15 years ago, I started an online discussion board for (mostly) homeschool mom friends called The Trapdoor Society. The concept was this: Because our days were filled with small children and home-keeping demands, we needed an escape—a trapdoor through which we could pursue our own self-education: art, literature, film, politics, religion, poetry, and more. We’d be friendly and supportive when we disagreed and we’d help each other expand our worlds together…
In other words, Internet Utopia.
In other words, good luck with that.
We did become incredible friends (there are still about 40 of us in touch today). But those friendships also survived some truly painful clashes of personality, belief systems, emotional meltdowns, and even a version of trolling (though that word didn’t exist back then).
I remember spending hours crafting response posts in my head when I felt maligned or judged or misunderstood. Years later, this xkcd cartoon captured my feelings of compulsion to respond online perfectly: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”
Underneath that surface reason, though, was an invisible-to-me-at-the-time one. Fear. I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t want to be misunderstood. I didn’t want to have made an irrevocable choice.
When criticism came my way, I wanted to fight back—to not take it. I fought back on the outside.
If I could get everyone out there to agree that I was okay, then I would finally allow myself to feel okay in here.
The benefit of aging is the increasing awareness that it is nigh to impossible to get all the people out there to all agree that you are perfectly wonderful as you are. (I know, I’ve tried.)
No one likes you enough to do that for you. They’re all too busy trying to get you to tell them that they are okay, as they are.
One of the reasons it’s tough to hear our kids tell us that some of our choices were painful to them is that we especially want their approval—after all, we are “sacrificing” careers, manicures, a good tennis game, grad school, hobbies, and beautifully decorated homes to ensure they have the best possible childhoods. How they can’t know that, can’t see that, can’t forgive us for our foibles is incomprehensible.
The only way out is inner confidence—to firm up your shaky insides with your resilient belief that you are conscientious, intentional, and sincere. These three qualities won’t prevent mistakes or over-reach. They won’t guarantee romanticized notions of success. But they can be the firm base from which you continue to grow, revise, and expand your life’s vision.
If you resist the temptation to defend yourself to others, but instead, take any criticism or disagreement as a chance to revisit your personal creed and practice, you will slowly but surely see that you are, in fact, that worthwhile person you wish others could see. You’ll know it from the inside—that your choices, and your vision are perfectly valid for you.
Meanwhile, rather than eviscerate your persecutors with better arguments or lengthy diatribes, go soft on the outside. The old proverb, “A gentle word turns away wrath” may not always work in intimate relationships, but it does provide a neat exit online.
It is often the perfect response to children—respond in the opposite spirit. They come with anger and force, you respond with internal strength and gentle words: “I hear you. That sounds awful. I want better for you.”
Strong on the inside, soft on the outside.
Respond in the opposite spirit.
Stick up for yourself to yourself.
Trust—you don’t know the outcome of this grand risky experiment. The only way forward is one day at a time, with your conscientiousness, sincerity, and intentionality to guide you.