Reaching Critical Point: Dealing With Online Criticism

By Elizabeth Flux

On a recent visit to my parents’ house I found myself looking through a bunch of my school reports from early childhood. I skipped past the praise for mastering simple arithmetic and spelling, noted my teacher’s acknowledgement of my fierce (and possibly too intense) competitiveness when it came to the class reading chart, and shrugged off my mediocre marks for art. Then I got to the Physical Education report. “Elizabeth is making good progress” the teacher had begun “but I grow increasingly concerned at her inability to hop.”

My ears turned red in indignation for my four year old self. How very dare she I thought. What use is hopping in the real world anyway I countered to no one in particular, quashing the words “calculus” and “matrices” as they tried to fight their way to the surface. I’ve never been anything remotely resembling an athlete – my school sporting contributions included “using sports day as an opportunity to get ahead on homework” and “defiantly walking the 400 metre run because I was unfit and resented being forced to participate against my will” – but to see myself be criticised for it in black and white letters cut deep.

Now that I’m an adult and a writer, I don’t get school reports to critique my work and my worth. Instead I get emails from editors, comments on articles and, from time to time, tweets from husbands, furious that I’d suggest something so outrageous as maybe wife-taking-man’s-name shouldn’t be done as a mere default.

We all have an ego, and we all take pride in our work; to have someone either constructively (or, in some cases, maliciously) pick away at the idea that everything we put out into the world is perfect has the potential to really hurt. It’s strange; it’s as though when we receive praise we don’t really believe it; only when someone says something negative do we think we are finally hearing the truth.

As a woman, as a feminist, as a writer and as a (sigh) millennial, criticism is constantly coming at me from all directions. The internet is ever-present: it doesn’t go home at 5pm, it doesn’t take holidays, and so along with this reality comes the potential for criticism anytime, anywhere. If I internalised all of it, I’d essentially become a human shell used only for the purposes of transporting hurtful words from bed to the couch to the fridge and then back to bed.

So, I’ve patched together a way to deal.

  • Triage: all criticism is going to sting a little bit at the beginning. Let yourself feel that – but do it privately.
  • Don’t respond with emotion: don’t ever send an email or respond when you’re in the initial phase of dealing with feedback because at this point emotion has the upper hand over rationality and will most likely lead you to say or write things that you’ll still be cringing over in eight years’ time.
  • Take a step back: enter a mental fortress of solitude where emotion is not allowed, and everything is all very literal and rational and analyse if you have received constructive or non-constructive criticism.
  • If it’s constructive: constructive criticism comes from editors or someone pointing out a flaw in your argument or insensitivity in your wording. Take the lesson on board, and see how you might use it to avoid a similar situation in the future.
  • If it’s the second malicious or non-constructive criticism: you have two ways to go about it, depending on how Art of War you’re feeling. The first is, simply, nothing. Don’t engage. I have a theory that trolls and bullies are fuelled by the validation they feel when people respond to their angry button mashing; take this away and they sag and wither miserably, like every flower I’ve ever tried to plant ever, no matter how well I follow the instructions.
  • Or…the second option is to respond, however I say this with the caveat of having a goal in mind. Don’t respond simply for catharsis or to punish. Respond, constructively. “Goal” is a nebulous term. Your goal could be to discourage them from putting further vitriol out into the world. It could be to try and bring them around to your point of view. Again, if you decide to go down this route, first go back to the Fortress of Solitude and see what works for you.

I remember, at the age of seven, standing in the playground and stopping suddenly and thinking: this is it. I know everything. There is nothing more to learn. I then headed back to class and learned that The Middle Ages existed. Oh and there was at least 9 years left of school to take in. Realising that you can never really reach the end of the rainbow is frustrating. Having someone else point out the ways you can improve just compounds this feeling. But there is no point in allowing criticism to leave you hopping mad – especially if you have an inability to hop.

Elizabeth Flux is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the former editor of Voiceworks.


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