I often joke that when I was growing up, if someone gave me poop for Christmas, I would move from “what the hell” to “this is just what I wanted” so quickly, you wouldn’t see the shift.
This lightning-fast reflex followed me into adulthood.
The desire behind the reflex was to keep people happy. I didn’t want Grandma to know I hadn’t actually wanted poop for Christmas. That might hurt her feelings, make her feel bad.
Instead, I would push the discomfort from receiving poop deep down inside, and throw a convincing smile on my face, to comfort her.
Just so we’re clear, this is a metaphor. No one has ever given me actual poop for Christmas. But, I have gotten some items that would have caused my brow to furrow and my nose to wrinkle in the same manner had I felt the freedom to respond with my honest reaction.
The interesting and unfortunate part about this dynamic is that if I’m not being 100% honest in my responses, how can I trust that other people are?
I’ve noticed over the years that I hone in on, and retain, criticism far more easily than compliments.
If I ask for someone’s opinion, and it is positive, I immediately dismiss it.
They’re just trying to make me feel better.
Thankfully, I’m married to someone who tells it like it is. He won’t blow smoke up my butt, even if I provide him with the smoke and beg him to blow!
Alternatively, if he does like something I’ve created or how I look, I know I can trust him.
When we were first married, I had gotten all gussied up for a nice dinner. I did my hair, my makeup. I had on a cute outfit. I exited the bedroom with an extra pep in my step because I felt like I looked good.
My husband, Judah, took one look at me and said, “Ready to go?”
Record scratch. Cut the pep in that step.
That was not the response I expected.
“Do you think I look pretty?”
“Yeah. I think you look very pretty.”
“Ugh. You’re just saying that because I fed you the line.”
He explained to me that he had thought I looked pretty but hadn’t said it aloud. He simply wanted to know if I was ready to go. When I asked, he answered honestly. He wasn’t parroting a response to appease me. He was simply confirming his honest assessment.
It took many years for this truth to sink in. It was so counter to how I’d grown up. But, I have grown to deeply value it. I know where I stand.
The flip side is that if Judah doesn’t like something, he’ll tell me that too.
I’ll take the discomfort of truth over the constant questioning that comes with smoke blowing.
As I’ve lived with this different approach, I’ve begun to adopt it myself. It felt risky at first.
What if people didn’t actually want to hear my opinion? What if they just wanted encouragement?
Five years ago, an acquaintance friend of mine was taking a video editing class. She had created a short video and sent it to me, asking for feedback.
We weren’t super close friends. Did she actually want me to tell her what I thought?
I took a risk.
There was a moment in her video where I thought a transition was awkward and another moment where I thought the story was a bit confusing.
I emailed her back with my actual thoughts. All the stuff I loved about the work. And the parts I thought could use some clarification.
Her response was exactly what I needed. She was so thankful. She even agreed that she thought the transition wasn’t clean and needed some work. My response validated what she had already sensed.
That is something I deeply love about this kind of honesty. When I share artistic work with someone, and they validate something I’m struggling with, I feel seen and known. When I share that same work, feeling like something isn’t quite right, and someone tells me it’s great, I feel like I don’t have a good handle on assessing my own work.
In order to deal with the tension of not knowing what kind of response someone wants, I now simply ask: Would you like feedback or encouragement?
Both are valid options. But, by asking, I know if the person is truly asking for constructive criticism or if they simply need to be seen and acknowledged for the work they have done.
It’s taken years, but I’m starting to see the link. I spent so many years feigning interest or excitement about things I didn’t actually care about. All in the name of making other people feel better. But, at the same time, I was setting up a world in which I couldn’t trust that anyone else was actually interested in, or excited about, me.
It can feel risky at times to tread the line of honesty, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.