Once upon a time I used to love reading the reviews in The Sunday Times. It was my most precious indulgence as a poor single mum living in the north of Sweden. I’d pick up the thick envelope from my newsagents on Wednesdays and put it aside for the weekend. Then I’d take my time to enjoy all the different parts of it, with numerous cups of coffee. It was glorious!
Like a character in one of my stories, I was in a bad place at the time. My withering soul craved the kind of nourishment only burns and sarcasm can provide. I would read all the reviews and delight in how deliciously mean, and fabulously funny, some of the reviewers were. In my defence, I was young(ish) and Life was very different back then. The whole world was.
Today, I’m not so sure I would find them funny. I abandoned The Sunday Times when I moved to England in 2005, and these days you don’t need to buy a newspaper to read mean reviews. They are everywhere now, but they seem to be particularly prevalent in the comment sections on social media. And rather than being amusing, they mainly make me want to jump in there and tell people to stop being dicks.
JUST DON'T BE A DICK
Sometimes I wonder if there’s widespread confusion regarding the nature of criticism? Did someone pass a memo behind my back to say the definition has changed? That it now means something inherently negative?
As a teacher, and teacher trainer, I constantly had to remind my (adult) students about what was expected of them whenever we did something that required feedback or reviews. It was like second nature to them to pick things apart and criticise everything (their own efforts included), but they really struggled to find positive things to say. Or even try to understand why something was presented or described the way it was.
Clearly, we think of criticism as being mean. As if that is the whole purpose of the critique. And I get it, to a certain extent. There’s not much about the word that suggests we’re in for a pleasant surprise. In fact, giving and receiving criticism can be so overwhelming to some people it may very well end in hurt feelings and fractured relationships. I genuinely believe this is because people equate criticism with being dicks. Or being subjected to them.
Here’s the deal though, for criticism to be useful it has to be beneficial and, ideally, presented in such a way that it can help us grow and be better. Or make better choices and decisions. Which leads us to the person who is dishing it out. The critic.
IT'S ALL IN THE DELIVERY
If delivered in a thoughtful manner, all criticism can have merit. The key here isn’t so much in what is said as in how it’s said. You don’t have to be a dick to give a review and tell someone your honest truth. It is entirely possible to deliver your “verdict” while keeping their, and your own, dignity and integrity intact. It is also possible to receive criticism without feeling guilt or shame. But it may take some practice and reflection.
Hearing constructive criticism can trigger some intense defence mechanisms in us, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Often our reactions to any kind of feedback that isn’t “ohmegerd, you’re the best!” are linked to negative, or unpleasant, experiences in our past. If you’ve experienced harsh criticism, for example, it may have left a mark on you that makes all criticism seem painful and, potentially, threatening.
On the flip side, our reactions to enthusiastic and positive feedback may very well be disbelief or unease. We may even feel the need to belittle our efforts and insist that the reviewer must be mistaken. Again, this kind of behaviour is often linked to experiences in our past.
We live in an age of like buttons, instant reviews and constant criticism. Too many of us crave positive reinforcement, and likes and positive comments may give us that. A kind of artificial approval. If you crave that kind of attention and you attach too much value to the number of likes you get online, any kind of negative feedback can be crushing.
Knowing that most people are afraid to hear something negative can help you deliver critical feedback in better ways. It can also help you stop yourself when you instantly feel guarded and nervous about receiving critique. In both cases, there is a general rule I find helpful: Never act on your first impulse!
Take your time to deconstruct the feeling/opinion you have. It’s not like shellfish or milk, so it won’t go off if you sit on it until you know how to proceed and what you want to say. Nothing good will come out of feedback, or opinions, offered in the heat of the moment. It only makes people more pigheaded and defensive and that’s a lose/lose situation. Think of what you want to say and how to explain it in a way that is helpful to the person you’re addressing. If you do better maybe they will get the message and do better too. How sweet would that be?
Criticism can be a very good thing. Work on your insecurities, be open-minded to healthy criticism and practice giving valuable feedback. It’s easier than you may think once you start taking the person you are addressing into consideration. Try to walk in their shoes for a while and figure out why they saw what they saw before you tell them how you feel about it. And remember when you do – just don’t be a dick.
Evalena Styf is a knowsy roll model and prolific content creator who lives in a queen size bed in the outskirts of London, UK, with a doggo, two cats and a personal assistant.
After 25+ years of anonymous blogging on a number of free platforms, she decided to go pro in 2017. Since then, she’s been working on getting all of her texts edited and put on display in the imaginary pirate ship she’s named after one of her most prominent character traits: The Resilience.
Evalena primarily writes non-fictional texts about personal and professional development, living the dream, and how to keep on living and loving when everything around you seems to be falling apart.