The Power of Taking Criticism
by Jennifer Paros
When I was a child, my sister and I rarely fought. We might
disagree, certainly, but rarely would these arguments turn
physical. Still, every once in a while they would. I have
no memory of the subject or even the intensity that would spark one
of these occasions, but I do remember that at least one time our
interaction turned to physical aggression in the form of pinching.
I have no memory of pinching my sister, but because she is a gentle
soul by nature, I am going to assume that I (somewhat less gentle)
was the instigator. And then I remember her coming, in full force
anger, to pinch me back. I have an image of myself, perhaps now
exaggerated by time and fantasy, willingly offering the arm.
I remember making a decision at that moment, to just take it--
to allow it to happen, to not fuss over it, to feel the pain but not
let it upset me. And so, because the arm was flesh, I certainly
registered the damage she was inflicting, but because of my
decision, I was not, strangely, hurt by it–neither emotionally nor
My sister’s exasperation and frustration over her lack of impact was
so strong, she ran off to my mother to report the whole thing and
seek restitution. But the truth was, we had performed the same
aggressive act against each other. The difference was that I had
stumbled upon a mental stance that allowed me to be unaffected by
the experience and she had stumbled upon a mental stance that had
left her at the mercy of the experience. What she was really
protesting was the imbalance in how much power each of us appeared
to have, with her seeming to have ended up with less and me with
As I stood and received the pinch, I learned that the less I reacted
the more powerful I felt. The sense of command and control I knew
at that moment was far better than any feeling I could have gotten
from continuing the violence. For what is it that all warring
parties want? Power. It is only mistaken thinking that leads us to
believe that what we must control in order to feel that power is
something or someone outside of ourselves.
Receiving feedback and criticism on our writing can sometimes feel
the same as receiving a pinch. It can be experienced as an act of
aggression and something uncomfortable or even hurtful-- regardless
of the intentions.
Several years ago, while in the last stages of putting my book
together for publication, my editor sent me line edits for the
piece. In what I considered to be an uncharacteristic expression on
my part, I found myself pounding my fist on the desk, cursing and
complaining vehemently out loud to no one. Although unhappy with
my wounded, raging reactions to the suggestions, I was still quite
gripped by the emotion I had summoned. I was experiencing the edits
as a pinch, and one I was not in good mental stance to take.
By the next day, determining I did not want to be the person who
pounds her fist in babyish retort, I decided to sit with it.
So, I allowed myself to read and re-read the edits without having
to do anything about them. My only job, I said to myself, was
to listen, to take them in, to observe what they were. Over the
next two days, this is what I did, and what I found was there was no
pain or distress (as there had been at first, when I reacted),
and soon clarity arose and I was able to see where I truly agreed or
disagreed or where compromise was easily found.
So, whether I am a child engaged in physical attack with my sister,
or an adult receiving comment on my work, perceived war ceases
without defensive reaction. All warring parties ever want is a sense
of power. And that sense can be experienced through the mental
stance I stumbled upon so many years ago. By not fighting against,
the internal war ceases and with it any emotional distress or
discomfort. And, in this choice, power returns, and when power
returns, so then does resolution and clarity as to the next steps to
take. The less I react, the more powerful I feel. Now, all I have
to do is remember.
Jennifer Paros is a writer,
illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House
(Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.