Dear Prudence

Not Ready for My Close-Up

Prudie counsels an artist who can’t shake off scathing blog reviews.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Mallory Ortberg: Enter hurriedly, pursued by a bear. Let’s chat.

Q. Terrified of success after bad reviews: I’m an artist who worked various minimum-wage jobs and made a lot of art (that no one ever saw) for most of my 20s. That is until recently, when I managed to get some pieces into a small but well-regarded show, and multiple bloggers wrote scathing reviews of my work. Weirdly it hasn’t stopped me from getting more gigs, and that’s what’s scaring me. My work has been rejected or ignored for years, but it never fazed me. I like a challenge. But now I can’t sleep at night just thinking about how these reviews and anonymous comments are online and will NEVER EVER go away. Even after I’m dead they’ll still be out there, speaking for me and my work. I’ve been painfully obsessing for almost a year now. Am I just not ready for any sort of success? Should I cancel all my upcoming gigs? If I can’t handle bloggers, what am I going to do when it’s an actual honest-to-God professional reviewer? I’m scared I’m missing a cosmic sign, that I’m going to keep putting my heart and soul out there to everyone’s repulsion and amusement, until I finally go back to scrubbing toilets and answering phones. Even more terrifying: I’m successful and constantly exposed to criticism. I want a career in this. But at the same time, I’m afraid of success, if that’s possible. Please help. I have a close network of friends, and a good therapist, but it feels petty and spoiled of me to complain about this to them. I’m very socially anxious and have a hard time networking and meeting other artists to discuss this with them. I really respect your body of work, and any words of advice or even an anecdote from your personal experiences would be incredibly helpful.

A: I think you are doing slightly better at this than you give yourself credit for. You say you want a career in your chosen field, and you have it. You say you “can’t handle” criticism, but you’ve continued to produce work despite resistance and criticism; you say that you’re “afraid of success,” but you are, in fact, already successful. It is not unusual for people of an artistic or sensitive temperament to feel particularly vulnerable to criticism, and it is not unusual to feel upset when someone doesn’t like your work. You want to make sure these feelings don’t get in the way of your ability to sleep and work and generally function, which is a laudable goal, but don’t feel as if your response to criticism is somehow abnormal. It isn’t. There are a few basic principles I recommend you follow in order to preserve your emotional well-being:

  1. Some people are going to hate your work. Some of these people are going to hate your work enough to enumerate exactly what they hate about it online.
  2. You are going to die someday.
  3. It is possible that some of these criticisms of your work will survive you after your death.
  4. It is also possible the internet will be destroyed in a fiery cataclysm, and you will outlive your criticisms.
  5. After you die, you will have no control over what people say about you.
  6. Before you die, you have no control over what people say about you. This simply is! It is both terrifying and freeing, and you should meditate on this thought every day for at least 30 seconds.
  7. If you already have friends/colleagues/mentors/rivals who are willing to offer you feedback on your work, you do not need to read every single blogger’s review of your latest installation. Those reviews are not for you, they are for the public at large, and they are none of your business, and you should not read them. Do not read them. You might consider occasionally reading professional reviews of your work when they start coming in, from people whose opinions you generally respect, but you are doing neither yourself nor your art any good by compulsively consuming everyone’s reaction to you the moment it pops up on the internet.
  8. When you find your thoughts turning back to the negative reviews you have already read, turning over particular phrases that keep you up at night, simply say out loud, “That person doesn’t like me. They think my work is bad.” That’s it. That’s all there is to say about that.
  9. Attempt to separate out the tone of the criticism from the content. Ask yourself, about any criticism you receive: Does this address something I can change? Something I am willing to change? Does the person speaking it will my good? Do they want me to do better, or do they want me to feel bad?
  10. You are going to die, and some people are going to hate your art. This was worth saying twice.

If none of this proves helpful, try flinging some Marcus Aurelius at it:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law—and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.

Which was easy for him to say, being emperor of Rome and wielding the power of life or death over said offenders, but it’s still a pretty good point.

