Creativity, Mental Health

Criticism and Trauma, Responsibility and Worth

[Image: illustration of a brain on a white background that is coloured in brown and has words in yellow, orange, and red that read things like: fear, anger, shame, fight, escape, threat, opposition, conflict, criticism, etc.].

CW: ableist language, discussion of childhood trauma, self-worth, and verbal abuse

A question that I constantly grapple with is:

How can I be a responsible writer?

I create a lot of work that is raw and personal. I open up. I express myself. I also get nervous about the ways I express myself. I frequently question my self-expression.

How do I express myself openly and honestly while also remaining responsible and aware of how my words can affect other people? How do I strike that balance between realness and consideration for others? How do I remain considerate while simultaneously not overly censoring myself?

I feel sometimes that I lean towards self-censorship too heavily.

Let me explain. I want to be a responsible creator. I want to express myself while also being considerate of other people’s experiences, not causing harm, and not perpetuating ignorance or oppression. I want to speak to the ways in which I experience oppression and privilege, and all other things. I want to explore the complicated tangle of everything. I want to be honest and raw and real without crossing a line into being ignorant or harmful. But the reality is, I’m a flawed human being. I don’t know everything. There are many ways in which I experience privilege. I strive to be aware of all of them, to understand the perspectives of those who don’t experience the same privileges as I, and to check these privileges at the door. To paraphrase sociologist Michael Kimmel, the insidious nature of privilege is that you often aren’t aware that you have it, or of the extent to which you have it. Unless someone points it out or we go out of our way to learn, our privileges can often remain invisible to us. The dynamics of power and oppression are built into the foundations of society and internalized by us in deep, unconscious ways and it takes ongoing effort to root all of that out.

This work is something I am committed to. It is also always ongoing, which means there will always be more to learn and ways in which I am ignorant. I’m learning and people who are learning screw up. People who are learning miss things, make mistakes, stumble, go slow, doubt themselves, have revelations, get confused, feel overwhelmed, forget, but ultimately keep going. People who are learning can be wrong and can cause harm. People who are learning must remain humble, take their egos out of play, and be open to having their perspectives challenged.

I remind myself of this often as I create. I will screw up. I must remain humble. I have to keep learning.

Fucking up is human. It is inevitable. I know this and yet I am absolutely terrified of it.

A lot has come out recently about “call out” or “cancel” culture in leftist communities. I won’t dive into this messy conversation in this piece because I think there’s plenty better suited to the task and I’m actually looking to explore an adjacent issue here. If you’re interested in critiques of callout/cancel culture, Kai Cheng Thom has written some fantastic stuff on this topic that I would recommend.

I have never been “cancelled”. I’ve never had the following for that. I have been called out, often rightly so, and sometimes… questionably so. As someone who has shared their creations online for several years, I have seen people read things into what I have made I did not put there. I have been accused of making arguments I’ve never made and of believing things I’ve never believed. There have been instances where I’ve felt like my work has been examined under a microscope in the worst possible light, like people have scanned it looking for flaws, imperfections, and potentially problematic aspects without taking it in as a whole, without recognizing that I am a whole, that the person whose work they are about to tear to shreds is a human being capable of feeling things. When this happens, it can be scary. This is in part because my work is often very honest and raw and I already feel vulnerable putting it out there. It’s scary to watch someone pick up that vulnerability and use it as a weapon, aiming it back at me. It’s scary because with that vulnerability, I’ve given them the tools to hurt me. This is especially true when the jump is made from “you’ve said something problematic or ignorant here” to “you are a problematic, ignorant, or bad person”. People can look at my work, which reflects who I am as a person, say that something about it is bad and therefore I am bad.

I’ve also watched this happen to creators I admire on a much larger scale, where thousands of people go from critiquing their ideas to calling for them to be de-platformed, cancelled, or disposed of. I’ve seen critiques of creations turn into attacks on the creators themselves. I’ve seen people’s work be willfully misrepresented, taken out of context, and examined in the worst possible ways. This makes me want to hide. It makes me want to get off social media. It makes me want to stop writing.

It makes me want to silence myself.

I believe that we need to hold each other accountable, but I think that needs to come from a place of helping each other to learn, grow, and do better rather than one-upping, attacking, and disposing of each other. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes, people are genuinely dangerous and not open to learning. I also don’t believe that marginalized people are responsible for gently educating the people who oppress them, but that’s where allies need to step in and step up. Anyway, this stuff has all been talked to death at this point. Like I said, this is not a piece specifically about call out or cancel culture, though these things do factor into how I feel, there’s stuff going on with me internally that I want to explore.

