External Deflators: How to Deal With the Naysayers

Mature man with hands on chin

For creative types, (and who among us is not one of those), a community of supportive people, even if that community is just you and one other person, is essential for bringing your ideas into the world. I call these folks a Posse. One word of caution though: You need to be careful about who you share your goals with, especially when they’re in their early stages. Because they’re still under-developed, these nascent ideas are like gossamer, very fragile and susceptible to discouragement. Marv, my name for the negative voice in our heads, (M.A.R.V. = Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability) is ready to pounce on them for sure, you can count on that, but if someone else from the outside gets in there and digs a hole into your early-stage dream, Marv might just be able to finish it off. Here’s a letter someone wrote to me with this very problem and what follows is my answer back:

Peter, I’ve recently finished an early draft of a book of poetry and though I’ve been excited and confident about it for the most part, I’ve found my enthusiasm waned dramatically after showing it to a friend and getting a lukewarm response.
Laura H.

Dear Laura,

I really wish I could have shared what I’m going to say to you before you let your friend read the manuscript. But since you already have, consider it as my Grandma Rose used to say in Yiddish, “b’sheret” — meant to be.

Here’s the cold truth about friendships: Oftentimes people whom we consider to be our good friends may be harshly critical of things we are passionate about. I call these people External Deflators (or EDs). EDs’ negative tendencies make ideas that haven’t had a chance to fully form, extremely susceptible to negative feedback. I think of my own work in its early stages as tender shoots that can be easily uprooted and destroyed. Knowing this, I’m always very judicious about who I’ll let see early drafts of things I create. I’m not looking for people to fawn over the ideas at this early stage, but I am looking for guidance and support. As such, I’m selective in presenting these early iterations to people who are familiar with the process of inventing things; people who through their own experience with innovation are knowledgeable and sensitive about the nature of early work.

I’m not only lucky to have such people in my life, I’ve actively sought them out over the years as kindred spirits and cultivated friendships based on the knowledge that we offer one another support, inspiration and guidance as opposed to so-called “constructive criticism,” which in many cases, feels like a thinly veiled means of throwing cold water on a project.

I’m not a cynic. I believe most people’s motives are good. It’s just that EDs are not empathetic, so they fail to realize the damage they’re causing. They don’t try to problem-solve (what an innovator does), they problem-identify and think the idea lacks merit because of the problem’s existence. All creation is a process of creating order and solution out of chaos and problems. It’s a process of motion — going from one place to another. Saying something is bad completely disregards how close to great it might actually be.

So Laura, it’s impossible for me to determine just how your friend’s comments are intended and what your level of sensitivity to the comments might actually be, though my suspicion is aroused whenever I see someone go away “deflated” as opposed to strengthened after an encounter.

The questions to ask yourself are: Were you uplifted by the conversation with your friend (even if it included advice and opinions that might differ from your own) or were you made to feel humiliated and that your aspirations had no merit? It’s vital that you take your creative ideas into the world. Yet you must always exercise the appropriate caution in not bringing things that are still in process to an External Deflator.

Be well,

Peter

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