The Next Time Someone Criticizes You, Let Them—Then Write Down Every Word

The most honest people aren't always the nicest—and that's OK. Here's why.

thinkingmimagephotography/ShutterstockWhen I was in the seventh grade I had an enemy, a girl whose mission in life seemed to be pointing out my shortcomings.

Week by week her catalogue grew: I was skinny, I wasn’t a good student, I was a tomboy, I talked too loud, I was stuck-up, etc. I endured her as long as I could and then ran to my father in tears and rage.

He listened to my outburst, then asked, “Are the things she says true?”

True? I wanted to know how to strike back. What did truth have to do with it?

“Mary, didn’t you ever wonder what you’re really like? Well, you now have that girl’s opinion. Go make a list of everything she said, mark the points that are true, and ignore the rest.”

I did as he directed and discovered to my surprise that about half the things were true. Some of them I couldn’t change (like being skinny), but a fair number I could—and suddenly wanted to—change. For the first time in my life I got a fairly objective view of myself.

I brought the list back to Daddy. He refused to take it.

[pullquote]“That is just for you,” he said. “You know better than anybody else the truth about yourself, once you hear it. But you’ve got to learn to listen, not close your ears in anger or hurt. When something said about you is true you’ll know it. It will echo inside you.”[/pullquote]

I had always considered Daddy the wisest man in our little town of Weatherford, Texas. Preston Martin was Weatherford’s leading lawyer, the judge, and president of the school board—the man who handed out the diplomas at graduation. Yet I found it hard to accept his words. It seemed that my enemy was getting off too lightly. (This is the advice geniuses give to their kids.)

“I still don’t think it’s very nice of her to talk about me in front of everybody,” I said.

“Mary, there is one way never to be talked about again—by saying nothing and doing nothing. Of course, as a result, you’d be nothing. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

Daddy’s advice has returned to me at many critical moments. One such moment was when I went to Hollywood to break into the movies. I auditioned in every studio in town, over and over again for two years, without landing a job. I became known as “Audition Mary.” One of the directors, sick of seeing me appear so often, said, “Your nose is too big and your neck too long. You’ll never make it in the movies.”

Here was truth, I suppose, but it wasn’t the helpful kind. There was nothing I could do about my neck and nose except work twice as hard to succeed despite them. No, the kind of truth I needed to hear finally came from a wonderfully kind and wise man named Jerome Kern. He was holding auditions for the St. Louis Municipal Opera Co. and, of course, I appeared. I did not get the job, but he took me aside and said, “You must learn to sing your own way.”

At first I was too full of disappointment to give his words much attention. Then I listened over again—listened for the truth—and boom! It came through. It echoed inside me as Daddy always said it would. I had been experimenting with all the popular vocal styles. I could sing exactly like Frances Langford or Kate Smith. I even did a good Bing Crosby. But Jerome Kern was telling me this was wrong, and when he said it, I recognized it as the truth.

[pullquote]If I was ever to be a success, it would have to be as myself.[/pullquote]

A few weeks later the Trocadero, a Hollywood night club, announced auditions for its floor show, and again Audition Mary appeared. But this time I wasn’t Frances Langford or anybody else; I was myself. I made no attempt at glamorization. I wore a simple black-taffeta skirt with a white blouse, and I sang out full-voice the way I had learned back in Texas. I got the job.

Success came rapidly after that, and soon I was a star on Broadway. Now, as Daddy had predicted, a babble of voices surrounded me. Advice, praise and criticism came not only from friends and associates but from the professional theater critics. I tried very hard to listen for that echo within me. But there were times when it was difficult—and here is where we must depend on those we love to guide us and help us hear the truth. My husband, Richard Halliday, does this for me.

Let me give an example. I am currently appearing on Broadway in a wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein show, The Sound of Music. During the out-of-town tryouts Richard made certain that I read all the critics’ reviews so that I might try to correct any faults they found in my performance. When we finally opened on Broadway, a few reviewers found the show “too sweet,” and were angry with me for appearing in a play with so little “bite.”

“It’s your judgment that counts now,” my husband told me firmly. “The play is set; your performance is set. Don’t let yourself be disoriented by new criticism now. Besides, you know the play is good.”

He was right. I did know the play was good, and the time had come to respect my own opinion, to hear my own truth.

I tried to pass my father’s advice on to my daughter. At an early age, Heller began to appear in shows with me, and I took it for granted that she would follow in my footsteps.

Starting with her sophomore year in high school, she spent every summer vacation working as a volunteer nurse’s aide in a large New York hospital. I was proud of her, of course, but then learned with great concern that she was in a children’s leukemia ward. There is no known cure for this disease; and Heller cared for these children, comforted them, loved them—only to have them die in her arms. Terribly worried about the drain this was making on her, both physically and emotionally, I tried to get her to cut down her time at the hospital. But she had an enormous feeling of responsibility and reported for her job every day, no matter how tired she might be.

One morning during the summer of her senior year, she sat down and told us all that had been going on in her heart and mind. The world was full of suffering and she wanted to help relieve some of it. She wanted to study nursing. Did we have any objections?

For the moment, her father and I could find nothing to say. Heller tried again to make us understand. She said, “You keep telling me I can be a good actress. Maybe that is right; I don’t know; it doesn’t mean anything to me. But when a doctor says I’m a good nurse, I know it’s true. It echoes inside me. And I know that is what I want to do with my life.”

This fall, Heller Halliday will begin her studies to become a nurse. If her grandfather were alive he would approve, as we do. Though she has chosen a different life from mine, I know it will be a good one, for she hears the truth.

This article originally appeared in the June 1960 issue of Reader’s Digest.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest