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What Can Negative Feedback on Your Writing Teach You About Yourself?

Just before the start of my favorite time of the year, summertime, I finished writing my first book, The Gift of Crisis: How I Used Meditation to Go From Financial Failure to a Life of Purpose. Following a brief period of adjustment to having accomplished such a huge undertaking, I planned to bask in the glory of having finished the book, sit outside and watch butterflies fly around me, eat tons of ice cream and then start on a ghostwriting writing project. I was proud of myself, confident, excited, and ready to welcome summer and move on to new projects. I expected the months prior to publication to be a period of calm creative bliss.

This is not what happened.

What did happen was nothing less than shocking, stressful, and yet amazingly revealing.

With anticipation to bring an impactful story to life, I was extremely excited to take on the ghostwriting project. After several meetings, interviews, discussions and thorough conversations, I felt I had a clear understanding of the direction of the book, concepts to address, details pertaining to specific events, and the tools readers would learn from the book.

I began to write the Introduction. After spending a considerable amount of time working on it, I felt good about the first draft. I set it aside and moved onto Chapter 1.

Chapter 1, however, was an entirely different “beast”. There was a lot of information to transcribe, sift through, structure and adequately place within the story, including several events that occurred over a period of time, of which I thought I had in the correct order of sequence.

Unfortunately, the sequence of events in Chapter 1 were not in the correct order. The timeline was completely out of kilter. And when we met to review the first drafts, it was a disaster.

As we sat and began to read through the first drafts, I was ready with ears primed and prepared to hear, “Oh this is wonderful.”

I should have known something was wrong when the silence extended way beyond a normal period of silence.

For the next hour or so, while pages and pages of both the Introduction and Chapter 1 were read with nothing less than shocking dismay and disapproval, all I could do was sit there in silence, with a slightly agape mouth and listen to what was said.

I sat quietly, with the “deer in the headlights” look and listened to the comments and barrage of rhetorical questions:

“Did you read this? Does this make sense to you? Why is this here? What about the other part? Why isn’t that information included? What am I going to do?! How can we possibly fix this?!”

I have never experienced anything like this in my professional life.

Throughout the most uncomfortable professional situation I have ever been in, I sat quietly and responded to the comments and rhetorical questions with poise and calm. I didn’t argue and I didn’t try to defend myself. I respectfully and patiently gave my perspective and explained that I thought the sequence of events were correct.

Despite being completely overwhelmed with the negative response, part of being a professional is to receive feedback in a way that is constructive. I had to quickly get in the right mental and emotional space to look at my work with a critical eye. I thought, ‘Put you big girl pants on, Bridgitte, and get it together.’ Once the sting of the negative response dulled, I listened to e-v-e-r-y single concern and comment with willing attentiveness to honestly contemplate the following questions:

  • Why is this being said about the Introduction?

  • Does this response have merit?

  • Is this substantive criticism?

  • What did I miss to end up to so far away from the goal?

  • What can we do right now?

After sometime things calmed down. I began to make suggestions to address the concerns. As we went through the Introduction, I could see the merits of the negative feedback. I had left out major points that should have been addressed in the Introduction. It was too vague and failed to adequately address key topics in the book.

Roughly seven hours later, we made significant progress to get the sequence of events in order in Chapter 1, and thoroughly reviewed the pertinent points to include in the Introduction.

If you are a writer, it is hard to sit and listen to a response that implies what you’ve written is essentially the worst thing they have ever read, especially if you are a soon-to-be published author. Such a situation can bring up issues surrounding shame, humiliation, criticism and unworthiness — things no one really wants to talk about.

For several years, I have made an effort to continually bridge a spiritual practice with my daily life to achieve self-improvement through a better understanding of myself. I consistently engage in contemplative practices such as: meditation, prayer, journaling, self-introspection and reading. And it is from my spiritual practice that I have learned sometimes the best “teachers” hide in experiences that are the most difficult.

Uncomfortable experiences, like the negative writing feedback, are some of the best experiences for us to learn from. These experiences can bring unresolved wounds and self-sabotaging beliefs to our attention. They can help us make peace with unresolved parts of ourselves and learn something about ourselves.

There was a time in my life when I would have been crushed, absolutely crushed, to be criticized or told I had failed to live up to an expectation. I would have felt a sunken feeling of shame, fear of failure and embarrassment in my abdominal area that led to days of grief and depression. I would have descended into mental chaos telling myself I screwed up, I’m not good enough and that my writing career was over.

Over the course of the years, my efforts to heal and release the emotional reactions I associated with criticism have been one of the most difficult things for me to do.

But on this occasion, criticism was a blessing in disguise.

A few hours later, as I drove home in my car in silence, I noticed the sunken feeling of shame and humiliation that would normally be present during a moment of criticism, or falling short of someone’s expectations simply wasn’t there.

I thought, ‘Well, this is really interesting.’ I smiled to myself and recognized the gift in this writing crisis has shown me I have grown, I have made peace with shame, criticism and humiliation. Making peace means it will no longer cloud my judgment. Instead of internalizing criticism as a personal attack, I can view it for what it is — an opinion that can be met with patience, tolerance, and compassion.

Criticism and negative feedback can hurt, and may initially bruise the prideful side of the small ego. But it should not instill in you a sense of hopelessness for a task that seems beyond your current abilities. It just means you may need to take a different approach, and that’s exactly what I did.

One week, after revisiting both the Introduction and Chapter 1, we worked together to create a much stronger and cohesive Introduction, as well as a perfectly sequenced Chapter 1. It wasn’t easy and it took a considerable amount of work hours and effort, but neither of us gave up. We may have secretly thought about it, but we pushed through.

I’ve been writing for eight years. That means I’ve made a lot of errors, lots of typos and lots of bad writing. In fact, I’ve failed a lot, but I’ve also learned a few things.

Negative feedback is a tool for improvement, not an indicator to define who you are.

If I wrote the Introduction and Chapter 1 to absolute perfection, I would not have realized I have finally quieted the inner voice that says, “You screwed up again. You’re not good enough,” and I would not have realized how resilient I have become. When you make peace with an unresolved part of yourself, you will still encounter trigger situations, difficult professional experiences or challenging creative projects. But if you are willing to change and grow for the better, you will respond differently and address them in new and creative ways. And by responding differently, you will obtain a different outcome.

It is indeed unavoidable that there will be growing pains, and growing pains are not pleasant. But it is from the pains that you will come to see progress has been made.


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