“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” – Aristotle
My fear of criticism has kept me from being the truest version of myself in countless scenarios. I know that to be true. Whether it was choosing not to speak my mind or opting not to pursue a new challenge or keeping my beliefs to myself, that looming threat of criticism has kept me small in many instances.
I know I’m not alone in this.
Thankfully, that fear of criticism has lessened its grip on me a bit through the years, and I’m much more aware of the fact that I will NEVER make everyone happy – and after all, that’s not at all the point anyway. These days, I feel much more comfortable being myself and also continuing to evolve while caring SO MUCH LESS about what others might be thinking or saying about me along the way.
So, from a personal standpoint, that feels like positive growth. Yay! I’m all about it.
But…it doesn’t address a bigger problem I see with the rampant criticism and judgement all around us.
Even the word “criticism” is tricky, because it seems to mean too many different things.
The word can reference constructive feedback, the sort that helps improve your work, sharpen your skills, and inspire future endeavors. Sure, it can be hard to accept sometimes, but often it’s invaluable.
But it can also mean the FAR less helpful sniping that seems to have no interest in future improvement. And it’s that “noisy” criticism I’ve been most afraid of in the past – less so the actual feedback about, you know, the things I create or work towards or value.
I certainly do my fair share of judging of others (although it’s something I’m working on dissecting to use as a mirror and to break long-held habits).
And is it just me, or does it feel like perhaps it’s easier to get to that quick judgement place thanks to social media? Or maybe it’s mainly that social media blurs the lines a little between celebrity and regular person, and celebrities are typically examined under a microscope, so we start to apply that same zoomed-in lens to others, too?
Hang on – let’s chase that rabbit for a moment, because it’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately: WHY do we hold celebrities and others in the public eye to such a different standard than “regular” people? And why is it so easy (and maybe even fun?) for us to conveniently seem to forget that they’re fully human, just like we are?
These are people who, perhaps, chose to pursue a career in the arts and were really successful at it. Congratulations on your career success! Now watch while the world talks about your cellulite and decides you’re too outspoken about politics and blatantly bashes the name you chose for your child (a.k.a., provides tons of unsolicited feedback about your life, little of which actually has to do with your work). Meanwhile they watch your show or pay to see your movies or go to your concert or spend time reading articles about you. THAT IS SO WEIRD.
Does this personal criticism make us somehow feel better about ourselves? Does it soothe the ping of envious pain we might feel when we recognize they’ve done something big and bold, and perhaps that feels missing from our own lives? Does it help us bond as fellow “regular” people to dissect Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show over lunch at Panera and make wild assumptions about how she is as a mother?
I’m not saying those in the public eye don’t have certain responsibilities due to where they find themselves in life (not to mention the shared responsibilities I think we ALL have as humans to be kind to one another, to try to leave the world a little better than the way we found it, etc.), but having to leave their right to basic human decency at the door is far too much to ask of anyone. We forget — or maybe we make the active decision to completely disregard — the fact that ALL people have a full range of experiences and emotions and joys and struggles.
Have you watched The Morning Show on Apple TV? I was late to the party and just wrapped up the second of two seasons a couple of weeks ago. (Season 3 should be coming out soon, though — wahoo!)
But don’t worry if you didn’t watch the show. I’ll tell you about the piece of it that has been rattling around in my brain as it relates to this whole topic of criticism of those in the public eye:
To set the scene…
Jennifer Aniston’s character, Alex Levy, is a long-time, super successful morning news show anchor (think Katie Couric level of notoriety). By the final episode of Season 2, she’s come under scrutiny for her relationship with her former co-anchor, Mitch Kessler (played by Steve Carrell), and she’s also tested positive for an early case of COVID in March of 2020. The network has her broadcast live from her apartment to share about her experience with COVID, and she begins to share, among other things, about her experience with criticism.
Here’s part of what she says:
“I know there’s those of you out there saying, ‘You deserve this!’ What’s your point? Is it that if I deserve it, it allows you to enjoy someone else’s pain while feeling morally righteous?
Did I bring this scrutiny on myself by putting myself in the public eye? I know that makes sense to some of you, but just remember: I was a kid, like anyone else. I took my first steps, like anyone else. I had my first love, my first heartbreak. I just had the audacity to want to be on TV and try to entertain and inform you.
I didn’t realize when I made that choice that the thing people would find most entertaining is not even the thing that I do that I’m good at. That I have risen to the highest levels of. I didn’t realize that the most entertaining things about me would be just batting me around like a freaking piñata while digging around asking questions about my sex life.
Why do I even bother doing the news? Who’s your tailor sleeping with? Is he a good guy? Does it matter, if your pants fit?”
It’s powerful to watch her share this perspective. I can’t help but wonder if delivering those powerful lines hit home for Aniston on a personal level. One word that stood out to me in particular is this one: audacity.
“I just had the audacity to want to be on TV and try to entertain and inform you.”
