How do you feel about critique? Is it useful to you, at least some of the time, or do you find it painful, even unsettling? (That should be the other way round — unsettling, even painful.) Yes! And that’s the kind of critique I give myself regularly, and which I’m reasonably comfortable receiving — critique on language, syntax, effectiveness of words packed together to create a particular kind of experience and meaning.
I wonder if it’s a confidence factor. Maybe? I’m comfortable with my own facility with language, I know what I like, what effect I’m aiming for, and I’m willing to try and try and try again to test out possibilities. I’m familiar with my limitations and I like what I can do with words. There’s an intrinsic pleasure to playing with language, and critique is necessary — if it’s provided in a spirit of kindness, of support, of interest, of acceptance. What matters to me may not be what matters to someone else, when it comes to writing. I admire so many different genres and styles, voices and techniques. Critique works when we’re playing together, when we like and admire each other’s unique gifts, when there is an equal exchange of energies. (A phrase I only recently learned, and which seems to speak to a core need within me.)
I just opened and read the student evaluations from the course I taught this winter. I’ve been putting it off. This is critique that I believe is necessary and important and valuable. So I read it. And now I feel like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. The silly thing is that the bulk of the comments and assessments (all anonymous) were extremely positive. Of course not everyone clicked with what I was offering — that’s understandable, reasonable. Not everything is for everyone. There were some suggestions for improvements, almost all of which I do not disagree with. But here’s the thing: I feel like a total failure. That’s my gut response. The shame sandwich bloats me with self-pity and fear. Why would I ever dream of teaching again? Cut and run, pull the parachute, jump ship — that’s my gut instinct.
I don’t always know what will send me spiralling.
I have not found a way to solve this particular problem. Is it a character flaw, a bug in the system, the way that I’m wired? I’ve tried therapy, I’ve tried journalling. I put myself out in public again and again, and almost ask for it — for critique. And then I don’t know what to do when it arrives.
Even good news.
Even compliments, I reject, I wobble on the inside. This can’t be right, I think.
But here’s something curious and unexpected: I’ve found a job that I can do without eating a shame sandwich every day that I do it. At this job, I feel competent, capable. I like myself when I do this job. I’m busy and useful, and sometimes even a little bit bored, but I feel surprisingly joyful.
Do you need joy in your work? I do. Nibbling on a joy snack is way more nourishing than eating a shame sandwich. Every day that I do this job, I experience joy. I’m not sure what that means, I’ll be honest. This wasn’t a job that I set out to do, ever. I never once dreamed of or even considered doing this job, till I started doing it, and every day I am glad that I gave myself permission to try something so different from what I’d expected to do, unhitched from ambition, out of the spotlight, the kind of job that should pay better, but because it’s caring work, it isn’t honoured or rewarded in that way. Reminds me of coaching soccer or looking after small children. And I just love doing it.
I love being the calm grounded centre in a storm of activity. I love being surrounded by noise and bustle and in the midst of all this tending to a stream of needs. I do this work and I never ever eat a shame sandwich while doing it because I know deep down that I’ve done my best, and I forgive myself instinctively for lapses or forgetting or dropping a ball somewhere. I love doing work for which there is no way — exactly — to prepare, you just need to dive in. I don’t have to be an expert. (I don’t want to be an expert, and have never ever felt like one, which may factor into why those critiques of my teaching strike home; why would I dare to teach if I’m not an expert? Shame sandwich, here I come.)
At this job-job, this work I’ve been doing since November, critique is almost an irrelevant term. Talking things through, debriefing, considering alternative routes or responses, sharing tips and resources — that’s useful, and it doesn’t feel like critique because it comes from a place of support and mutuality. I’ve never had a job like this before; I’ve mostly worked solo, self-employed or contract by contract. I hadn’t appreciated before now how much harder it is to work like that — alone. Working solo, any support system has been of my own devising; debriefing is scattered and requires explaining the situation to others who weren’t directly involved; there’s less direction, less of a sense of belonging. You know? If you work solo, contract to contract, self-employed, I’m guessing you know.
Okay, my blog platform is kind of dying here, on my dying ancient laptop, so I’m going to sign off without a proper ending. Just know that joy snacks are out there. And you might just find joy in something you’ve never considered trying before.