I Got a Mean Email (or, Three Reasons Criticism Might Be Bothering You Too Much)


I received a mean email last week. I know. Gasp. I actually don’t get very many of them, especially considering the fact that I blog about religion from time to time. It’s the religion blog posts that bring out the angry in a lot of people, but the crowd that hangs out here is so graceful with me and my questions, my searching. Thanks for that.

But this mean email I got wasn’t in response to my faulty theology. The basis of her criticism wasn’t the fact that our family homeschools (I sometimes hear that, and I actually understand that criticism) or that by living in the city we subject our children to a dangerous environment (I’ve gotten that one, too). Her criticism was much more intense.

She focused on my grammar.

I actually get a handful of emails a year from kind people who point out a grammar or spelling mistake here at the blog, and I appreciate those. Usually it is a simple oversight on my part, but occasionally it is a grammar rule I’ve always gotten wrong or long forgotten, so it’s nice to learn something new. This is me saying I welcome your feedback. If you’re nice.

But the email I got last week was different. She insinuated that I must not know very much about writing, that I demonstrate carelessness, and that most 3rd graders wouldn’t make the mistake that I made. She is either someone who is completely tone deaf in how she writes, or she simply enjoys trying to make people feel small.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. Because it’s not even the point. The point is something very different. The point is this:

Why did her criticism bother me so much?

She’s a complete stranger. She’s not someone who I’m trying to impress, like the editor of a major publishing house or my literary agent (shout out to Ruth!). She’s not a family member or a friend whose opinion I value.

Why, oh, why, did her email make me crazy?

I have three suggestions.

1 – Her criticism involved a new venture, something I’m doing for the first time, and so her words struck a part of me that is already a little tender, a little unsure, and a little hesitant. The dastardly mistake I made was in the newsletter I sent out about an upcoming writers’ course Bryan Allain and I are creating. I know, right? A grammar mistake in the announcement I’m sending out…ABOUT A WRITERS’ COURSE. *sigh* These things happen, apparently. Anyway, I’m super excited about offering the course, but I’m also nervous. (You can sign up to get more details about the course HERE.)

Whenever we’re trying something new, I think we need to be aware that we’ll probably be a little more sensitive to criticism than we usually are. This is okay, but it should also inform our response. We should probably take a few days before replying. Trust me. And if the criticism isn’t said in a nice way and comes from a stranger, the best thing you can do is delete it.

2 – Her criticism pinpointed an area I already know is weak. I am not a grammarian, never have been. It’s just not interesting to me. That said, I know it’s important, and I learn every chance I get. Every time I’ve written a book and worked with an editor, I’ve learned a lot. I’m improving, but I know it’s a weakness.

I think that when people criticize us in areas we know to be weak, a great response might be to simply nod and smile, because our response to their critique will probably be out of proportion.

3 – I have an inflated desire to be liked by everyone. Everyone. Yes. Everyone. Actually, this particular email was a gift, because it has reminded me that not everyone will be on board with what I do, not everyone will support me or point out my flaws in a kind way. And that’s okay! It’s the world we live in.

What kind of criticism bothers you the most? How do you handle it? Any pointers for me?

20 Replies to “I Got a Mean Email (or, Three Reasons Criticism Might Be Bothering You Too Much)”

  1. I used to be that way (everyone MUST like me). Then I had a psych professor say, “If you’re not ticking someone off at some point in your life, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

    I’ve always loved that :)

    Keep it up, Shawn. You’re doing great!

  2. This is a great post, Shawn. Very helpful for me with my writing – but also with just living and breathing. I tend to be a bit over-sensitive so it’s tough to be objective. I really do want to learn from criticism, but I also need to learn not to accept condemnation and false guilt.

    I also appreciate your words about how you do appreciate hearing about errors that can be fixed. I am definitely a nerd – about grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. That makes me a great proofreader, but I choose to set that tendency aside most of the time. When I read stuff from people that I know enough to think they might like a heads-up, I agonize over whether to say anything. Usually I choose not to, but I always wonder if that’s best.

    Hey, maybe you could do another post – from that angle. You know, the kinds of criticisms that are welcome and the method of delivering it… Naw; probably not.

    Bottom line: I continue to appreciate your posts on so many levels. You have been an inspiration to me in my writing, but also in daring to challenge my own thinking. I have learn so much from you about life and freedom and becoming who I am meant to be. Really. You are on my short list.

  3. The editor in me is especially nitpicky about errors in books or posts about writing. I wish that didn’t bother me so much. But to keep me humble, I usually turn around and post something on Facebook or Twitter with a typo, so it all balances.

    1. Get off my case, Lisa! Just kidding. I ALWAYS find that when I’m overly critical of something, I make the same mistake soon after that.

  4. I think the criticism that is hardest for me to take is when a commenter doesn’t address anything I wrote, specifically, but assassinates my character instead. I guess the logic is, “What you wrote offends me, so I will wound you.” When you’ve been called “the devil” because you addressed multi-level marketing in a negative way, you know that there’s something crazy going on. I try to accept criticism about my writing with openness and humility, because I can see the love behind the person trying to make me better at what I do or how I see. But when I encounter the detractors who come swinging words like swords, I feel at peace with forgiving and with time, forgetting what they said.

  5. I try to be open to criticism if it is instructive and meant to be constructive. Criticism wielded any other way says nothing about the person at which it is aimed, but everything about the person saying it. It’s so hard, but I just try to let it go.

  6. Let it go. Let it go. If a person is coming at you from an angle of truly wanting to help and inform they wouldn’t have put that “three year old” remark in there. This was not a kind-hearted person.
    Feel a little sorry for them and their need and move on.

  7. Sounds like that one hurt, Shawn. I’m sorry. Such things always hurt me, although I usually struggle to say so. Why we want to hurt one another, especially in the name of correct grammar…I don’t know.

    1. It’s definitely reinforced my desire to be kind. A corrective but encouraging email in that moment would have made us friends for life.

  8. We need to toughen you up.

    Most people are morons. Writing is about emotion. Who cares about the rules. Rules change. If you can make someone feel, I don’t care about anything else.

    The rule people are the worst. Like an angry librarian who doesn’t like children.

    I’m keeping my language G rated out of respect for you. But otherwise….

  9. I am sensitive to criticism when I try be helpful. I am a dreamer and I tend to come up with grand plans that are often meant to help others. I often get negative comments about my plans. For a while, I stopped dreaming but not any more.
    I am a child of God and his is the only support I need!

  10. I know exactly how you feel. I am hard on myself, especially when the weaker areas are pointed out and put out there in a more public forum. I have always been drawn to individuals who I think are smarter than me, intelligent people. I envy their cognitive abilities and marvel at their wit. However, a friend once said to me, “Iris, stop focusing on what you DON’T know and put more emphasis on what you DO know.” So now, when I go down that path, I try to rely on the strengths and not the weaknesses. It’s all about perspective and which glasses you choose to wear. :)

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