Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Sep 2020, 11:27 a.m.

On Accepting Nonzero Criticism, Even Hate

I'm thinking about how acceptance is not the same as resignation.

I was talking with a friend many, many months ago, and race stuff came up. He and I talked about a shared experience of talking to a stranger who has a marginalized identity, and having an anxious "don't [screw] this up, don't [screw] this up" voice in the back of one's head during the interaction. And one thing he said was that he doesn't want anyone to hate him.

And I found myself articulating something that I don't know whether I had before, which is: the optimal number of people who hate you is not zero, and if you aim for zero, you will never have that expectation met.

There will be good and bad things that happen to you that you do not in any way deserve (and "deserve" is a pretty dangerous word to let oneself use anyway along with "somehow" and "normal"). And so, sometimes, other people will be angry at you or hate you, and sometimes it's because of a specific thing you did, or because of your inherited unearned privilege or your position of power in an organization, and sometimes it's kind of out of nowhere because people get mad sometimes.

I think I have to be okay with the fact that, out of the 8 billion people on Earth, some of them kind of hate me. And then if I run into it, it's not a catastrophic surprise. It feels bad but I can have a bit of a windshield about it so the mud doesn't all get right on my face. As of a couple years ago, the place I ran into this the most was when I was called on my own cissexism or I saw "all cis people" complaints/generalizations -- the first time, it felt awful, and as of about a year ago, it just felt a little bad, mostly. As of right now, I think I'm most thin-skinned about whether or not I am doing okay at my job. Next year it'll be something else.

This kinda comes back to: you can only control what you can control. My friend and I can aim to live our values and to consider criticism we receive, and to deal with the unfair criticism the way we deal with any other unfair bad thing that happens to us, and to bask in and enjoy good things and share them with others.

And this is one reason it's useful to celebrate those small invisible wins, including "I refrained from saying something unnecessarily inflammatory" or "I quietly got a job description changed", because then you have a bit more evidence that can help you deal with the "oh no what if there is someone out there who can't tell that I am Trying" anxiety. This is, I think, especially pertinent now, during the pandemic, when more of us are cut off from talking in person, so it's harder to get those little reassurances that we are liked, valued. (This also applies to a lot of wanting-to-be-liked-as-a-manager/vendor/client stuff I see or engage in.)

I don't have a quantified error budget for this kind of error and I'm not sure it makes sense to. But, like Amandine Lee, I want to fine-tune my fear response so that it serves me better, and part of that is accepting that nonzero rate of criticism.

That acceptance can be used as cover for entirely disregarding pushback -- a purity binary, a false dichotomy. I don't want to do that. Acceptance is not the same as resignation. I want to instead believe, and act as though, the error rate is nonzero, and will always be nonzero, but I can push to drive it asymptotically closer to zero.

But also I am kind of okay with the fact that, even on a day when I've lived my values, someone may hate me, and may lob an unfair criticism at me. Not all the way okay. But kind of okay with it, and aiming to be more okay with it.

Which for me is all tied up with, like, self-trust, emotional security, and a belief in the idea that I am fundamentally okay and can also change my mind about things in the future, that there is going to be a future, and so on. And that since I believe in, to quote the Unitarian Universalist principles, "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" .... that includes me, now and after I learn whatever I learn next.