Several years ago, someone who was angry with me told me–as a reference to my own behavior–that she “didn’t understand any woman who was insecure, much past the age of eighteen.” At the time, I was twenty-eight.
In the immediate moments after she said this, I hid the sting of her words. I started doing what Dr. Brene Brown calls “the hustle for worthiness.” I started saying things that (I hoped) sounded neatly packaged and tied together. I began trying to position myself in the best possible light.
Then, I promptly spent the next few years alternatively avoiding or trying to impress this woman. When I was in a room with her, I hustled hard. I talked about cooking or social justice or travel or learning languages, things that I knew that she was interested in. If there was any way possible to get out of an event that involved her, I bailed: “Gosh, so busy, gee, wish I could, but I’m working so hard on [insert hot shit product launch or new entrepreneurial endeavour].”
This was, of course, more insecurity. She had hit the nail right on the head with her assessment of my behavior. And–despite my best efforts, over the years I would hear about more criticisms of me, my approach, things I said, things I did, even though I was hustling so hard to change her opinion of me.
When most of us are in this kind of a situation, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to start tearing down what the other person said. For awhile, that’s what I did. I mentally justified why I was insecure, or felt relieved when a friend expressed feeling insecure (hey, it’s not just me!), and I tried to avoid being around her so as to avoid ever again hearing her criticisms.
But really, the problem wasn’t what she said or what she thought.
The problem was that I believed her.
The problem was that the moment that she made it clear that insecurity at my age was patently uncool, I superimposed her worldview over my own.
In that moment, I had had a choice. I could have said what I’d experienced to be truth up to that point, which would have sounded something like, “Actually, I completely disagree. It’s been my experience that everyone has pockets of insecurity, and I’m fine with the fact that I have mine. I admit to them, because that’s honest. I’m doing the best I can to work through them.”
It was because I didn’t believe her that I started hustling for worthiness. She didn’t “make me” hustle. I chose it.
How to Respond When People Criticize
As far as I can tell, people are going to deliver their assessments of your behavior. There’s no amount of hustling for worthiness that’s going to save you from someone’s criticisms or gossip. There’s no amount of trying to “do it right for them” that will spare you their stuff.
And really, it is their stuff. What this person was really saying to me about insecurity was that she didn’t like insecurity. I don’t know what that meant for her life, at the time.
All I do know is that since we can’t control other people, I see a few options in such situations:
1.) You can hustle harder to try to smooth things over, make them happy, phrase it in the right way, convince them that you’re awesome. This will be effective approximately 50% of the time, but the other 50% it won’t–and what works for them, will be completely different for someone else, so be prepared to shape-shift like a mad woman depending on who you’re talking with, if you pick this option.
2.) You can limit contact with them so as not to be around any criticisms. This option will be helpful for the person in question, but then someone else will crop up, so this also carries with it no guarantees.
3.) You can decide to know yourself, deeply and honestly and intimately, and to love all parts of yourself. With this option, what people say may hurt sometimes, and other times it won’t, because you’ll know yourself enough to know that it’s not true, or you’ll decide to throw down a little shadow work and see criticisms that trigger you as a place for investigation.
Let it be said: I really like door #3.
Door #3 is the journey of really understanding who you are–not just the shortcomings, but also all of the wonderful and unique things that there are to celebrate.
Door #3 is the path of finding out that there’s more goodness there than you were aware of, once you actually look closely.
Door #3 is the path of deciding whose opinion you want to matter, and whose you don’t–and assigning a hierarchy, even, of putting your opinion first and then those of the people with a demonstrable record of care.
Always choose door #3. Your energy can go into shape-shifting, and it can go into avoidance…or it can go into richly and divinely becoming absolutely everything that you already are, and loving this you, wholly and totally.
The energy will go somewhere. Where do you want yours to go?
Whatever happened with this person? I realized that I had felt insecure and that actually…I was fine with that. Whatevs. I came to understand that anything that came out of her mouth was just her worldview, her lens on life. Any criticisms that she had could just be reduced to feedback–feedback that I could use, or dismiss.
Really, I got so sick of knuckling under that fear–my own fear–of bracing myself for what she said, that something within me came to understand that it wasn’t worth it to me, to live that way. I stopped babbling about topics that she was interested in, when I was around her. False confidence (fear) gave way to practicing courage as I took a deep breath and risked disagreement, talked about what I was most interested in, and quit trying to be her version of cool.
I quite literally decided to just be myself, and that she could deal with that however she liked. Interestingly, in taking the focus off of hoping to impress her and be liked, I found more things that I actually liked…about her.
When other people criticize you, don’t fear what they say. Fear believing them (and then work on that). It’s betting on yourself, and that’s a bet that’s worth investing in, totally.