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I love anonymous internet comments. What a wonderful window into the feelings of strangers unconstrained by social niceties! There’s a temptation to write off anonymous commenters as some particularly vocal wackadoodles. But research shows that the wackadoodle theorem doesn’t tell the whole story. On average, they’re just normal people. Getting past concerns about reputation and social norms, a lot of people are not that far removed from monkeys throwing feces.
With practice, it’s easier to dismiss the anonymous jerks, even though it can still hurt. What’s harder is ignoring critics that are more open with their disapproval. Here’s the thing to remember: the negative people that want you to change who you are? They’re often the same types of people as those anonymous commenters, just dressed up in enough clothes to be seen outside without having the cops called on them.
Here’s the thing to remember: the negative people that want you to change who you are? They’re often the same types of people as those anonymous commenters, just dressed up in enough clothes to be seen outside without having the cops called on them.
I’m not talking about social, cultural, political or other types of structured criticism—those are important arts that can elevate discourse and move society forward. I’m talking about negative, personal criticism. Haters. It’s something we all face all the time. Online, in-person, family, strangers—they’re everywhere. And it’s so hard to be yourself when there are always people that want you to be someone else.
Stop for a second and think about a time you faced some personal criticism. If you’re anything like me, one comment can leave a lasting impression.
Maybe it’s from a reader. “Your writing is not good.”
Maybe a family member. “You aren’t normal.”
Maybe someone in the running world giving unsolicited and unwelcome feedback. “You run too much/you care too much/you don’t run enough/your training is dumb/your body isn’t right.”
“But wait!” a person hearing that might think. “Those comments may be constructive, right? They’ll help me grow and change?”
“Oh my gosh, NO!” I want to scream. “Close your ears, laugh if you can and move on. Do you, because you are awesome.”
Constructive criticism is something you ask for from someone with a valuable perspective to share. And if you didn’t ask for it, the advice better be coming from a loving, uplifting place. If not, it’s so important to try to give the criticism the weight it deserves: almost none. Those haters rarely care about you or your growth any more than the anonymous message board that insults your appearance or worldview.
Through coaching, I get a window into the types of criticism athletes get online and off. The public figures I coach will sometimes get the meanest comments and emails you could imagine, some anonymous and some not. They’re easier to write off when they’re plainly feces-hurling. They’re harder to ignore when they have specific comments about who you are and what you’re trying to do in life. It’s like comedian John Mulaney’s bit about insults from kids. “If I see a group of eighth graders on one side of the street, I will cross to the other side of the street. Because eighth graders will make fun of you, but in an accurate way. They will get to the thing that you don’t like about you.”
And it’s not just public figures. It happens all the time, to everyone. The problem is particularly bad for female athletes. On Twitter, I saw it described as just what it’s like to be a woman on the internet. How sad is that?
This article is adapted from an email I send athletes dealing with haters. My heart breaks at least once a week from seeing a mean comment by some ill-informed, lopsided douchecanoe.
This article is adapted from an email I send athletes dealing with haters. My heart breaks at least once a week from seeing a mean comment by some ill-informed, lopsided douchecanoe. Those comments are almost always directed at athletes doing objectively incredible things in the world, putting themselves out there with honesty and strength. It seems like there are people out there that will always take joy in telling you what you’re doing is wrong and why you’re wrong about what you’re doing.
What motivates haters.
The problem is that if you try to resonate with everyone, the self-consciousness may lead you to become someone you’re not, another sugarless, flourless, butterless doughball cooked up in a hater’s cookie-cutter. So be yourself and share your unique voice. Because you are uniquely awesome, and it’s good that haters don’t get you.
Every single person I coach who is trying to authentically be themselves gets crap thrown at them constantly, especially at first as they find their voice and their legs. But here’s the important thing to remember: those crap throwers usually don’t give a crap about you.
Does the critic want to support your growth? Probably not.
Does the critic have an incentive structure that aligns with yours? Rarely.
Do they have the full picture? Almost never.
Are they projecting their own stuff with their comments? Most likely.
Research indicates that a person giving unsolicited negative advice or personal criticism may be after a feeling of power. They don’t necessarily want to be a good person; they want to feel like a powerful person.
Research indicates that a person giving unsolicited negative advice or personal criticism may be after a feeling of power. They don’t necessarily want to be a good person; they want to feel like a powerful person. The absolute worst thing you can do is indulge their power grab by changing yourself.
Other research indicates that a hater may be projecting their own insecurities. Changing yourself won’t help them feel better about themselves. The cliche is true: it almost always says more about them than it says about you.
So you have a few options.
You can ignore, sidling around and continuing on your way as that critical flamethrower fires away. It can still hurt, though. Make sure you talk about your feelings with people that truly care for you, including mental-health professionals.
You can engage substantively. I would not recommend this unless they are being caring and kind, as that may just make the negative critic feel the power they seek. Constructive dialogue is difficult with a flamethrower.
Or you can respond with love. I see so many amazing humans face personal criticism, and unless they enjoy flamethrower battles, a possibly satisfying option is putting some water on it. Plus, if it’s a hater projecting their own issues, that love may actually help them. My go-to is: “Thank you for the feedback, I really appreciate it!” But you can get creative and have fun with it.
Often, you’ll do that and the hater will respond with something nice. It’s super cool how quickly a flamethrower can become a grill flame, where they’re cooking up some dinner and inviting you over.
Often, you’ll do that and the hater will respond with something nice. It’s super cool how quickly a flamethrower can become a grill flame, where they’re cooking up some dinner and inviting you over. Life may be hard for the hater, and maybe all they need is a bit of support.
Sometimes, they’ll double down on being a total jerk. Some people just suck. It’s a flaw (or maybe a feature) in the Matrix.
That’s all easy to say for a white male, and it could be far more complex based on your background. Just know that no matter what, you are not alone and it’s not a reflection on you. Try to talk about how you feel with people that love you for who you are.
How to be yourself.
It all gets back to being yourself. We hear that all the time, from Taylor Swift songs to self-help books. But the hardest part about being yourself is facing the consequences. If you have something to say, some people will not like it at all. If you put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable, some people will go for the jugular.
The only way to be yourself sustainably and happily is to have a system to deal with those flamethrowers.
The only way to be yourself sustainably and happily is to have a system to deal with those flamethrowers. Whether it’s personal insecurity, a desire for power or just a genuine dislike of you and what you do, some people won’t get you. That goes for your work, your community, and everything else.
And it goes for the running world. There will be people waiting to tell you what you’re doing wrong and why you need to change. Ask yourself: do they have my best interests at heart? Do they really know what they’re talking about and do they have the full picture? Are they being kind? If so, cool! Engage if that brings you meaning, go back-and-forth and grow if that’s what you’re after.
If they don’t or you didn’t ask for it or you just are not in the mood to hear it, ignore it.
Or better yet, thank them for their feedback and tell them how much you appreciate it. Then go on being your awesome self.
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David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.