Paying attention to and respecting my critical side—my judgment and discrimination—gave me the confidence to actually speak up. It wasn’t easy, though. When you spout some opinion that the people around you are wont to disagree with, you run a risk of getting super defensive, or super argumentative, or apologizing. It took me a while to figure out how to express my contrarian ideas without giving in or succumbing to anyone’s off-topic bait. A few things that really helped were:
1. Clarifying my statements, even if they’re not agreeable.
In one class, we were having a discussion about feminism, and I, of course, had something to say. One of my classmates immediately tried to “translate” for me: “I think she meant to say that feminism is not as powerful now as it was in the 1960s.” Excuse me? If I’d meant that, I would have said that. I didn’t let the misunderstanding go. “No, actually,” I said, “what I meant was what I said: that we have some new territory to cover, but feminism is adapting rather than giving up.” Don’t let someone railroad you or twist your words around. Repeat your thoughts; clarify them if need be. Stand your ground.
2. Practicing shouting, not because you will need to actually shout at people, but because it’s nice to know what your voice is capable of.
It’s weird at first when you notice you’re starting to form an argument or make a criticism; if you’ve never practiced, it can be scary to sound powerful. I find that singing out loud to any of your favorite songs (particularly heavy metal or Robyn) will help you flex your lungs.
3. Learning how to listen.
Part of being pessimistic is that I mostly don’t want to hear what other people have to say. It’s so much easier to just know that I’m right and they’re wrong! Um, obviously this is rude and disrespectful to people. It’s also dangerous—you might be missing out on something really new or important or genius just because you’ve already made your mind up about where the conversation is going. A conversation—even a friendly argument—is not a contest. Don’t try to win. Instead, try to listen; maybe you’ll find yourself being introduced to an exciting new way of thinking, even if you disagree with the main idea that’s being presented to you. If nothing else, you’ll at least have a good conversation, and probably learn a thing or two.
4. Finding some common ground.
Is there something in this conversation that you both agree about? You may be Timberlakian in a sea of Beliebers, but maybe you all like to dance. Or you might disagree about the candidates running for local office, but everyone hates the budget cuts that killed your school’s art and music programs. Find something you can agree on to take the heat off your talk, and work from there.
5. Killing them with kindness.
I pull this trick out of my arsenal when I’m arguing with someone who’s being really aggressive and attacking me. It’s tricky and borderline magical, but being as nice as possible when you feel like ripping someone’s hair out both calms you down and makes them look like a frothing, seething jerk in comparison. Here’s how it works: If you’re in a conversation with someone who is trying to make you cry, just smile and let them finish talking. Then maybe wait a beat before talking again, and start with “Were you finished?” or something that just shines a light on how calm and normal you are right now. As a Professional Feminist©, I’m not trying to silence you or order you to “be nice,” but to put you in a place where you can make the most rational and amazing defense possible. It is ridiculous how well the psychology of this works, but it does, so go with it.
After I dissed that food blog (POACHED EGGS EVERYWHERE WHYYYYY??), the friend who sent it to me told me, sweetly, that she just wanted to be able to share stuff she liked without my tearing it apart. That was a wake-up call. I didn’t want to die alone, spitting criticisms at the TV and my 20 or so cats. So I learned to tone down my disapproval. There’s no reason to give myself a stroke over someone’s talking during a movie or texting in front of me when I’m walking (even though they’re both at least two demerits). The world isn’t going to end because someone on the bus is wearing WAY TOO MUCH Axe Body Spray. And I know that when someone tells me they like something, they’re not asking for a rebuttal from me.
So now I temper my natural negativity a little (which cushions the blow when things turn out for the worse) with a little forced positivity, which lets me at least hope for the best. I’ve trained myself to recognize silver linings: If I go apoplectic over being forced to slow down on the sidewalk, that might be a message that I need to relax a little (maybe yoga’s not the worst idea). If I’m bothered by your perfume on the bus, I can walk to class instead, and then I get to be in the sunshine for a little while.
And a funny side effect comes from this fake optimism: it starts to become real. Or at least thinking positive starts to come more easily. After I’d done it a few times, I found myself worrying less about inconsequential things—like how every design blog assumes I live in a 5,000-square-foot home and not an apartment with a landlord who refuses to let us paint the walls GRRR—and realized that personalities can be just as malleable as moods. You can be critical sometimes, when it serves you (like when you’re making an important decision or speaking up about an issue that you really care about); the rest of the time you can let things roll off your back, without feeling like you’re betraying your true, curmudgeonly self.
When you learn how to be critical in a way that feels good to you, you often also learn how to take criticism, which is pretty crucial to getting by in the world. You’re going to get unexpectedly low grades sometimes, your boss is going to tell you that you’re not working hard enough, or maybe you’re going to put a piece of artwork online that anonymous commenters will rip to shreds. No one is immune from criticism, but it doesn’t have to destroy you. You can see if there’s something about it that’s fair, and work on improving in that area, and ignore the stuff that feels petty and mean.
Eventually I not only read, but made a recipe from, that food blog (minus the poached egg). I watched Girls and thought it was funny, and came to realize that what I was mad about in the first place wasn’t this one funny show by this one smart young woman; I was angry at an industry that doesn’t give funny, smart young minorities the same opportunities.
At its best, being critical will help you hone your taste and focus your limited time on the things you truly love, instead of wasting it on stuff you don’t really care about. But if you’re not careful, your negativism can easily become reflexive, automatic—and that’ll end up closing more doors for you than it opens. Don’t let your good taste deprive you of new experiences and pleasures and ideas just because you’ve found a few things in the world that you know really suck. Stick with your convictions, and be strong in what you say, but keep your ears and heart open for the rest of your life. If nothing else, you’ll just find more things to rail against later. ♦