One my dear friends and I were just discussing the challenges of being a female writer telling the truth. It's really hard to put yourself out there in the first place. And then sometimes in the work of telling hard truths, people dump their anger, resentment, judgement, and pain on us in response. I don't like this aspect of what I do, though it is giving me a lot of real life practice in holding boundaries while making space for people's pain. It's an intricate dance and I've learned a few things about myself and about what it means to be a writer in this process that I thought might be helpful. Whether you're a writer who publishes publicly or not, we all receive criticism in our lives and have to figure out what the hell to do with it, am I right?
The first time I went through therapy, I was in college. The reason I found myself in that office every week was that I did not have a personal filter. Whenever someone criticized me, I took it deep into my heart and believed it. It was incredibly painful and left me ill-equipped for adulthood and authentic relationship. I find even now as I receive private lashings for my writing, sometimes it comes down to this truth. When we lash out at others, we are reactive versus responsive. When we respond to something, we use reason, we talk about ideas, we can even have big feelings but operate with those well in hand, giving people the benefit of the doubt. When we react, we defend, we mark our territory, we inflict pain on others deliberately. I try to write from a place of response to situations in my life and in our culture. But in writing my response to life, I sometimes receive reactions from others. I love to talk about the actual ideas of my subjects (abuse, church baggage, bad theology, mental health, feminism, family, etc). But sometimes people don't come to me to about ideas. They come to me to put their pain in my box. And when that happens, I've developed a few rhythms that have served me well.
Number one, I hold the pain. When people have said deliberately unkind things to me, questioned my motives, my character, my very self, it hurts my feelings. It makes me giggle a bit that this might surprise some people. As much as my pen has a bite, I am a very tender-hearted person! When you tell me I'm selfish or a liar, it makes me cry. I am human. And I cry. I think I cried the entire month of October because of that damn VBS post. But you know what? THAT'S OKAY. Not, I deserved it, or that's what you get. But it's okay because I was in a lot of pain. So I held it. I felt it. I cried. I went on nature walks. I wrote. I talked to my friends again and again. I sat in silence alone. I processed the pain. That processing can take a long time. But it is so important to process before responding to unkind push back.
Two reasons: I am worthy of having my pain felt, processed and validated. That time is well spent and I don't need to rush to respond because people are waiting. I am hurting. I don't want to respond from that place so that place needs to be sat in first. Two and this gets to the greater number two of this post. The number two is, decide who you want to be in the situation. This is the beauty of healthy boundaries! I love this so much. I don't get to choose how I am treated. BUT I GET TO CHOOSE HOW I TREAT OTHERS WHEN THEY HURT ME. This is so exciting because it means that I get to decide who I am no matter how others perceive me. This is self-love, self-affirmation - this is security, people! It's really exciting to get to a place where people can't tell you who you are, why you do what you do or how you feel. Even your closest allies don't get to tell you who you are, not really. I've even stepped away from finding my identity in God. I think my co-dependent, tell me who I am, shit started with church. I get to validate myself. It doesn't mean that others can't encourage you and affirm you too. But others fail us because that's what relationship with other humans is. It's fucking up and apologizing and also just plain disagreeing. That's okay.
Once you know who you want to be in a situation and how you want to conduct yourself in it, you can respond with curiosity rather than reacting in self-defense (number three). Turns out, oftentimes a big reaction is a mirror in front of the person reacting, not the person they're screaming at. It's a reflection of THEM. Again, I want to make the distinction between people who want to debate ideas and people who are attacking you as a person. Personal beliefs (ideas) reflect us too but not in the visceral way that outbursts do. Maybe whatever you said or did triggered that person. So instead of defending yourself (you can decline to defend yourself), ASK QUESTIONS. What's going on with them that they felt it was appropriate to scream profanities at you? I'd like to think that there's enough room for big feelings and holding space for people without having to go straight to name-calling, denying the assumption of positive intent and character attacks. I love the use of these phrases "tell me about...", "can you speak into...", "I'd like to know more about..." It helps unpack what's really going on in them without taking on their stuff and making it yours to fix. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to decline taking responsibility for other's feelings. It denies them their work. And ultimately, that's a crying shame.
Pain is our friend and our work is ours to do. Don't try to do other people's work. If you're anything like me, your work keeps you plenty busy without taking on other people's. The goal here isn't not fucking up. The goal is learning from pain and making space for others without taking on their shit. We all mess up. Hurt happens whether it's intentional or not. So let's be curious about our pain, let's sit in our big feelings and examine what they mean about US not those around us.
One final thought, my friend made this point and I thought it was dead on. She said, the people who seem to be able to do this (the above three points) are those who have been in a practice of self-love. The more we learn to love ourselves, the less likely we are to lash out at others. Right? It's not about not making mistakes. It's about being safe to know you're loved while you're making mistakes. The mistakes are expected. Conflict is normal! It's about loving yourself through that learning process. And when we can give ourselves that love, that space to process our feelings and have compassion for ourselves, we are able to hold space for others, even those who trigger and hurt us.
May you hold your pain and tend to it. May you be exactly who you want to be in conflict. And may you be curious about the pain of others instead of trying to fix it or feel threatened by it.