Connecting the Dots – some thoughts on criticism, empathy, blogging, and being human

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There are a couple of things which I do when I log into my blog. I check the comments and then the stats. Both of which often provide me with inspiration for a post.

In the stats, I am particularly interested by the search criteria which led someone to my blog. I have no idea if when they got here they found what they were looking for, if they liked it, hated it, or if they bothered to read it at all once they realised it wasn’t that for which they were seeking.

The stats can’t inform you about who the visitors to your blog are, what their life is like, what they are like, or why they are roaming and searching the internet for the terms in their search. You can guess, imagine… based on yourself, your life, and your own searches which have led you to blogs… however  you can only read their search term words the way that you would use them, or the way you imagine someone else might use them, perhaps differently from you but it is still you who is thinking things through. You can get a widget which tells you what part of the world they are from, but they can get an add-on to their browser which can give you a false reading, and even if you know where that visitor is visiting from, that doesn’t tell me much about them other than their physical location at that moment in time. So I know nothing about them… about you.

…and even though I share a lot of information about myself on my blog, they, you, don’t really know anything about me.

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communication - George Bernard Shaw

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Occasionally someone will link to my blog, and the stats will link me back to them. I often follow the tenuous internet thread out of curiosity, the desire to know more about those who have found something on my blog which has spurred them to share it somewhere. I usually brace myself for the worst, because people don’t always share things because they like them, and because I quite like the feeling which comes when your worst fears are proved to be figments of your insecure nightmares.

Today I read a comment wherein someone related an incident of unsolicited critical feedback from another which caused them to retreat into the shell of themselves, perhaps never to re-emerge. As I pondered their words, what they had shared of themselves, their story… their story triggered within me, empathy… I imagined the incident, how they had felt, and how what they had felt had caused them to react. I was reminded of similar incidents in my own life, which allowed me to relate to their tale and to them as one human being to another. When others share their story, their life with us, they share our story, our life with us too. We find pieces of ourselves in others and they find pieces of themselves in us. Sometimes we help each other to put those pieces together, see the bigger picture made up of all the little ones.

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“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.” ― Samuel Beckett

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In this world overflowing with human beings, we often feel as though others do not see us as real people, perhaps they don’t consider us human, like them, at all, we are subjects, objects, subjective objects, which can be treated with the same regard as an apple which they bite into, decide they don’t like the taste of it, so they throw it away without a thought other than perhaps a sense that the apple had cheated them somehow, was not what it had promised them that it would be, they imagined something delicious and instead it was distasteful, it was a bad apple and the nasty aftertaste in their mouth is all the apple’s fault. They might relate this event to others, who may empathise with them, and perhaps even sympathise with their plight because of their own experiences with bad apples…

…which is why I experience a sense of trepidation when I follow a link shared to my blog back to its sharing source.

Shortly after I read the comment, I followed one of these links. The link lead to a site which is fairly notorious for its criticism of everything and everyone, thus I knew that bracing myself was not unfounded but a good idea. In this place, I need to envelop myself in a tougher skin before I jump in. Of course I could have spared myself the experience, but I’m a curious soul.

At the end of the link rainbow, I didn’t find a pot of criticism, however it was not complimentary either. There were a couple of ‘this is trash’ type of remarks about a post on my blog, but they had the tone of someone saying something to belong to the group they were in.

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“Most people say that Shakespeare rocked merely because most people say that Shakespeare rocked.” ― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

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To be honest (rather than lying to myself to protect my fragile ego), the post to which they were referring was a rather rubbish post. I could empathise with their view, however I couldn’t relate to why it had been shared as it was the kind of rubbish post which wasn’t even bad enough to be good enough to share and criticise.

If you’re wondering whether I’m pretending not to be bothered when in fact I am bothered and the proof of my being bothered lies in the pudding of this post, the fact that I am writing about it… in this case I am not.

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“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” ― Milan Kundera

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What struck me about the scenario was the connection to the story in the comment on my blog, a connection which connected to stories within me, and the stories of others, here, there and everywhere.

We have an almost worship of individuality and independence, we also tend to admire those who seem invulnerable to things such as criticism, those fiercely independent individuals who let the criticism which is thrown at them for being independent individuals roll off their back onto the ground where they are left in the independent invulnerable individual’s dust.

