Episode 26: Using Dear Critic Letters
In this series, adapted from my book Toxic Criticism, we examine the ways that criticism and self-criticism interfere with our ability to find our life purpose and live as strongly, passionately, and effectively as we would like to live. Today’s episode is called “Using Dear Critic Letters.”
Hello, everybody. Today’s is the eighth episode in a series called Handling Toxic Criticism. In this series we look at the terrible toll that criticism takes, how it interferes with your ability to live your life purpose, and what you can do to reduce the effects of criticism in your life. Today’s episode is called “Using Dear Critic Letters.” Let’s begin!
You’ve just been criticized. You feel your face turning beet red. You want to defend yourself but your brain has turned to mush. You want to hide but you know that running out of the room will feel just too humiliating and will make you feel even worse than standing right where you are. What can you do to deal with the seething emotions that are making it impossible for you to think straight and deal adequately with the criticism?
There are many things you might have done to prepare yourself for this moment. We discussed six of them in the last chapter. You might have gotten so clear on your life purposes and your life path that your existential filter traps most criticism before it has a chance to do any damage. You might have gotten so practiced at appraising situations, and especially so practiced at waving away most criticism as not important enough to consider, that you feel equal to handling criticism in a level-headed way. You might have adopted a phlegmatic, philosophical attitude that allows you to brush aside most criticism as commentary on the foibles of human nature and not anything that reflects on you. You might stand ready to deal with your self-talk and your personality and feel confident that you will take the appropriate action, should action be required of you. In short, you might have already transformed yourself into somebody better able to dismiss most criticism out-of-hand and better able to manage and process the remaining criticism.
You might have transformed yourself already. But even if you have, you will still want to possess tactics for dealing with that portion of toxic criticism that makes its way in and enflames your emotions. One tactic to deal with this remaining criticism is to acquire the habit of writing “dear critic” letters. If you know that as soon as you get home you will be able to vent your feelings and process the toxic incident in private, you will feel more grounded, present, and powerful in the moment.
A “dear critic” letter is a letter that you write but almost never send. In it, you address the person who has criticized you and let him know about the anger, displeasure, sadness, or other emotion that his criticism provoked in you, your sense of outrage, injustice, or betrayal, and your feelings about the unfairness of his criticism, if it seemed unfair, or about its delivery, if it seemed cruelly delivered. In your “dear critic” letter you get everything off you chest. Your goal in this letter is, first and foremost, to freely vent and release the toxins that are circulating in your system.
It is excellent to just vent. Many people do not have permission to own their feelings. They feel angry but they do not feel comfortable feeling angry and look for ways to not feel angry, by rationalizing away their feelings, self-medicating, denying that anything happened, and so on. There can be serious negative consequences to venting in public and laying into the person who criticized you, but those negative consequences do not attach to a letter you write but do not mail. Writing a “dear critic” letter is the equivalent of pounding your fists, screaming, or engaging in some other delicious venting activity.
Here is a short, sweet “dear critic” letter written by a young woman named Theresa:
Dear Negative Know-It-All,
I bet it seemed so easy for you. Just say anything you damn well pleased! It was just an off-handed comment you made and I bet you already don’t remember it, though it was just this afternoon. Well, I remember it! Words can hurt and the hurt can run very deep. So what if you think I’ll never make it as a writer? What do you know? There was absolutely no reason for you to tell me I should stop trying! It’s only been a few hours but I’m already tired of carrying this hurt and anger around. You had no right to talk to me like that! You had no right to put me down just so that you could feel a little better! F@#k you! I mean it! This may even be goodbye—and if it is, I can’t say that I am going to miss you!
Not your whipping girl,
“Dear critic” letters allow you to vent. They serve a second purpose that is even more important. They allow you to process the incident and begin to own your part of the criticism. You express your feelings but you also appraise accurately and mete out responsibility fairly. In the following “dear critic” letter a young painter apportions blame while venting her feelings about one of her painting instructors:
Dear Mr. Jones,
I am writing to object to your scathing final criticism of my semester of painting. First of all, I know I wasn't working to my potential. I was going through all sorts of personal issues, from my parents' impending divorce to my own drinking and drug problems. I'll take responsibility for that. However, you had no right to tear apart my work the way you did. I left feeling that I could never take another painting class again (and I just realized that I haven't!), that I'd never be a good enough painter, and that I should be ashamed of my very existence.
I fought hard to avoid bursting into tears, as I had too much pride to let you see my emotional response. But afterward I was so depressed that I don't even remember what I did next. Probably I went to the student union and drank beers or found a friend and smoked some pot. Yes, I wasn’t together. But still I didn't deserve your scathing "review,” even if I sometimes failed to show up for class or even if I failed to complete much of my work.
I've been punishing myself for my part in all of that and I need to stop. I hope that writing this will help put both our parts of that disaster into perspective so that I can begin to heal. I wish I'd chosen a better instructor, I wish I hadn’t let my anguish, fear, and low self-esteem prevent me from painting, and I truly wish you could have been more of a human being. Now I need to put this where it belongs: in the past.
A “dear critic” letter addresses your critic and gives him a piece of your mind. It also allows you to enter into dialogue with yourself, identify your own personality challenges, and grow, heal, and change.
In addition to using the “dear critic” letter-writing process to defuse the sting of criticism received today, criticism received decades ago, or criticism you fear will come in the future, you can also use the process to begin to deal with self-criticism and your own “inner critic.” You personify your inner critic and give it a good piece of your mind. In essence, you have an important chat with yourself about the whys of your own self-bashing and announce that you intend to stop it. For example, Leandra wrote:
Dear little crappy voice inside my head:
Why do you constantly put me down and tell me that my art "isn't good enough"?! Why must you constantly torment me? You think that you're terribly clever, but I have news for you. I'm going to beat you! I don't know when and I don't know how but I know I will. Art is not something I want to create, it is something I am called to create. I deny myself and my God when I listen to you. So why do I do it? I haven't figured out that answer yet, but when I do you have better watch out!
Maybe I’ll always have to hear you. I hope not, but maybe you’re too damned devilishly clever. Then I just won’t listen. I’ll become so strong and sure of myself that all of your nagging complaints about how bad I am will just fall on death ears. I will win! I haven’t the slightest doubt that you are terribly powerful, terribly subversive, terribly clever. You know all the things to say, since you are right there inside me watching me react and falter. Yes, you have a great vantage point and a great advantage! But I am going to win because I am staking my life on it.
Go to hell!
I think that you are beginning to get a sense of what I’m proposing: that you transform yourself into a person who stands in a different, better relationship to criticism and that you acquire an arsenal of tactics and strategies that help you deal with the criticism that comes your way. You want to be transformed AND armed.
That ends today’s show. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll tune in next week for another episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life. If you subscribe to your Purpose-Centered Life, you won’t miss a single episode!—to subscribe, please visit personallifemedia.com or look for Your Purpose-Centerd Life in iTunes. You might also want to visit my blog, where many guest correspondents write about issues of interest in the secular-humanist, skeptical, free-thinking, existential and atheist traditions. My blog is available at the personallifemedia.com website. If you’d like to drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services, including my annual Taos workshops. To visit, please head over to ericmaisel.com—that’s e-r-i-c-m-a-i-s-e-l.com. Thank you for listening!