If growing up gender queer and working class in a small town taught me anything, it was how much “no” can shape your understanding of the world and your relationship to it.. “No, you can’t wear that.” “No, you can’t play football.” “No, you can’t take wood shop instead of home economics” (yes, I am that old). “No, you can’t be yourself.” Just “NO!”
Most of us have a memory of a time we wanted something and heard “no.” Everything from the newest pair of Jordans to the grant application that was declined. While most things we are able to roll with and let go, there’s usually at least one moment or a series of experiences that coalesce into a barbed hook that catches our psyche whenever a similar scenario shows up.
I have a pretty big and sharp “no” hook that gets activated when I perceive that something indicates I don’t belong. <see previous paragraph regarding upbringing>. The “not belonging” hook is so familiar to me that I sometimes try to actively engage it (read attempt to debarb) by putting myself in the spaces where I worry about belonging.
Here’s an example. In my free time, I do art. Lots of different kinds, but in this case, I am talking sculpture. I decided to face my “I don’t belong” narrative about being an artist, and I submitted my sculptures for an international “newcomers” prize. I had ZERO expectation that I would win anything (Well, maybe .0001% of me had a fantasy but even that part knew it was that.) My goal was simply to break through the barrier of my own feeling that I am “not a real artist” and get a response to what I was doing and how I was doing it. In other words I wanted feedback. (Which was promised as part of the submission.)
Let’s just say that the commenting judge was not well versed in constructive criticism.
So, rather than leaving with a simple rejection (mildly painful but clean) or with a rejection plus thoughtful engagement with my work (probably a bit painful but encouraging), I ended up snagged and bleeding on my “I don’t belong here” hook. And to be honest, it still affects my engagement with that particular sculptural style. I have a lot more “What am I even doing here?” moments than I did before I sought to belong.
It’s THAT question I want to unpack.
Buried in “What am I even doing here?” are other more debilitating questions: Why do I think I can call myself an artist? Do I have the “right” to call this sculpture? Can I claim membership in the group of people who call themselves sculptors? And those questions are lurking there because the person who was charged with giving me feedback failed AND I conflated bullshit criticism and belonging. Basically, both the judge and I forgot why we were there.
The point of feedback is to improve. It is to learn and change in order to reach a goal. Unfortunately, way too many people in the academy — like my judge — use their knowledge to slam gates rather than improve paths. And too many of us accept the slammed gate as evidence of our belonging while calling it feedback.
An academic example: This week I was doing a live coaching session for Unstuck and a participant told a story of presenting an idea to a senior scholar. Let’s call him Old White Man. Rather than constructive feedback — which for those of you interested in improving your feedback skills involves more questions than opinions — OWM said some version of “I see no value in this,” which the listener was definitely expected to take as this idea has no value.
I see no value = it has no value = please step behind the gate.
My first response, as it so often is in these situations was to quote THE expert in shedding haters: Beyonce Knowles Carter:
“Middle fingers up, put them hands high
Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye
Tell him, boy, bye, middle fingers up
I ain’t thinking ’bout you”
But here’s the thing: We are thinking about you. You who knock us down. You who try to shut the gate. We are thinking about you. Way. Too. Much. And in thinking about you and your exclusionary bullshit disguised as feedback, we are getting snagged on old wounds, and then beating ourselves up for being stuck. To be clear, we are taking ALL of the responsibility. That has to stop.
How about those of you who are new to the field take responsibility by not allowing anyone to tell you that you don’t belong when by virtue of being willing to step into the arena you belong? Let yourself off the hook. Claim your right to be here.
While we are at it, how about those of you who agree to a feedback (read mentor) relationship remember that the relationship is one of mutual respect grounded in a love of BOTH the discipline and the creative minds of those who engage with you about it. Do your job instead of damage.
Wishing you more compassion and fewer hooks in the new year.