Q. Enduring pain for your significant other: Your foot-fetish question last week made me start to wonder if I am also putting up with too much pain in order to make my girlfriend happy. It started about a year ago when she came home with a strap-on and one night after a few drinks I let her try it out. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, but over time she really started to enjoy using it. At first, I loved seeing her so empowered and confident, but it finally got to the point where it had to be part of every single time we were intimate. I tried to talk to her about it and let her know once a week would be OK, but she just kept going back to it. I didn’t want to break up with her because she is wonderful in every other way, and I love her so much and want her to be happy and complete, but I don’t see how I can bear with this ordeal much longer. What should I do?

A: Anyone who hears “I’m willing to have strap-on sex, but because it doesn’t do much for me, I don’t want to do it more than once a week,” agrees on the surface, then insists on strap-on sex on a regular basis (for a year!) is a bad girlfriend and a bad person. You should absolutely break up with her, because she doesn’t listen to you, is willing to make insincere promises to get out of difficult conversations, prioritizes her sexual needs over yours, and is apparently uninterested in your enthusiasm or enjoyment when it comes to getting off. You offered her an incredibly reasonable compromise, and she steamrolled right over it. This isn’t an issue of incompatibility; this is an issue of character. The problem isn’t that she loves pegging and you’re only so-so about it and you two are trying to arrive at a compromise. The problem is that you told her you don’t really enjoy that kind of sex, that you’re still willing to do it for her but don’t want to make it your regular routine, and she does it anyway. You deserve better.

Q. If I’m “Mom,” where does that leave pop?: I’m hoping you can advise me on a somewhat unique situation. I’m engaged to wonderful man, “Matt,” who has a 5-year-old son, “Jack,” with his ex-partner, “Frank” (Matt is bisexual). Jack was born via surrogate and since both men “contributed,” either could be the biological father. Not that it matters but based on looks alone I’d say Frank is the bio-dad. I have a great relationship with Jack and he’s asked if he could call me Mom. Matt fully approves but recently when Frank heard Jack call me Mom, his whole demeanor radiated disapproval and he seemed really unhappy about it. I asked him directly if he minded since it was at Jack’s request and he said something like, “No, I get it, Jack will have a mom and dad now and what use will he have for his Pop?” I didn’t know what to say and later when I mentioned it to Matt he just said to give Frank some time and he’d come around about this. Am I being insensitive by allowing Jack to call me Mom? If Jack had a mom, of course, I would never assume the title, so am I in the wrong here? And should I talk more to Frank about this or ask Matt to? I hate to admit it, but I generally avoid Frank as much as possible, although he seems like a nice guy. He’s also a huge, intimidating ex-military man.

A: This seems like a conversation that is (mostly) for Matt and Frank to have! While you’re clearly already a significant and loving presence in Jack’s life, you should defer to his parents’ wishes on this issue, which means that Matt and Frank need to have a discussion about what they want, what they’re afraid of, and what they’re willing to compromise over. You’re not being insensitive—if anything, the fact that Jack calls you “Mom” is a testament to how much he loves you and how good you are to him—but you should consider how you want to relate to Frank as a co-parent. It may be that he will come to feel less threatened over time, but in the meantime you should make it clear that you’re not looking to supplant him in Jack’s life, and that you want him to think of you as, if nothing else, an ally in the process of raising his son. That doesn’t mean you two will become best friends, but the conversation you get to have with Frank is one of reassurance and checking in. “I noticed it was hard for you when Jack called me ‘Mom,’ and I want you to know that my priority is being there for Jack as his dad’s partner, not trying to tear down your relationship in any way. Is there something else you would prefer that Jack call me?”

Q. Abandoned?: I’m a young professional with a group of who I thought were close girlfriends. I recently went through a period of mental health issues that left me unable to function normally. With the support of family, a therapist, and an understanding boss, I’ve recovered well but still fall back into that dark place from time to time. The issue is that during this time, my friends essentially disappeared. I’m usually the one that does the work in the friend group—the planning, the initiating, hosting, etc.—so I can understand without me doing those things our time together dwindled. But how do I move forward now? I know several of them continued seeing each other, so was I just left out? Do I act like everything’s normal and reintegrate myself quietly like nothing happened? I’m angry and hurt they weren’t there when I needed them most, but I don’t know if I should cut ties over this or if there’s a way to recover.

