Megan Nicol Reed: Keep unfair criticisms to yourself

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Take the advice of the well-known saying: 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all'. Photo / Getty Images
Take the advice of the well-known saying: 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all'. Photo / Getty Images

We were as if transported. The champagne was served in a pot. And the city undulated beyond the walls. So New York, we concurred. Five women in a booth, taking the measure of all who entered. We basked in the staff's ministrations; were entertained by the drunkards and their foolhardy forays into the cold clasp of our circle, tolerating their presence until they grew tiresome. One, though, we treated more harshly than the rest. Patchily shaven, he couldn't have been more than 24. He sat down beside me, and as his breath sluiced, warm and unpleasant, over my face, I marvelled at his audacity. Infused with our sorority, emboldened by the realisation that at 42 I was not yet as invisible as feared, I dismissed him out of hand. Go away, I said. Sullen, diminished, he eventually scuttled off.

He had been annoying, an irritation to be ground out beneath our heels. But later I would wonder why, in that moment, I had thought it either clever or okay to be so unkind.

If you don't have anything nice to say, I constantly tell my children in the tradition of all platitude-spouting parents, don't say anything at all. I tell my son when I call him to the table in order that I might pre-empt the turning up of his meat-loving nose at the dhal I have prepared.

I tell my daughter, calling out the window to where she jumps on the trampoline, when I hear her finding fault with her friend's flick-flack. Ought I to have taken my own advice? Would it have been more charitable to say nothing to our callow suitor? Perhaps we were only another notch on his belt, the mere nerve of his approach enough to earn him the respect of his mates. Or perhaps our summary brush-off wounded him keenly.

Recently, having put myself on the line creatively, I felt the force of another's criticism. I pictured my back, feathered glassily like a duck's, those words streaming right off it. But they burned through all the same, singeing and smouldering. Recklessly I put myself out there again, only this time to be met by silence. And into that terrible nothing I imagined the very worst. In my head I filled the silence with the cruellest utterances, roasting and basting myself with unspoken brutalities. For, of course, no matter how punitive a sentence another might place on you, seldom will it be as severe as you will judge yourself.

Crippled with doubt at why they said nothing, I sought my mother's wisdom. From experience, she said, she had decided and learnt to always acknowledge another's efforts, whether artistic pursuit or just attempt at conversation. To say something, provide some small recognition, to not leave them hanging. That to do otherwise, even if you did not like the dress they had sewn or the inanity of their introduction, was to create for yourself a powerful and merciless throne upon which to lord it above others.

Young man, if I could relive Friday night, I would thaw out my cold shoulder. Commend you on your pluckiness. And offer one or two sage words of advice before sending you on your merry way.

Following on

It was reassuring and distressing to discover so many of you share my anxious disposition. Some said a psychologist had helped. Others Citalopram. Sarah recommended the book, The Anxiety Toolkit. Susan said to counteract her tendency to catastrophise, "I imagine a benign smile beaming at me from behind. If worry, guilt, reluctance come up, I step the smile back a pace so its orbit is wide enough to encompass the new emotion as well." Steve said the key benefit of meditation is learning to slow your breathing, in particular your out breath. Jacqui said, "Mediation for me has been the only way out of many bleak moments, keep it up, it's a secret weapon." I was inundated with requests for the name of the meditation app I've been using. It's Headspace. Although Nick, a mindfulness educator, said the science demonstrates it's more effective to learn mindfulness under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

- Canvas

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