Some people say that you are your worst critic. There’s a lot of truth in that, and at least for me, I hold myself to higher standards than are necessary.
But there are times where others are sort of the worst.
Or, at least, they aren’t helpful in encouraging you to pursue what you’re really interested in. Maybe they didn’t mean to be your worst critic, but offhanded or thoughtless comments can sometimes be as hurtful (or at least as unhelpful) as an intended one.
As writers and entrepreneurs, we put ourselves out there—our words, our voices, our ideas. We’re in a vulnerable spot to be judged. Though honestly, there’s a lot of good, constructive criticism that comes our way, to even out the negativity.
There are just certain memories or moments, perhaps the negative ones, that impact us a bit more than the positive others. These negative memories often leave a longer lasting impression than we like, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting there are a few that still haunt me.
It becomes a danger when we let the negativity impact our careers and our ability to pursue what we love. When we let that critic from our past try to stop us from trying new and exciting things in our present.
It’s definitely possible to overcome these negative moments, even if it takes a little bit of time.
The critical moments in our career—especially if you’re a writer—can happen when we least expect it.
Throughout college, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. Thought is the key word here. I enjoyed working with others and talking about writing, but deep down, I wanted to be the one doing the writing.
However, I had written off the idea of ever being a writer. And sharing words with others to have it mean something? Nah, not for me. I figured that was only for people who were really good at what they do. (What does “really good” even mean, though?)
During my final year of my undergraduate degree, I took a chance with a class that had hybrid creative assignments, different from the typical term papers that I had to do in all my other literature classes. I was excited to finally have the chance to write creatively again, even if it was only for this class.
I wrote a short story—one of the first I’d written in years—and it felt great. I thought that maybe I’d finally gotten my creative writing mojo back (hooray, I can be a writer!).
I decided to share it with a few of my friends, and I held my breath as I watched them read it on their laptops next to me.
And then they started laughing.
I laughed, too, not sure how to react.
“Wait, you really think this is good?” They scoffed.
I replied uncertainly, “I mean, it’s not great, but it’s, err, not bad?” and they continued to laugh, shaking their heads.
You should be embarrassed of your writing, is what I heard in my head, and what I remember now.
It doesn’t feel great when your friends think that your writing sucks. I wasn’t looking for a gold star or a pat on the back or glorious words of praise, but I wasn’t expecting them to laugh out loud at my writing.
I learned two things from that moment: Maybe writing is something I still needed to work at if I want to get better at it, and my friends can be jerks sometimes.
After that somewhat terrible—OK, really terrible—experience with showing my writing to others, I thought, “Well, what if I tried editing creative things instead of writing them?”
During graduate school, I was one of the poetry editors for my school’s literary journal, and I loved it. Reviewing submissions, debating whether it fit the aesthetics of the journal, considering how I’d deliver critiques to the poets who sent me beautiful poems that just didn’t make the cut … I finally felt like I’d found my jam.
And then someone told me, “Julia, you’ll never be an editor because you’re too nice.”
(Pfft. If only that person could see me now …)
At the time, though, these words were confusing to me. Too nice? Do they even know me? (The answer is yes, they knew me, and yes, I’m a pretty nice person if I do say so myself.)
But as an editor for the journal, I rejected almost every poem submission that I came across. I was rather strict on my interpretation of the aesthetic of the journal. I had firm opinions about the pieces I read and whether they belonged in the journal, and boy, did I argue them (almost to a stubborn degree).
That person thought that I’m too nice to be an editor? I guess editors have to be jerks, then.
Unfortunately, this comment must’ve lodged itself in my brain in an attempt to sabotage my future career. Throughout college, and then once I got my master’s degree, I pursued teaching writing instead of editing writing; I traded in a red pen for a purple one (to avoid traumatizing my students and returning them a “bleeding paper”).
My favorite part of teaching was grading papers, because it was my chance to read “submissions” and determine if they “fit the aesthetic” of my class.
All the other teachers thought I was weird—how did I hate lesson planning? And for the love of God, why did I love grading papers so much?
I tried doing the whole teaching thing for a while, until I finally admitted to myself:
You can be an editor, because you are an editor.
That admission was so freeing.
Sometimes it takes moments that aren’t so pleasant to encourage us to pursue what we really want to do and to help us form our own values as professionals.
When I consider how my friends laughed out loud at my short story, I now make sure that I never make other writers feel like they’re being laughed at.
When I think back to how that person told me (rather superfluously, if I’m being honest) that I couldn’t be an editor because I wasn’t mean enough, I now laugh.
It’s definitely possible to be an editor who isn’t a jerk. If anything, it’s probably one of my strongest qualities as an editor, that I don’t tear people down when I’m trying to help make their writing better.
Since I’ve been the managing editor at CYC, I’ve seen over and over how vital it is to not only be clear with the criticism I’m delivering, but also that delivering it with compassion can make a huge difference in how the suggestions are received.
I recently met up with a friend who hadn’t seen me in awhile. She and I taught at the same school, and she knew me as a teacher rather than an editor. But she surprised me when she unexpectedly said, in between bites of her pad thai, “You know, you are way more confident now than when you taught. I can tell that you love what you do.”
I wasn’t seeking this type of approval from a friend, but in a way it was reassuring to hear from someone else something I’d felt ever since I focused my career on being an editor and writer.
If you experienced moments when someone tried to tell you that you can’t be something, there are ways to turn that around and make it kindling for the flame that keeps you going.
There are plenty of reasons why someone might say something hurtful, but there’s no reason to brood on why they’re trying to be mean. Instead, consider that by doing the thing they’re trying to bring you down for, you prove them wrong. If Beyoncé took everything her critics said to heart, she probably wouldn’t be the badass artist she is today. Her music speaks volumes against her haters.
Of course, this is way easier said than done. We’re trained as kids to seek approval from our parents, from our friends, and from our teachers. It’s only once you accept that the approval of your friends doesn’t really matter, or that you can pursue the thing that makes you happy because of that simple fact: it makes you happy.
If you can remove yourself from the negative influences that bring you down, that’s going to help you immensely with pursuing your own passion. When you can step back and be objective about a moment from your past, it’s easier to see it from a different angle and understand how it’s holding you back from pursuing what you want to do. I struggled to see how these negative comments were actually holding me back until I graduated from college and left that environment.
Sure, sometimes our loved ones don’t always support us and our wild ideas. There are times when this is justified, of course. But at the end of the day, if you’re honest about what you want to do, and you want to pursue something because it makes you incredibly happy, those loved ones will still support you (even if it’s begrudgingly). While some of my friends weren’t always as encouraging, my closest friends and family were there to support me when I decided to make a career switch.
It’s hard to hear things about yourself that are brutally honest (even if they’re just plain wrong, it still affects you).
But when those hurtful things turn into things we tell ourselves, that’s where it makes a long-lasting and negative impact.
The first step to overcoming the harshest criticism is to recognize that the voice in our head echoing the hurtful words is telling us lies. The more we listen, the more we’ll believe the lies.
It is possible for us to put these comments through a filter of what we know about ourselves and our work, and continue forward with a healthy self-awareness that prevents these words from becoming discouraging.
If we stop listening to the lies, we’ll start hearing our truth, and we’ll start doing the things we actually want to do and achieve.
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.