A couple of months ago my friend’s mother committed suicide.
She had struggled her whole life with mental health problems – at least that’s what my friend decided to tell herself, as her mother had constantly humiliated her throughout her childhood. The emotional abuse didn’t stop when my friend became an adult either, so at one point she decided to estrange herself from her. When her mother killed herself they hadn’t talked for more than ten years. My friend recalled the last time she’d tried to call her, and how her mother had hung up on her, telling her not to call her again. That was it.
Before she killed herself, her mother sold her house and spent all her money, which was plenty. She didn’t leave a single penny to my friend, who was struggling financially, or to her grandchildren. Nothing.
In her will she expressly disinherited her daughter but, surprisingly, she left a letter for her.
This is what my friend did.
She asked a good friend to read the letter and tell her if there was anything important in it that she needed to know. Her friend read it and said: “Nothing at all.” To which my friend replied “Then put it in the bin.”
I applaud her.
Not falling into the trap of wanting to know what others think about us when their opinion doesn’t matter is an act of courage.
In Madeleine Albright’s memoirs, Madam Secretary, she recalls a difficult time as Secretary of State to the Clinton administration:
“My personal confidence level was down. I saw myself as an activist Secretary but often felt like I was spinning my wheels. My honeymoon with the media had developed into at best a rocky marriage. My natural proclivity to discount praise and magnify criticism was kicking in.”
Tom Pickering, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the time, guessing what she was going through, sent her a note saying
“What we are being pilloried for is the failure to bring to conclusion a number of works in progress. But diplomacy isn’t instant coffee.”
Sometimes people criticise your work because they consider it the only possible truth about you. They identify the person with the work.
A couple of weeks ago I received some unsolicited feedback from a post I’d published on social media. I had to read it three times because I couldn’t come to terms with what this person, who I knew, had written.
I went into the typical spiral of “how dare he?” ( indignant), “this is what he deserves” (revenge), “maybe he’s right?” (self-doubt), “I’m going to tell everybody” (naming and shaming), “I’m going to answer this and show him he’s wrong” (trying to convince). Until eventually I thought “Who cares?”
That’s what that person thinks about me. But I’m not here to please people. I’m doing my work with empathy, respect and courage, to the best of my ability.
My work is not instant coffee, and nor is yours.
When people start judging you for a sentence, a post or a comment, consider putting their comments in the bin.
Good communication doesn’t mean you need to respond to people who want to undermine you because they don’t like your work.
Always engage in disagreement with respect, and don’t make it personal.
And if somebody makes it personal, don’t be afraid of disengaging from them until you’re sure you can connect with them positively, as Mary Beard did when she was called a “filthy old slut," and ended up writing a job recommendation for the guy who’d insulted her because she thought no one should suffer long-term for “one moment of idiocy."
Being committed to better conversations doesn’t mean you need to engage with every single one.
Not responding to hurtful personal comments can be a way showing that you understand that moments of idiocy are universal. You have them, and I have them.
In the meantime, remember, there’s work to do.
Stick to what matters.
Picture by Anne Nygård