Bicycle in a Box: Receiving Criticism Without Losing Myself

A bicycle comes in a box. A big brown box. When it’s emptied, the pieces scatter the drive. The bolts and screws and mini-wrenches fill the crevices. You wait patiently for your father to put it together. As he does, he explains everything to you, as fathers do. It is his job to impart wisdom. You cannot stop him from it. So, he says, “See how the chain circles around the gears? And when you change the gears on the handle bars, the chain switches from here to there and lightens the load, making it easier to pedal. The larger gear works in conjunction with the smaller gear to…” And you think… How do I remember that? My hand, the switch, the chain, the pedal… The escalating dread takes over your breathing. When the moment comes that the bike is supported in his hands and he coaxes you to climb into the seat and be propelled across the drive. You take a few steps back. Uncertainty turns to doubt. Doubt to fear. And you say, “I’m okay… where’s mom!”

Life can be like that. Instructions can overwhelm. The excitement of trying a new thing can be squelched before it can fly. Those inner voices of uncertainty, doubt, fear… failure can steal the delight of the experience very quickly. And we forfeit the joy.

As a writer, this happens daily. When I began to write, no one knew. My fingers flew over the keys creating a world all for me. Creativity flew. Characters breathed. Life came to life on the pages, and I soared with it. Until my first critique group: “You write in fragments. Get rid of passive voice. Use action beats more. Nice alliteration.” Alliteration?

Instruction is good, right? That’s how we grow. We weave the vine and prune the orchard. We teach, train, model, coach, tutor, and direct. We can be on the giving end, or on the receiving. Sometimes, unfortunately, what is meant to encourage and move us forward, finds a chink in our armor and can wound us, and we slink back.

Generally, It’s not the instruction that is the problem (at least not always). The problem is me. Sometimes I hear it and say, “Okay, that’s helpful. I’ll take that piece and apply it where it fits, where I can grow from it.” Other times, and more often than not, the instruction comes the exact way, yet I say to it, “I have failed. I am not good enough to do this. I will never measure up to that.”

The instruction hasn’t changed one jot or stroke, but the message has. And in that message, we stumble and sometimes we fall and never get back up. We forfeit the joy in the shadow of self-condemnation and fear.

How do we do it then? How do we receive instruction or criticism without losing ourselves in it? If you are like me, it can be a daily, moment by moment challenge. But here is what I’ve learned: 

1. Understand the Informant

Not all of us have passed Critiquing 101. Not all of us have learned to sandwich the tidbit of negative inside the hoagie roll of positive. Some of us give “constructive feedback” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s what we do, or think we need to do. Sometimes this feedback flows from a jaded heart, or a broken esteem. It is less about the receiver than about the giver. The message is not pure. It has been tainted. The challenge for all of us is never to use criticism of others to find value in ourselves. But many of us do that, right? If you are a little stupider, I’m a little smarter! It has a funny way of building us up. If we’re on the receiving end, this can be confusing, can’t it? We take in a person’s judgment without boundary. Without examination. Carte Blanche. The whole shebang. And we allow it to have great impact. Fair warning… minus scripture, the instruction may be flawed. Not all together wrong, necessarily, but a little bent. Which leads me to point number two…

2. Extract the Useful

As they say in writing, “Chew the fat, leave the bones.” That always provokes too much imagery for me, but its message is good. Take what works, leave the rest. Sometimes that’s hard when one negative can undo ten positives. When that one plays over and over in our mind and it’s all we hear. Wrong thing to chew on, right? But we all do it. And worse, we give it the power to define us.

We need to remember that people come from many journeys. These journeys have challenged them, grown them, distorted them, molded them to see things just a little bit different than we might see them. This is good. We learn from each other. But it can also be difficult. The shoes they’ve worn cannot be worn exactly by someone else. Each voice is unique. In writing, we call this the author’s voice (makes sense ;). My voice is my own. So, give me feedback, and I will strive to hear what will help me grow without changing my voice. Without changing those things that make me uniquely me. Which leads to my third point... and the most important one...

3. Find Your Value’s Source

If my value comes from others, I will never be grounded. I will be tossed back and forth, up and down, shaken by the mere breath of criticism, and never find my foothold. And often, for me, unfortunately, that is exactly where it comes from. I win an award and I am feeling very good about myself. I can do this. I’m okay… In fact, I’m more than okay, I’m great! (cue in Frosted Flakes jingle). I send out proposals of my work because who would not want it… and I wait… and I wait. And a few say, “Nah.” And I’m crushed. I’m not just crushed I’m defeated… at the core. I’m not any good. Who did I think I was… Stephen King? Get out of the Big League, kid. You’ll never measure up. Now I start thinking I can’t even write. AT ALL. By whose merit? Whose yard stick? Someone who rummaged through 200 manuscript ideas before 8:15 that morning with a hangover (who knows... but we'll give him one on principle). That person determines my value? Yes, when I let him.

However, if my worth is grounded on more. If it never changes. If it doesn’t fluctuate with the tide, or is up for grabs in the stock market. If, on the other hand, I am rooted and established in love, I will stand firm. I will know that I am eternally loved, crafted to do great things, and a vessel where the God of the universe dwells. Though I may never “make it” as a writer, I am a child of the King. And my worldly success can never hold a candle to who I really am.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17-19) (emphasis mine).

The bike is already put together. No need for assembly. It came right from the trunk and onto the drive. Before the excitement falters, get on the seat. Before the doubt sets in, pedal. Before the fear has time to grip, travel down the hill and back up again, knowing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. And you, child of the King, keep pedaling on... because you were made for so much more!