Your Insult Is the Only Thing I Remember

I keep forgetting the positive and accentuating the negative.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If it’s happened once, it’s happened about a thousand times a day. (OK, that’s an exaggeration — but it happens too often.) Someone says something unflattering to me, and it gets me thinking way more than it probably should.

I’m impressionable like that, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. This isn’t to say I’m not appreciative whenever someone is kind and generous enough to compliment me. It’s just that the occasional not-so-positive reviews are the ones that always seem to affect me most.

Hurl an insult my way, and I might spend the next 24 hours dwelling on it, wondering if I’m really that bad. Usually I know I’m not, but could I be mistaken?

What if other people are slamming me in their thoughts while smiling to my face? When will the next text message or email arrive unexpectedly from someone with one complaint — or a litany of them — against me?

I sweat the small stuff and dwell on it forever, maybe not more than most, but to a nonetheless borderline-unhealthy extreme. Although I’ve never thought of myself as being especially insecure, when the mask of self-confidence falls off, it lands with a thud.

Dear Peanut Gallery: Please be gentle

After nearly 30 years as a professional journalist, I probably should have more confidence in my ability. But every time I turn in a story, it’s 1991 again, and I’m a 22-year-old upstart in New York City, on the verge of cracking under pressure. I sit (or go for a run) and wait for my editors to tell me how much they hate what I’ve done. I’m always a little surprised when they don’t.

I suppose second guessing myself and my ability to deliver could be beneficial to a degree. It forces me to maximize my effort. Still, decades after my former editor at People magazine gave me brutal feedback on a story I’d written about then-Today co-host Ann Curry, telling me, “You can’t hit a homerun every time,” I still believe that initial dismissal of my effort more than the apology he made a few hours later. After giving it a second read, he admitted he’d been dead wrong and that I had actually done excellent work. (The editor above him agreed that I’d hit that one out of the ballpark.)

When I first started blogging in 2008, a colleague issued a friendly warning: People are more likely to comment on what you write when they have something negative to say. How right she was. And never has the negative commentary come as quickly and as forcefully as it did when I dared to write about Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and NCIS less than glowingly.

I should know better than to give too much credence to what “haters,” “trolls,” and overprotective “stans” say in the comments. Although I’m getting better at tuning them out, when it comes to opinions about my work or about me, negativity still stings a lot more than positivity uplifts.

I should know better than to give too much credence to what “haters,” “trolls,” and overprotective “stans” say in the comments. Although I’m getting better at tuning them out, when it comes to opinions about my work or about me, negativity still stings a lot more than positivity uplifts.

I’ve really got to work on that. I need to improve my selective memory, too. When I recall the letters I received from readers back when I was reviewing music for People magazine and Entertainment Weekly in the ’90s, the threat of the guy who ripped me apart for daring to say something not-so-nice about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Stones in the Road album (He wrote: “One day I’m going to hunt you down … and laugh in your face”) stands out in my memory more than the specific contents of the handwritten note John Waite sent me in which he thanked me for getting what he was trying to convey lyrically and vocally in his 1984 number-one hit “Missing You” in my EW review of Tina Turner’s cover of it 12 years later.

My obsession with the negative spills over into my love life. Years after one major relationship ended, the words that still stood out most in my mind, among all the lovely things he’d said over the course of our year together, was his parting shot: He called me needy.

Needy? Really? Anyone who knew me more than just in passing would have realized how ludicrous that charge was. Until returning to the U.S. four weeks ago, I spent 13 years and 20 days living outside my comfort zone on five different continents, in well over a dozen countries, usually arriving in each new city alone, knowing neither the language nor a single local.

It might sound like cruel and unusual punishment to some, but for me, there’s no company quite like my own company. When Chrissie Hynde called Pretenders’ 1994 album The Last of the Independents, I like to think she was referring to me.

Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I needy? And was I a terrible person for it? I knew I was neither and still do, but it’s probably a good thing that I receive the occasional brutal, unvarnished opinion to make me wonder.

Though it might cause my insecurity to flare up, leading to uncomfortable silences and near-sleepless nights, it leads to self-reflection, too. Might the haters have a point? Maybe, maybe not. Still, there’s almost always room for self-improvement.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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