If I were given a magic wand or lamp or genie or handful of wishes, the top of my list of things I would change about myself would be my ability to accept criticism. (It just barely edges out the pimple immunity charm, the better distance vision transformation, and the get-out-of-motion-sickness free card.)
As long as I can remember, I have been hypersensitive to criticism of any kind. A comment like — “hey, little 6-year-old Stewgad, you should tie your shoes”– would elicit serious hurt feelings, a flood of weeping, and then guilt that usually sounded something like this in my inner monologue: “I know that my shoes SHOULD be tied, and the fact that they aren’t clearly indicates that I am deficient in some fundamental manner. I clearly suck at everything; I can’t color in the lines, I can’t eat neatly, I don’t know my left and right, and now I can’t even keep my shoes tied.” This guilt usually would go on for a while, but ultimately morph into a latent hostility: “Why should I tie my shoes, anyway? What’s it to you if my shoes are untied? My shoes are fine just the way they are and I will trip on them as often as I like, thank you very much.” I think this emotional whirlwind stemmed from a most fervent and deep belief that critical feedback=failure, especially if it is right. The corollary to this equation is, of course, that failure at a task = personal failure. To hide this, and because I am nothing if not fairly obedient, I’d quick as I could tie those damn faulty offending failure shoes, even through the weeping, guilt, and inner grousing.
So, naturally, being as sensitive as I am, I gravitated towards a career in a loving, supportive environment where praise is abundant, criticism scarce, and chocolates are handed out regularly. Hey, wait a minute…
Today, I got the Chapter Formerly Known as Chapter 2 back from my Advisor. I don’t know what I was expecting, but he had the gall to actually criticize it. No, wait, I do know what I was expecting. I was expecting him to say: “Make these small changes in typo-like errors and then you’ll be done with this one. Wrap it up, and move on. Would you like a chocolate?” His comments were mostly in-text, but on the last page he said this: Good! It needs a few things — 1. Make a big structural change because the 1st half of the chapter doesn’t seem to be related to the second half of the chapter. 2. Make a small structural change. 3. Too many assumptions need to be made explicit. 4. Small-ish stylistic change. Let’s talk. Call me.
Now, given the responses to my work from my first advisor – either none at all or sheer destruction and devastation – this was a pretty ok response, I think. But, still when I read it a little while ago, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach that I always get when I’m criticized. I felt stupid, inadequate, and 6 years old again. I felt exhausted at the thought of having to do more on this chapter, and overwhelmed that everything isn’t right the first (well, actually, second) time. I want to give up, throw in the towel, cry and stomp my feet and go home and eat ice-cream and go to bed and never come out.
But, it is raining hard right now, for the first time in weeks – that deep, heavy summer rain that cools everything down and makes such lovely noises and delicious soft, wet smells – and I’m wearing sandals. I don’t really want to wade through the downpour just to have a tantrum, so I guess I’ll have to deal with this here and now.
I think I can manage the 2nd and 4th those changes fairly quickly – it will just involve a little re-arranging and some giving up of language that I thought made me sound smart, but apparently is just opaque. (Oops.) Manageable fixes, I think. The 3rd thing looked bad at first, but then I read his marginal comments and I see the places he’s talking about, and feel kind of good about the chance to respond to those comments and to flesh out some things that I had let go by because I’m just to close to this to see them. Of all of the critiques, the 1st one is the most tricky. I don’t know if this means I’ll have to rethink the organization and get a new conceptual framework to tie the two halves of the chapter together, or if it just means that I need to throw in a better connecting paragraph or two between the two parts? Or maybe just give up trying to keep the two things together, and so divide them all into 2 much shorter chapters. I’ll have to ask him about this. I won’t dive into this today but I will start to think about when I can tackle these changes.
Overall, I’m starting to feel a little bit ok about this criticism. Maybe I’ve taken to heart something I taped up on my wall: “Your work is worthy of critical feedback.” Maybe this criticism was so gentle it didn’t hurt as much as it could have. (He did say “Good” plus an exclamation mark, after all.) Or, maybe I’m growing as a person. Maybe I can learn how to be criticized, how to hear constructive critical feedback in the kindly spirit in which it was offered and use it to help my work be better. Maybe I’ll never get rid of that sinking feeling in my stomach when I encounter criticism, but maybe I can run through the guilt/anger/acceptance gamut more quickly than I could when I was 6. I don’t know. I did learn to eat neatly, tie my shoes, and color within the lines. But, then again, I still can’t tell my left from my right without some hard thinking, so maybe not. Here’s hoping.