I’m traumatized and mentally ill. I’m in therapy, and this week, my homework is all about looking at “stuck points”. Stuck points are strong beliefs about self, others, or the world that develop as a result of trauma and are not particularly accurate. Part of the work I need to do to heal is to identify and unlearn my stuck points.

When I was four years old, I was joking around with my friends about their dog and called the dog “stupid”. They responded by yelling at me that he wasn’t stupid and that I shouldn’t have said that. I ran upstairs in a flurry of tears and panic. I found my mother and begged her to punish me. I told her that I had done something bad, that I was a horrible person, and that I deserved to be punished. She calmed me down enough to find out what had actually happened. I told her. She refused to punish me, just said I should apologize to my friends and that I wasn’t a bad person. I was surprised to learn this. In my head, having done something wrong and being a horrible person who deserved punishment were the same thing.

I want to say that I have grown beyond that little kid who ran to their mother claiming to be bad and asking to be punished, but that hurt and scared child still exists within me. One of my stuck points, a major one I’ve carried for most of my life, is that I am a bad person. I know, rationally, that this isn’t true, but there is a less rational part of me that holds this belief as though it’s a core aspect of my identity. Accepting criticism and navigating conflict can be very difficult for me. Hearing that I’ve done something wrong immediately makes me think that I am wrong, I am bad, and I deserve to be hurt, punished, or thrown away.

In therapy, I learned that criticism is so scary for me because of my trauma, because I was exposed to belittling, dehumanizing criticism at a very young age. My therapist said there are two types of criticism: 1) “here’s what’s wrong with this and how it could be improved” and 2) “this is a piece of shit”. As a child, I became intimately acquainted with the “this is a piece of shit” form of criticism, so that’s what I hear every time I’m criticized, that I am a piece of shit, and it’s scary. This is something I need to unlearn.

I have a hard time differentiating between constructive criticism and shit-talking criticism.

All criticism feels scary because it all calls my self-worth into question.

I can get really defensive because my brain thinks that accepting the (often valid) critiques of my behaviour means I must also accept that I am bad, worthless, and deserving of punishment. Sometimes, the people critiquing my work are also saying these things about me, which sucks. Often, however, people are not adding that cruel baggage onto their critiques. It’s me who does that.

I can’t control how other people respond to me. I can’t make people who are being cruel be kind. I can’t do much to change the broader culture around “shit-talking” criticism from my tiny platform, aside from refuse to engage in it and focus on constructive critiques of ideas instead. What I can do, however, is work on unlearning the stuck point that tells me that I am bad. If I do this, a few things will happen. One is that I will be able to stand my ground and stand up for myself in situations where people are hurting me. I will no longer gaslight myself, apologize profusely, and beg for forgiveness or punishment. The other is that I will become much better at accepting valid criticism. If accepting critiques of my behaviour or words does not mean having to accept that I am fundamentally bad, if it no longer leaves me feeling panic-stricken, I will be in a much better place to actually respond to valid criticism.

If I can heal from my traumatic childhood experiences with criticism, I can respond better when I cause harm. If I make the shift from “I am fundamentally bad” to “I am fundamentally good,” then fucking up and getting called out isn’t going to be the end of the world. Cause, right now, with the way I am, I don’t think I would survive being cancelled. And that’s going to become a problem if I keep creating and putting my work out there. I am going to be criticized. I need to be able to identify valid, constructive criticism from shit-talking criticism. I need to be able to protect myself and feel fundamentally secure in my basic goodness when people project their shit onto me. I am going to need to be able to hear, process, and accept valid criticism when I screw up, stumble, or act from a place of ignorance. I need to be the mother to the little kid who runs up the stairs claiming to be worthless and begging to be punished. I need to hold their hand, tell them they are not bad and deserving of punishment. I need to tell them to turn around, go back downstairs, listen to the people they’ve hurt, apologize, and try to do better, all without any self-flagellation, all while being secure in the knowledge that they have inherent worth and nothing will change that.

All of these things will help me to better respond to criticism and hold myself accountable, to be the responsible creator I want to be.

Being a responsible creator is not just about striving to do no harm, but correcting the harm you have caused without spiralling into shame and self-abuse, without making it all about you.

I believe we need to have a two-pronged approach to address these issues. The first is to address the issues with how we treat each other in our communities, the social side of things. The second is to address our own baggage. What is your history with receiving criticism? How do you code and respond to it? What about that might need some work? If we do this internal work, that can also help us to navigate the work that needs to be done in our communities.

Does your trauma affect how you receive criticism? Does it impact how you dish our criticism? Have you ever projected your trauma onto someone else? What did that look like?  I think these are important questions for all of us, and they are questions I will continue to ask myself in my life and on my path to figuring out how to be a responsible creator.