OWN

How To Speak Out When You're Afraid Of Criticism

When criticism is offered not to be constructive but to shut you down, file it under Junk.
2012-10-11-omaglogo.jpg

Several years back, soon after I started blogging, I came to a painful realization: The price you pay for having opinions and airing them is, in a word, critics. I’d been blissfully unaware of this until I made the mistake of typing my name into the Google search bar. If there is one piece of wisdom I can offer, let it be this: Don’t Google yourself.

It was like going down a toxic rabbit hole of vicious comments. I was too flighty, too crazy, too ugly, too fill-in-the-blank. The attacks were ultrapersonal, and they hurt. Layered on top of the pain was shame—I’m a grown woman and a feminist, for God’s sake. I’d vowed to be vocal and vulnerable whatever the consequences, and that meant I shouldn’t care what people thought. But I did. After reading them all, I wanted to take back everything I’d ever revealed and retreat with my family into a Wi-Fi-free rainforest, where the only venom directed at me would be from reptiles. Since that wasn’t possible, I climbed into bed and didn’t emerge for 24 hours.

The next day, I willed myself to get up and called my sister. “I’ve ruined my life and my kids’ lives,” I cried. “I should never have put us out there to be eaten alive. What was I thinking?”

My very wise and patient sister took a deep breath and said, “Telling women they’re too dumb or hysterical or not domestic enough is how we’ve been silenced for ages. If we’re too busy worrying what the world thinks about us or what we need to change before we’re worthy enough to share our ideas, we’ll never get to what needs changing in the world. Don’t fall for it, Glennon. What does any of that white noise have to do with your work?”

Nothing, I thought. It would be nuts to let the trolls decide whether I should express myself. My role is to put myself out there, to lead with courage and love. It would be unforgivable to let random criticism stop me from doing what I was meant to do. I resolved then that forever after I would do with any superficial, mean-spirited comments the same thing I do with junk mail: toss it. When you lift your voice—whether in politics, in art, in business, at a PTA meeting, or on the internet—I guarantee there will be feedback, and about 90 percent of it will be the equivalent of junk mail.

Assume 30 percent will be aimed at surfacy things that have nothing to do with what’s important but will sting. Your pants are too tight. Your hair’s too long for someone your age. You’re too skinny, or you’ve gained weight. Did you get Botox? Maybe you should. In other words, when you commit to being a woman who lives out loud, there will be detractors using high school tactics to mute you or undermine your credibility. Don’t let them. Move all such pettiness to the trash.

The next 30 percent of your mail will hammer away at your relationships. Critics know they can hit us hard in this area because we women tend to define ourselves in these terms. You’ll be told you’re a failure as a mom because you work or as a woman because you don’t. Some will call you spineless for staying in a marriage; others will find you heartless for leaving one. Toss it—don’t even bring that junk mail into your house. The only people who get to critique your relationships are the folks you’re in relationships with.

Another 30 percent will judge you for who you are. I once called a friend and complained, “They’re saying I’m mentally ill, I’m an alcoholic, I only got married because I was pregnant, I’m melodramatic and ambitious and...” And she said, “That’s terrible, G. But isn’t all of that true?” And I thought: Oh, right. It is! I am all those things. And I still get to share my opinions. Not because I’m perfect, but because imperfect women get to show up and speak up, too. Junk mail!

Then there’s the good stuff, the remaining 10 percent—the meaty feedback that comes from well-meaning people responding in a thoughtful way. I keep that in a precious pile to curl up with and savor. It will take your breath away at times, and not always in a good way. Honesty can be like a cold shower. But our job with this stack of mail is to stay open, to wonder: Is there another way to think about this? Could I be wrong? When I can resist defensiveness and embrace curiosity, it always makes me better. The way I grow as a writer and human being is by using this 10 percent. The way I stay focused and strong is by tossing the other 90.

Women today face a conundrum. Misogyny is pervasive, which makes it all the more urgent that we raise our voices, and yet it’s never felt scarier to do so. But as the saying goes: “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” I choose to avoid being nothing. I refuse to send junk mail to other women. And when offering feedback, I stick to substance, delivered with tenderness.

Glennon Doyle Melton is the author of Love Warrior, a 2016 Oprah’s Book Club pick; the founder of the online community Momastery; and the creator of the nonprofit Together Rising.

CONVERSATIONS