“Audacity” is defined as “a willingness to take bold risks,” and aren’t bold risks typically the things that result in the most criticism? And yes, perhaps the most praise, too.
But don’t most of us also WANT our lives to include bold risks? After all, that’s where we really get to stretch ourselves, to FIND our true selves, to make the biggest impact, to see the magic emerge, to gain the most confidence. I believe our most audacious moments are often what give our lives meaning—helping us to identify who we are, and what truly matters to each of us. Yet the fear of criticism – whether we are in the public eye or not – can hamper our willingness to take those big leaps.
And also…perhaps it’s the noticeable LACK of audacity and risk in our own lives that leads many of us to so harshly and quickly criticize others who ARE being bold. Worth considering, don’t you think?
As with SO many things, my awareness of judgement and criticism has increased since becoming a parent. I watch the way my kids exist in the world.
The way they interact with the people around them makes me want to be less critical of others and, instead, more in awe and support of them. I want to keep that openness as intact as possible in them, which is one reason we try not to talk about stranger danger in the conventional sense at our house, and instead talk about identifying strange BEHAVIOR in people (both those we know and those we don’t). I want their trust in people as inherently good to remain while also knowing how and when to stand up for themselves and others when they need to.
I also want my kids to see ME being audacious – taking those bold risks – despite the criticism that might follow as a way to show them those risks are usually worth it (and that SO much of the criticism that can come as a result doesn’t hold much water anyway).
I know right now I’m living my life in ways others are likely critical of. After all, I proudly work as a brand advocate for the direct sales brand Beautycounter (you know, the kind of thing many folks refer to as a dreaded “MLM”). I’ve broken away from a traditional 9 to 5 work environment and have instead cobbled together work that includes Beautycounter as well as freelance writing and teaching Pure Barre – all things I find extremely fulfilling and flexible, and work that looks decidedly different from the norm. I share different religious beliefs than many (especially in the south), and identify as a humanist rather than a Christian (and Kevin and I belong to our local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship).
At first, with ALL of those things, I admittedly felt timid to share about them. “What would people think??” But soon another voice became louder: “What would you be missing out on by NOT pursing these things wholeheartedly?” And that voice? It was incredibly compelling, and felt much more true. I’m so glad I listened to it, and I hope I can continue to do that throughout my life.
But another way I can play a role in keeping that lower level of criticism in place for them is to lower MY levels of criticism and judgement – both the spoken kind and the unspoken kind, which those deeply perceptive kiddos can certainly pick up on.
And so I’ve been working on being very aware of when and how I judge others.
I can get SO FRUSTRATED with other cars on the road while I’m driving. I’m trying to constantly remind myself that inside those cars, are PEOPLE. Humans. Ones I’d likely have perfectly pleasant interactions with if we found ourselves standing next to each other in a grocery store line. My judgement and frustration at the wheel immediately diminish when I remember this.
I try to remember that all people are WHOLE people – even those who put themselves out there in the form of social media or acting or music or leadership. It becomes harder to roll my eyes at a celeb’s “problems” when I remember that she does, in fact, have them – the same as I do – despite having a whole lot more money than I have, and maybe a body I’m envious of, too.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for actual, real, productive criticism. But I’m working on using my critical feelings to help me first identify why the criticism is bubbling up in me to begin with. Is it coming from a place of envy? Of insecurity? Of a gap in my own life? Of perpetuating the image-based sea we find ourselves swimming in?
Or do I actually have a legitimate criticism of a person’s work or values system that feels worth addressing in some way? If the answer is yes, there’s still work to be done to decide what – if anything – to do with that criticism.
Considering the nature and source of my impulse to criticize others — whether it’s a driver who turned right in the left-turn lane without so much as a signal or a pop star who gave her kid a name that seems better suited for a hamster — has become a mirror for my psyche. I already feel like I am seeing some benefits from this practice.
And the person who I have most dramatically stopped criticizing in the process? Me.
And, like most everyone, I can certainly use less self-criticism and more self-love in my life.
I know criticism is inevitable, and on the one hand I say BRING IT ON, because it will mean I’m standing for things and taking risks, and that’s the kind of life I want to lead.
But to clarify, I’m looking for as much productive criticism as possible, both in what I receive and what I contribute to the world. And in the process, I’m going to hone my filter so that, hopefully, lots of unhelpful critical noise gets drowned out by the good stuff – which, in my mind, very much includes legitimately helpful, well-intentioned criticism meant to make me and my work and my life stronger, better, more thoughtful, more inclusive, more impactful.
THAT kind of criticism? I’m here for it.
It requires remembering others’ full humanity. I’m here for that, too (even though it’s much harder than just being critical).
So maybe, as it happens, this more focused, productive criticism is in its own way audacious. It flies in the face of “the way things are done” and is an effort to cut through some of that junk that’s keeping us small and afraid in favor of focusing on making everyone collectively and individually better. I’m here for THAT, big time. You, too?
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung