A few years ago, I gave one of the first drafts of one of my novels to a friend who said she was interested in reading it and giving me feedback. I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about getting her feedback, but I figured this was something I had to do if I wanted to grow that “thick skin” that I’d heard every writer had to have. So, against my better judgment, I gave it to her.
“I didn’t like the ending,” she said when I met with her the next time. “It felt like the main character was too dependent on the people outside of her. She should have been more independent, more feisty. I like strong female characters.”
Well, I was immediately crushed. And then instantly spiraled out. This didn’t just feel like feedback to me, it felt like stinging, crushing, excruciating criticism. The ending of my story was all wrong. The main character was all wrong. She wasn’t strong enough, she wasn’t independent enough. She just wasn’t…enough. And neither was I.
As I went into my shame spiral about it, what I was feeling was oh-so-familiar. My heart was racing, my stomach was clenching, and I simultaneously felt numb and like I was slowly being consumed by an inner fire. I couldn’t think and I felt like I could barely breathe. It didn’t feel like I was that far off from having a panic attack.
What was wrong with me? Why was I reacting so intensely to feedback from a friend? Was my friend really being that harsh? Or was I just crazy?
As an INFJ personality type, and an INFJ writer, this is an experience I have gone through many times in my life, and not just with writing. I pretty much feel this way any time I feel like I’m being criticized. And it wasn’t until I was well into my adult years that I figured out what was going on.
As with so many INFJs, I have past trauma around betrayal and unworthiness. Specifically, I’ve been betrayed in the past by caregivers and romantic partners and I internalized these betrayals as “I’m not good enough. I’m totally unlovable and worthless.” When I was young, my mind took on the belief system that I need to be vigilant about betrayal ALL THE TIME. So, even when someone genuinely does mean well and is trying to be courteous, if I feel like I’m being criticized I get severely triggered because, subconsciously, I read it as a kind of betrayal.
And once I get the slightest whiff of possible betrayal, I totally freak out.
ALL my abandonment issues are triggered. ALL my unworthiness issues are triggered. ALL the different ways I’ve felt like a total piece of shit in my life flood back to me and overwhelm my system.
Needless to say, in this state, I’m not seeing things clearly at all.
When I’m in this triggered state, it’s not that one reader didn’t like the end of my story. Suddenly, it’s that my whole story sucks, and I’m a bad writer. Also, I probably am just a horrible human being on top of it. I’m the lowest person who ever lived, and I feel humiliated even thinking about how I attempted to be something else.
This might sound overly dramatic, but that’s actually where my mind goes when I get super triggered by criticism, and I know the same thing happens for a lot of other INFJ writers too, because I’ve talked to many of them about it.
This feeling IS horrible, and it’s also unavoidable at times, because we can’t magically construct our lives so that we never get triggered by criticism again. However, we can shift out of it and come back to center.
The way to do this is by bringing all the subconscious ickiness that’s making you feel this way into the conscious light of your own awareness.
How do we do this?
First, we recognize that we’re making the criticism all about us. We’ve forgotten that the criticism (which might not even really be criticism at all, but just a helpful suggestion) is actually feedback on our story, or our work performance, or the way we communicate, or something else. It’s about something we’ve made or an action we’ve taken, but it’s not about our essential worth as a human being.
Second, we recognize that we’re projecting. When we get that feedback on our story and we immediately begin thinking that the person who gave us the feedback thinks we’re a shitty writer, we need to slow down and see that belief for what it is—a projection. It’s not necessarily true that the person who gave us the feedback thinks we’re a shitty writer. What IS true is that WE are telling OURSELVES now that we’re a shitty writer, and that is affecting our emotional state and sending us deeper into the shame spiral.
Third, we need time to process. INFJ personality types need a lot of time to come down from being triggered. Like, two or three days. We need to be alone to have all the emotions, process all the emotions, and move all the emotions through our body. We need time to go into over-thinking mode, realize we’re in over-thinking mode, and then pull back into our feeling and intuition. We need time to sleep on it. It is pretty much always a bad idea for any INFJ to instantly react when we’re triggered, because we will most likely explode and then door slam, and then feel deeply regretful about it later, which then turns into more fuel for a future shame spiral.
If we can work with this practice of bringing the subconscious into the conscious, recognizing the projections, and taking lots of time afterward to process, we are going to end up as much happier, and healthier, INFJ writers.