No one is immune to criticism, which is why stream of consciousness places like the internet are awash with quotes about criticism, how to deal with it and such, some of which are so popular that they get shared everywhere by everyone.

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cornelius lindsey - criticism:compliments

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We’re all searching for inspiration for dealing with the criticism which surrounds us all and is within us all.

Criticism connects us, and it separates us.

It is a great equaliser,  anyone can do it, and everyone does it in one form or another, call it what you will.

It is very easy to see what someone has done, is doing or is about to do wrong, to point it out and feel rather clever for noticing the perceived error. It’s just not as easy to take it when someone does that to us. We are often surprised when someone reacts badly to our criticism, we were only trying to help them (or so we say and tell ourselves), but we are rarely surprised when we react badly to being criticised, by someone who was only try to help us (or so they say and tell themselves).

Such a great equaliser is also an unequaliser of equal greatness.

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“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” ― Noam Chomsky

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We band together to criticise something or someone, we feel supported by others in our mutual critique, dislike, we feel liberated by the act of giving vent to our opinions, getting a rant off of our chest, releasing our negativity, letting our pet peeves out to play, fighting an injustice, a wrong, and when others agree with us, we feel validated, justified. We’re part of the wolf pack. But when we’re not, when the wolf pack is tearing into us, we limp away, wounded, alienated, ostracised, isolated. Alone with our inner critic, who, when it isn’t picking on us turns its eyes on others with the same hunger.

The one thing with which everyone can empathise is criticism and how it affects us. Not just how it affects us when we are on the receiving end of it, but also how it affects us when we’re dishing it out. Except, when we’re on the criticising end of the see saw we tend to disconnect from all the times that we’ve been on the other side, being criticised the way that we are now criticising… which is our loss, as if we made that connection, we’d be able to empathise with those who criticise us, understand why they are doing it based on why we do it, and we wouldn’t take their words, their criticism, personally as we would realise that it is personal to them, as our criticism is personal to us. It is about them and not about us. If we take it personally, it is about us and not about them, then maybe that’s because we need to take a self-reflective look at ourselves, but not necessarily in the manner in which the critic, inner or outer, wants us to.

There are those who advise a moratorium on criticism, who criticise critics and criticism. If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all. Say nothing… because no one ever criticises that! Silence is golden, until someone thinks that your silence is the silent treatment. Censor yourself. Walk through your talk on eggshells when around others. Only express yourself through compliments, niceness, politeness, and positivity… because no one ever uses those passive-aggressively! And you’ll never get accused of being too nice or fake for being too nice.

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be a voice not an echo

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For me, personally, some of the greatest compliments which I have received have been criticisms, and some of the worst criticisms which I have received have been compliments. As for what I give, I try to be aware of it, but it isn’t always easy to be aware, or to tell the difference between compliments and criticisms, and just plain old talking about something or someone, and when we give… we can’t control how and what others receive.

Those are some thoughts…

What do you think?

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“The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information.” ― Tim Berners-Lee

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9 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots – some thoughts on criticism, empathy, blogging, and being human

  1. The anonymity of the web gave me the strength to come forth and write my truths. I garnered enough strength from the replys I got from my posts to parlay enough strength to go out into the real world and speak my truths. I am still reserved but I have gotten a lot better.

    From my personal experiences in life, I believe that most criticisms and complements are agenda driven. Even constructive criticism, what is in it for them to take the time out to help you do better? Maybe they just want you to like them or it could be something else.

    The best is when we get lucky and we can actually connect with a kindred spirit. Those can be so uplifting. It can be so gratifying to be validated.
    (yes I know watch out for those nasty Narcissists!)

    In negative criticism there can always be a thread of truth. It is never really the actual criticism that hurts, it is our perception as to how we choose to interpret it.

    Yes some can be trash talk, but that could be taken as a complement. After all, why do they feel you are so important to spend their time to spew their vitriol on your post?

    Criticism or complements, I willingly take either. It is nice to be noticed. It is so much better that being invisible.

