A few years ago, my son played in a music recital at the school where he took guitar lessons. At age seven, he was playing a Pink Floyd song with fingering so complex it made my head spin just watching his little fingers attempt it. He played incredibly well, though there was a stretch where he got lost. Afterward grownups and fellow kids alike came over and told him how much they liked it. I noticed, however, that he seemed down. "What is it?" I asked. Face glum, he shrugged me off. Later that night, however, as I was tucking him into bed, I tried again, as he is often most forthcoming when we are in-medias-cuddle.
"You were so great today," I said. "Aren't you proud of yourself?"
He shook his head. No.
"Why not?" I asked.
He sighed. "When I messed up," he said at last, "the kid in the front row laughed at me."
"Oh sweetheart!" I said, squeezing him tight. "At least ten people today told you how well you played. But what you remember is the one rude kid who laughed at your only mistake." And then I added: "I totally do that too." We stayed up awhile talking about how easy it is to believe the negative, and how hard it is to receive and absorb praise. He went to bed feeling better, but it took a lot of coaxing, and cuddling, to get him there.
Last week, this exchange with my son came powerfully to mind. But this time, the little kid fixated on one critical comment in the midst of a gratifying amount of praise was none other than...me.
Yes, I finally got feedback on my novel. And almost all of it was good. (Yay!) Except for the one that wasn't. (Boo.) This response contained the classic "But as much as I wanted to love this manuscript..." line, a line I bet anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript has heard before. In the end, the yays outweighed the boos. But despite all my best efforts at mothering myself, all I could think was: everyone who has told me my novel good is wrong, and this woman, who must be smarter and more honest than the rest, is right. (It didn't help that she is one of the most well-respected fiction agents in New York.)
Why am I so insecure? I thought. Why is it so easy for me to believe criticism unquestioningly, but so hard to credit praise?
After a little googling inspired by a friend, however, I was soon relieved to find that this tendency was not just an ignominious character flaw my son and I shared. It is a fundamental part of how we, as humans, are wired. On this point, the research is fairly unanimous: to believe the negative is human; to believe praise, divine. (Or at least really a lot harder.)
For an excellent summary of the science, I highly recommend the 2012 NYT article "Praise is Fleeting, But Brickbats We Recall." The headline says it all, but the specifics are fascinating. We tend to think people who say critical things are smarter than people who say positive things. We use a different brain hemisphere to process negative or threatening input, and obsess about it longer. "Bad impressions and bad stereotypes," read a quoted journal article titled "Bad Is Stronger Than Good", "are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”
So what to do? Well if you are a boss, consider only dispensing one critical comment at a time, preferably sandwiched between four good ones. If you are a parent, consider helping your children develop the skills to process criticism more productively. And if you are a writer, aka someone who sends little naked pieces of her still-beating heart sailing on flimsy rafts down torrents of critical feedback from perfect strangers who care for her neither as an employee, a child, or, it sometimes seems, as a fellow human being, don't forget to send your manuscript to your mom. (Provided, like my mom, she will say things like "It's such a joy to know you are creating something so lovely and such fun." If she's the other kind of mom, steer clear.) And/or to send your baby to other people you trust, who care not just about your work, but about you and the impact their words have on you -- people who don't just yell all the reasons your raft will sink from a safe place on shore, but who will jump right on and help you make it sail.
To be continued...in part two: It isn't just about tuning out the negative and turning up the positive. As writers, how do we learn to accept criticism in a way that doesn't defeat us, but makes us, and our writing, stronger?