Twenty years ago, a friend and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant when she suddenly asked me, "Liz, can I be brutally honest with you about something?"

Here's how dumb I was back in my 20s: I actually said, "Yes! Of course!"

At which point my friend took a shiv out of her purse and expertly slid it right between my ribs.

Okay, to be fair, she didn't literally stab me. She merely told me that I was selfish and lazy, and also that I would probably never be able to make a living as a writer, and moreover that nobody liked my boyfriend. Oh yeah, one last thing: My hair didn't look very good. My jaw is too big to carry off a pixie cut, apparently. Makes my face look all weird and out of balance.

As I sat there gasping for oxygen over my half-eaten fajitas and trying to stem my internal emotional bleeding, my friend reached across the table and pushed aside the salsa so she could place her hand on mine for emphasis.

"I'm the only person who cares about you enough to tell you the truth," she said. "That's why it's important that you keep me around. Everybody else just blows smoke up your ass."

Here's another example of how dumb I was in my 20s: I actually believed her. Thus, I kept this friend in my life for another five years. Whenever I faced a difficult decision or needed an opinion on a sensitive issue, I would return to her and ask once more for the brutal truth—which she would happily deliver, smiling with pleasure as she donned her executioner's mask and got busy hacking me up.

Why did I keep going back for more abuse? Because I figured her honesty was keeping me honest—when in fact it was just keeping me injured. Interestingly enough, it was the progress I was making in my professional life (the one she thought I'd never have) that ultimately taught me how injurious these criticisms really were.

See, despite my friend's prediction, I did eventually start making a living as a writer. Putting my work into the world meant I had to learn how to take criticism. But I slowly realized that I didn't have to take it from everybody. I learned, over time, how to seek out the type of readers who would actually serve my writing. I came up with four questions to help me decide who got to read my work when it was in its most vulnerable stages:
  • Do I trust this person's taste and judgment?
  • Does this person understand what I'm trying to create here?
  • Does this person genuinely want me to succeed?
  • Is this person capable of delivering the truth to me in a sensitive and compassionate manner?

    If I could not answer yes to all four questions, then I would not let that person read my stories. And the fourth question was the most important—because here is what I learned (the hard way) about readers and editors who offered me a "brutally honest" critique of my writing: They were always more brutal than honest. Whenever somebody promises a brutally honest opinion, what they are actually saying is, "Please give me the opportunity to take you down!" The truth delivered without a dose of kindness was of no help to my work. (Cruelty only made me want to stop writing and hide.) Once I started to keep my writing away from such people and found more compassionate readers, my work improved.

    Best of all, I eventually learned that I could apply these four questions to the critics in my personal life as well. If I'm going to open myself to you, then I need to know that I can trust you, and that you understand me, and that you genuinely want me to succeed, and—most of all—that you are capable of being compassionate with your honesty. When I began surrounding myself with people like this, I was able to start coaxing my life in a better direction and creating a more wonderful story about my own existence.

    Which meant that finally a day came when my old shiv-carrying friend asked me, "Can I be brutally honest with you?" and I told her my own truth: "Oh, hell no."

    Don't worry, I said it with more kindness than that. Because that's the only way it works.

    Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
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