Why doesn’t this person believe in it? What’s the difference between our beliefs?
- What if I’m wrong? What if they’re wrong?
- Is there anything valid in what they’re saying? Is there anything invalid in what I’m saying?
Once we’ve sifted through our own underlying motivations, and—as best we can—the other person’s, we can honestly process the criticism.
Afterwards, we’ll either be more convinced about the validity of our plans (which is great for burning off some of that pesky self-doubt), or we’ll have a better perspective on the potential downsides, which will help us to reassess and improve the plan.
Either way, the painful sting of the unsupportive comments will hopefully be lessened, because it’s no longer part of the same internal war. One way or another, the battlefield has shifted.
But the criticism still stings!
Even if we’re objectively right, and our idea is perfect, it can hurt a lot when someone we care about isn’t supportive. And it can even hurt to receive unsupportive comments from strangers. It’s odd… sometimes being closer to someone makes it easier to brush off criticism, and sometimes it makes it harder. Humans are complicated, and relationships especially so!
Either way, it doesn’t matter why the criticism stung, it matters that it hurt.
After we’ve taken everything useful we can from the criticism—if there was anything useful in it—we still might be left with some painful emotions. And these emotions are valid, even if the criticism wasn’t.
Perhaps you need to vent to a third party, or to confront the unsupportive person (or not to confront them), to meditate, to exercise, to cry, to punch a pillow, to write, to stick your head down and get to work… the list of ways to handle negative emotions is infinitely long.
Ideally, these emotions can be used as fuel. Maybe you can angrily clean your home, or work on the project you believe in, or do some exercise. I’m sure some of those famous examples of people who faced down mockery from the world were motivated by fantasies of proving their doubters wrong.
But we don’t need those moments of public validation. Sometimes we can simply wallow for a short time, and allow the feelings to dissipate.
The most important thing is to engage with the emotions, just as we engaged with the criticism itself, and to try to funnel everything into new perspectives and positive actions.
Criticism is inevitable
There isn’t one true path, which means that whatever we do, someone is going to disagree, because they think they see a better way. Sometimes this is well-intentioned, but sometimes (sadly) it’s intended to hurt.
Next time somebody is unsupportive, I hope you can handle it as well as possible. It might inform your plans, it might help you to believe in yourself even more. Either way, I hope it doesn’t sting too much.
Have you ever had to deal with a lack of support? How did you handle it? Share with the community in the comments.