On the playground, things are simple. If another kid ever says anything critical (like complain to the other children that you take enough sips at the water fountain to drain an ocean) you just retort “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” with singsongy vengeance and keep right on holding up the line. Problem solved. Their self-esteem still intact, both kids just go right back to playing with one another. But off the playground, at least for me, criticism never struck the same way twice. It didn’t just hurt—it was lethal.
I remember sitting in my chair, one elbow leaning on the table and my face in my hand. Looking back and forth between Rachel Simmons and my black and white composition notebook, I felt flustered. I held back tears struggling to face my new reality, an internal state of disaster Simmons aptly named the “identity quake.” There were cautionary signs of “identity quakes”—being overly defensive, denial, internalization of mistakes—and I’d exhibited them all.
During an “identity quake,” girls mistake simple criticisms for personal attacks on their character. A girl having an “identity quake” translates “You know you really could work on your people skills” into “you’re a rude person and rude people are bad.” Rather than distance myself from my flaws, I become my flaws. I extrapolate the results beyond necessity and draw irrational conclusions detrimental to my self-perception.
Even then, the summer before my senior year of high school, I had a feeling I wouldn’t leave Girls Leadership Institute with any potential end in sight for this “identity quake” primarily because I grew up always feeling inadequate. I wasn’t working hard enough. I could’ve gotten an “A” instead of a “B”. I didn’t type that paper up fast enough. I could dress up more like a girl. I could buy nicer clothes and I could stand to lose a few pounds. No one else really needs to criticize me because when it comes to self I am hands down my biggest critic. I hold myself to an impossible standard and then punish myself for falling short.
Four years later, I’ve only made minimal improvements when it comes to accepting constructive criticism. My face still flushes red, I get extremely uncomfortable, and I internalize the things my friends say to me. I know and acknowledge that my friends say these things out of love but it doesn’t change how I feel every time I hear something I need to improve on.
I wish I had some grand anecdote about how I’ve overcome my biggest hindrance but I don’t. But I do believe in the calm after every storm.