A: There’s a happy medium between “silent reintegration” and cutting ties entirely, and that means having a difficult conversation. Talk to your close friends individually. Don’t frame it as an interrogation, but do tell them how their absence has made you feel, and ask if there’s anything they can share with you that might help you understand their actions. “You know I’ve been going through a mental health crisis recently, and it’s been difficult for me to function. I’m getting help, but one thing that’s been hard for me is that I’ve missed your friendship during this tough time. I love our relationship, and I want to stay connected with you, but I felt isolated and unsupported, and I wanted to acknowledge that so we could talk about it. Can you tell me what it’s been like for you so I can understand?” Depending on their response, you might decide these friendships are worth rebuilding, or that you can’t rely on them—you’ll have to figure that out with each of them.

Q. Anger I can’t control: I have recently started to have some serious anger issues toward my older sister. She has had a major drug problem for years so I started to slowly cut her out of my and my husband and child’s lives. We tried it all, interventions, etc., but nothing worked. When my father passed away in 2012, it was his wish that we split everything 50/50. She started selling equipment and pocketed the money. Once I found out about it, we had a huge blowup. I started the process to open his estate and wanted to finish it as quickly as possible. She held out on things she wanted: his house, my grandparents’ home, an empty lot. We were wasting money by arguing over it so I gave in and let her have what she wanted and in return I got $25,000. After it was closed, I cut all contact with her and went about my life. Here it is a few years later and I find out she sold my grandparents’ house for $67,000 and the empty lot for $40,000. The anger that comes up when I hear anything about her is making me crazy. I have tried to find a therapist but have had no luck at all. I know I want no relationship with her at all. I just need to find a way to control this anger. Any suggestions?

A: I wonder what you mean when you say you had “no luck at all” finding a therapist. Do you mean you’ve had trouble finding time in your schedule to make an appointment? That you live in a sparsely populated area with few residential mental health professionals? That you haven’t been able to find anyone whose rates you can afford? That you’ve tried seeing several therapists who haven’t been helpful? That you attended a handful of sessions and, when you did not immediately feel at peace with your sister, decided it wasn’t worth the effort? If it’s possible, I think you should continue trying to find a therapist. Your anger with your sister is not a short-term problem, and you should not be looking for a short-term solution. You may be angry with her for a very long time, and it’s worth investing the time and energy into dealing with your anger so that you don’t let it rule your emotional landscape for the rest of your life.

Q. Re: Terrified of success after bad reviews: As an academic who has to deal with peer review and student evaluations—it gets easier! The first negative review I ever got felt the worst, even though it was by no means the meanest. Your skin will thicken, and you’ll become more confident in the value of what you have to say.

A: I can confirm this! You are steadily being freed from the delusion that everyone in the world likes you and wants what’s best for you, and the early stages of freedom are always the most painful.

Q. Remnants of a religious past: I grew up in an incredibly religious household and for most of my life religion has played a huge role in my life. In the last few years my husband and I made the decision to no longer affiliate with our religion. Since then we have moved several times and each time I find myself packing up boxes of religious texts, clothing, and artwork. On top of that our families continue buying us religious items knowing that we are no longer practicing the religion. Given that we live in a small apartment, it is frustrating to have it take up so much space, but I don’t really know what to do with it. On the one hand I don’t want to give up items that carried personal significance to me for a long time (or that were gifts) but on the other I realistically don’t know what I will do with large and expensive paintings that I have no desire to hang up. Some of the items are no longer in print or are expensive and I would love to see someone else be able to use them, but I worry about family members coming over and asking “hey where is that picture/book/clothing I gave you for your wedding/birthday/baptism?” In addition, while I have many great memories of my religious upbringing, many of the items are reminders of stressful and painful events and aspects of my religion and it causes a great deal of emotional difficulty to see and sort through these items on a regular basis. How do I hold on to my personal history without carrying around the emotional (and physical) baggage that comes with it?

A: Get rid of anything that doesn’t feel meaningful or pleasurable to you with a clear conscience. Give them to people who will value them, donate them to Goodwill, or just throw them away; if your relatives are giving you religiously themed gifts despite knowing you are not a religious person, you have every right to say, if asked, “Since I’m not a [Christian], I don’t have any use for this [black velvet painting of the apostles], so I found someone who could appreciate it and gave it to them.”

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Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.