The higher you climb, the more people try to tear you down. It’s difficult in the first place to achieve something, but you never realize that when you do you will be set with a whole new problem – endless criticism from other people, hateful remarks, or not belonging anymore. Part of the reason people often stay where they’re comfortable is the very real loneliness that happens when you change your behaviors. People in your life are accustomed to you being in a certain role and when you challenge that role it forces them to do two things – change their own actions, and acknowledge their own shortcomings. That’s why a lot of relationships fail after one person decides to in some way better themselves, and why a lot of people have a hard time changing behaviors they know are a problem.
I was watching the Sopranos (great show for therapists!) and thinking about how Christopher’s character struggles to get off drugs and alcohol after his friends and family stage an intervention for him. He goes to rehab, works the steps, and makes a huge effort to get sober only to have the same friends and family endlessly make fun of him for his sobriety and bait him into drinking. When he does take a drink, they mock him even more because he can’t handle his liquor and his relapse confirms to them that he’s just a drunk junkie after all. He sits in an AA meeting one day and tells the group that he’s missing out on jobs he could get because he doesn’t hang around drinking with the guys, and his boss gets annoyed with him for not being around as he thinks he’s better than them.
This character so well illustrates what I’ve seen in my own life and with clients. You’re punished for a behavior (whether it be overeating, drinking, not having a good job or education) and then punished again when you try to fix the behavior and stumble along the way because you haven’t fixed it perfectly enough. If you don’t stumble, or don’t show it, you’re punished for thinking you’re better than everyone else. The sad reality is that when you push yourself to do better, you make yourself visible in that you’ve acknowledged something in your life needs to change. That visibility makes you a target for people who are insecure or unable to make the kinds of changes you’re making, and they choose to soothe their discomfort with that knowledge by finding ways to bring you down.
I was always a good student but never very competitive, I just liked learning and was curious about the world which tended to result in good grades. I’m much more driven now but I wasn’t when I was in undergrad. I learned French in high school because it was fun, and I ended up testing into the highest level in college so I was younger than most of my classmates. I was excited to learn more and nervous to be in the harder class, but after a few weeks I wanted to drop because of how other people would correct me every time I spoke. Anyone who’s learned another language (or anything challenging, for that matter) knows that the only way you can actually learn it is when you keep trying. You have to make mistakes to learn. I was grateful I had a French friend who helped me – he criticized me a lot but he’s the reason I’m fluent today. However his criticism was a different kind – he corrected me because he wanted me to learn. When we speak French in front of other people, he’ll only give me the word if I ask him. He told me bluntly he couldn’t understand me at all sometimes, but he didn’t try to embarrass me on purpose or stop me from talking. There’s a difference between criticism that comes from a helpful place and that which comes from a jealous, cruel place.
I’m writing about this because I had a hard time finding mentors these last few years and I wish someone would have prepared me for this happening, to tell me it’s normal and it’s actually part of the process of achieving goals. I had a lot of people I thought could be my mentors who actually were too insecure to do this, and spent time cutting me down. I wasted so much time listening to those people and thinking that I really couldn’t do the things they said I couldn’t do, that I wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have “what it takes”. Once I started to see that it was their own insecurity and not my inability, I reacted by becoming angry. Whenever someone would criticize me I’d say to myself, well, that person is clearly a useless jerk who has nothing better to do (sometimes this is true re: the internet…) and sometimes I’d even tell them that. Of course then I started to get told that I was “aggressive,” “arrogant” and a “know-it-all”, word which I believe high-achieving women should wear as badges of honor. I have a poem of Cyrano de Bergerac’s on my computer’s desktop that summarizes how I feel about those kinds of comments:
Watching you other people making friends
Everywhere—as a dog makes friends! I mark
The manner of these canine courtesies
And think: “My friends are of a cleaner breed;
Here comes—thank God—another enemy!”
But this is madness!
Method, let us say.
It is my pleasure to displease. I love
Hatred. Imagine how it feels to face
The volley of a thousand angry eyes—
The bile of envy and the froth of fear
Spattering little drops about me—You—
Good nature all around you, soft and warm—
You are like those Italians, in great cowls
Comfortable and loose—Your chin sinks down
In to the folds, you shoulders droop. But I—
The Spanish ruff I wear around my throat
Is like a ring of enemies; hard, proud,
Each point another pride, another thorn—
So that I hold myself erect perforce.
Wearing the hatred of the common herd
Haughtily, the harsh collar of Old Spain,
At once a fetter and—a halo! (II.438-459)
Of course Cyrano de Bergerac is only a one-sided role model in this case – he himself is highly insecure and though he can fight and hold his own with the best of them, he finds himself undeserving of love. His Gascogne bravado has a weakness in that he can’t let anyone in. So I also have to realize that reacting in anger to criticism, though sometimes is a tool of self-preservation, isn’t always healthy as it shuts out legitimate growth. When I get told criticism, I feel a little Cyrano flare up but I have to quiet him to hear the truth in what’s being said, even if it’s from someone I don’t respect, because not taking feedback is the hallmark of an emotionally immature person.
I see this is a place for growth that I still have, because lately no matter what I do it seems to get heat from some direction, especially trying to grow my brand and business, putting myself out there online has been a whole new realm of criticism. I commend people who have actual fame on the internet because just the little posting and blogging I do gets so much dissent about random errors that some days I don’t want to bother at all. I’m lucky now to have built a group of people that are supportive and secure enough in their own lives that they can celebrate success when other people have it, and also honor the struggle that comes with it. Those people are the ones I lean on when the criticism gets to be too much – and also the ones whose opinions I value the most.