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  2. Your point about not taking criticism personally is so important, and cannot be stressed enough. People put writing out into the world for so many different reasons–to do so many different types of work–and this is as true for comments as for blog posts themselves. If the criticism is from someone working in similar directions to my own writing, then it can be, as you say, a great compliment.
    [Given the number of quotations you use in this piece, I thought you might appreciate Ann Friedman’s “disapproval matrix.” if it’s not something you’ve already seen: http://annfriedman.com/post/49152967734/in-my-ongoing-quest-for-the-perfect-framework-for%5D

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    1. Thank you very much 🙂

      The link is brilliant, lovely post, and love the diagram, especially the bit which includes ‘you’ (as in ourselves) in frenemies, that is humorously true! We are our own best frenemy where criticism is concerned!

      Years ago while reading Dale Carnegie, I was introduced to the concept of ‘constructive criticism’, before that I had only really experienced the destructive side of criticism, that drip, drip, drip, which wears confidence, self-esteem, and many other things which push us to express ourselves, away. So the concept that criticism could be constructive… changed my view of such a thing in a constructive manner.

      I grew up in an intensely critical environment, mostly destructive and negative, so examining and analysing the diverse versions of critique was essential, as well as a much needed coping mechanism. Over the years I’ve learned to value the critical eye, rather than be terrified of it or dismiss it and devalue it in a defensive manner.

      In some ways, criticism, the constructive or the destructive kind, or an ambiguous version in between, is creative friction and a test of our mettle.

      Whenever someone criticises me, I pause before reacting (and accepting the criticism in one form or another) and question the goal of the critique. Is it helpful or harmful, is it helpful to me or is someone else helping themselves in some way, etc. I find that this questioning (which I also do with compliments) balances perspective.

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  3. I love the quote by Tim Berners-Lee: “The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information.” That’s a perfect example of my idealism about cyberspace. My beliefs about sharing-and-caring make me smile today. It has been a long journey.

    The animosity we’ve seen on the web is sad to me (and frightening sometimes!). Reader’s emotions are easily manipulated and people will say and do things they never would face-to-face. I wonder if people are becoming less self-disclosing as time goes on because they’ve either experienced a “trashing” or seen someone trashed? Why do such a cheap thing? Why not take the time to compose a reasoned criticism and engage that person in conversation? Why refer to a blog on another blog so everyone can take that person down? This brutish behavior has always gone on, you are right; it’s just easier to see it with our own two eyes now, because we have access to their clubhouse. I think people are looking for someone/something to criticize, a way to bond as a group. It’s not about communication or understanding.

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    1. Tim Berners-Lee recently discussed the web 25 years on – http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_berners_lee_a_magna_carta_for_the_web – his vision for it then and his vision of it now. It’s very interesting.

      The ideal is there to inspire the reality, and the ideal and reality need to work together rather than fight each other (that’s an ideal, the reality is that fighting is an intrinsic part of the process of creation through friction, often of the opposing sides of a whole).

      I was reading Noam Chomsky’s ‘Understanding Power’ a while ago and in it he spoke of ‘dispelling illusions’, and said:

      “Usually you find out what you think by interacting with people, otherwise you don’t know what you think – you just hear something, and maybe you accept it, or you don’t pay any attention to it, or something like that. You learn about things because you’re interested in the topic, and when it’s the social world, your interest in it often involves… trying to change it, it’s in that context that you learn. And you learn by trying out ideas, and hearing reactions to them, and hearing what other people have to say about the topic, and formulating programs, and trying to pursue them, and seeing where they break down, and getting some experience, and so on and so forth.”

      The web shows us the collective consciousness of our time, it shows us people, the way we are, humans being human, and it allows us to observe others and ourselves, and learn from our observations. Then learn again by putting into action our observations and observing the reactions. Life is a constant creative process with a lot of friction going on in one form or another. The chaos has a natural order to it.

      Thank you for sharing 🙂

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  4. Communication feels like a trap so often, since the emergence of the internet–and yet I think it’s always been that way, it’s just more obvious now! Thanks for another thought-provoking piece

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    1. That’s very true, the internet has opened our eyes to be more aware of what was always there, perhaps because there is more of it and it is easier to observe in this vessel.

      Thank you 🙂

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