Clean: 'Handling Criticism' (3/21/22) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Handling Criticism' (3/21/22)


Published March 21, 2022 at 11:46 a.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
My forehead burned with fiery tension as I stared at a luminous computer screen. I was three years sober, and I was in the midst of reading a short and harsh email containing feedback from a music review website. It had been two months since I had released my debut album, and profound feelings of artistic insecurity were beginning to consume me. In the advent of the album’s release, I had sent one of my music videos to more than a dozen online music journalism platforms. Although many had responded with positive enthusiasm, several others had greeted my creative offering with a mixture of indifference and skepticism.

My stomach lurched uncomfortably as I scrutinized the text of an exceptionally cold, terse and impersonal reply message:

“This is not what we’re looking for.”

The gruff and brusque tone of the note brought up memories of past instances where my heart had been broken by creative and romantic rejection. At the height of my active addiction, I had attempted to escape the pain of abandonment and letdown by turning to harmful chemicals. In recovery, I had been forced to face feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness head-on without the aid of mind-numbing drugs. As a result, I had developed behavior patterns that had allowed me to cope with unexpected disappointment. I was making a valiant effort to take the criticism in stride, but the trusted tools and tactics I had turned to in the past were proving largely ineffective. I was stuck in an unbearable state of self-imposed fright and restlessness. I didn’t want to risk being rejected again, but I didn’t know if I was capable of handling criticism.

It was then that I remembered the wise words of a friend from my sobriety fellowship:

“In the earliest days of my recovery, it was incredibly difficult for me to ask people for anything. I was afraid to apply for a job, hesitant to initiate friendships or romantic relationships, and terrified of any situation where I could get rejected. Ultimately, I was only able to accept criticism and rejection after I became comfortable in my own skin. That sense of emotional freedom came when I discovered that my true worth had nothing to do with what other people thought of me — it had to do with how I saw myself. Recovery is a constant process of growth and self-betterment, but that process only works if you honestly believe that you’re worthy of positive change. I try not to let rejection get to me anymore. I just use it as fuel to further my program of positive action.”

After taking a moment to directly confront my feelings of doubt and insecurity, I felt a glorious feeling of instant emotional relief. I clicked out of the web page that held the critical message, took a deep breath and began filling out an online submission form for another music website. Recovery had given me the ability to confront and embrace rejection — and the courage to continue pursuing my creative aspirations.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run towards the truth.
Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016. In his weekly column "Clean," originally published in Vermont News Guide, he shares his personal journey and lessons learned from his life in recovery. Columns published before July 12, 2020, can be found here. Newer installments are available on