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Doubt


Part of life in any group is occasionally overhearing disparaging comments about yourself. I get that. Part of life as a human is learning to keep those comments from getting to you. I get that, too, but like everyone I’m not always good at it.

I’ve been reflecting on this particular thing, because one of the things that bothers me about myself is how very much things people say sometimes bother me (but only sometimes).

Or … well. Not so much when people say things to me. It’s when someone says something about me, but not to me, in a setting in which it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll overhear it.

When someone criticizes me directly, I see it as an opportunity.

At best, it’s an opportunity to learn something.

This is undoubtedly one of the best lessons you learn in the ballet studio: criticism gives you room to grow (and means that your instructor or director hasn’t completely given up on you ^-^’). Ideally, it should be offered constructively, but even if it’s excessively blunt, it’s still useful information.

I mean, sure, sometimes it’s mortifying to realize that you’ve been doing something wrong for, like, six years. But it’s still useful. You can’t really improve ballet technique—or, for that matter, anything else—unless someone helps you identify your mistakes. Or, well, you probably can improve, but it’ll probably also take a lot longer.

At worst, direct criticism reflects a misunderstanding. If someone says to me, “Jeez, why don’t you pay attention?” I can tell them, “I have trouble processing language, and sometimes when I’m trying to understand what someone just said I pretty much literally don’t hear anything else for a while.” Or I can say, “Oh, yeah, I totally zoned out, didn’t I? Ack! Sorry about that.” (True story: I caught myself zoning out during barre this morning. It was a rough morning, brain-wise.)

When I was in sixth grade, a kid in my class stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Why are you so stuck up?” It was blunt and awkward as hell, but it was also useful information. I was, in fact, horribly shy (I still am), not to mention stiff and formal (both of which were partly neurology and partly social inexperience). I didn’t realize that I came across as stuck up.

I was so flummoxed that I basically answered, “Um?”

The same year, another classmate told me I talked like a robot.

Neither was exactly subtle, and I initially found both pretty confusing: but those comments helped me realize that what I felt on the inside wasn’t what people saw on the outside (which, admittedly, took a long time). They were blunt, but they weren’t meant to be mean.

Even as the least socially-savvy kid in my class, I’d seen enough of intentional meanness to know what it looked like. It was pretty clear in both cases that the classmates in question were just trying to figure stuff out; trying to put things into words. As someone who struggles with spoken language, I also knew how hard putting things into words could be, and how sometimes that can make you sound pretty blunt.

In short, even if it’s blunt, direct criticism can be helpful (if it couldn’t, nobody would ever survive growing up in New England in the first place).

Sometimes even when people do intend their words to be mean and hurtful, they still manage to say something helpful in the process.

If someone says to me, “Oh my G-d, you’re such a fuck-up. How are you so bad at petit allegro?!”[1] I could potentially still say, “I know, I suck at it, don’t I? I’m not entirely sure what’s up with that, like it gets worse sometimes and then gets better sometimes, but I’m working on it. If you notice anything specific, could you let me know?”

  1. I don’t think anybody has actually ever said this to me, though it’s entirely possible that people have said it about me because I have definitely said it about myself. But this is definitely not a real-life example of something someone has lobbed at me in an excessively blunt way or of something I’ve overheard.

Criticism overheard is something else.

It suggests to me that the person doing the criticizing either doesn’t think it’s worth their time of day to speak to me directly, is just one of those people who says things without really thinking, or maybe just isn’t particularly brave about criticizing people.

Either way, it doesn’t offer the same opportunities. Like, yes, if someone makes a specific comment (“OMG, why doesn’t Asher ever pay attention?”), I can take it as a reminder: Hey, you might’ve blinked out for a sec there; you might want to make sure you are paying attention. But it also rankles.

Moreover, sometimes people say things in ways that are mean, and that you can’t do anything about, and they do so in contexts in which you can’t defend yourself without either being a giant jerk or possibly making things worse, and then you’re just stuck with it.

I don’t know if it bothers me more when I suspect that I’m intended to overhear such comments or when I suspect that I’m not intended to.

I don’t know if it really matters.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to discuss someone’s shortcomings with a third person. Sometimes you have to, in order either to figure out how to talk to the person you’re criticising or, if you’re in a position that makes talking to that person impossible, to blow off steam.

It is not, however, in particularly good taste to do so where the person in question is likely to overhear you. And it’s just plain rude to do so intentionally.

But that alone doesn’t explain why sometimes that kind of comment really, really stings.

But this, for me, does: it occurred to me recently that comments I overhear only really bother me when they concern some area in which I already feel unsure of myself.

So that brings us back to doubt.

I don’t imagine that I’ll reach a point in my life at which I don’t wrestle with doubt. I’m not sure that I—or anyone—should.

But there’s reasonable, healthy doubt—the doubt that keeps us humble—and the kind of soul-sucking doubt that grinds down on us and makes it so, so much harder to do the things we’re trying to do.

I’ve spent a lot of this year wrestling my doubt. Sometimes, that’s made it much harder for me to learn: nothing blocks your brain like a good dose of nerves, and nothing makes you nervous like doubt.

I don’t have any groundbreaking insights to add, here.

Doubt is hard. It’s particularly hard when it’s at least partially grounded in reality: when you know how much ground you have to make up, and you’re not really sure if you’re succeeding in that respect.

I can say this, though: pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t even make it easier to grit your teeth and get through it.

The best response I’ve found for my doubt is to give voice to it: to talk to someone who has a clearer head, and who knows both my weaknesses and my strengths, and who can help me discern how much of my doubt is justified and how much isn’t.

Some days, it’s better. Some days, it’s worse. Some days, despite all the things that should move it towards the “better” end of the spectrum, someone says something—about me, but not to me—that just shoots it right back to the Consuming Doubt end of the spectrum.

One of the firmest tenets of my upbringing was this: if you can’t bring yourself to say something to someone’s face, you don’t say it where they can hear you. Ever.

Its corollary goes, “…And if you are going to say something to someone’s face, at least try to say it the way you’d want to hear it, because sooner or later you’re going to be the one on the receiving end.”

The corollary is easy enough to understand.

I don’t know that I’ve given a lot of thought in the past to the first bit: it was just something that got built into my personal code of ethics. I never gave much thought to the why.

So maybe this is the why: everyone has doubts. Everyone has weak spots.

As for me, I will continue to sit with mine, even when it’s hard; to talk to people whose reliable good sense helps keep my compass from spinning off magnetic north; and to try to keep my big mouth shut.

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