When Readers Disagree with What We Write or Believe

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

A few weeks back, someone I had come to call a friend had some real struggles with something I posted on my personal Facebook page. She was angered by it – very angered – and she told me.  I respected her anger and her position, even as I disagreed with her, but at that time, in that moment, I didn’t have the energy or space to engage that conversation. I told her so, and she unfriended me, unsubscribed from my work, and by and large severed all ties with me.

I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt. It did. . . and I wrote her to say I was sorry to see that she needed to make that decision but that I respected it and would be here if she ever wanted to reconnect again.

I feel good about how I reacted.

What I’ve Learned About What I Do

A few years – even a few months back – I would have taken her decision personally. I would have tried to soften what I said, to shift my angle so that it wouldn’t bump against hers. OR I would have gotten defensive, entrenched myself, maybe even gone on the attack.

Now, though, I’m learning that I cannot please everyone with my words (or my person), that to try and do so waters down all I say (and am), and that I have to recognize that not every person is my reader (or my friend).  It’s taken a lot of work to get to this place because I am a real people pleaser (a 2 on the Enneagram if that is “helpful” to you). But for the sake of my mental health and the sake of my work, I’ve had to learn that not everyone is going to like what I have to say (or me).

This bit of hard-fought growth has made the writing life easier for me in some crucial ways:

  • I have stopped trying to write things that please everyone and have begun to write things that please me first and the people who choose to read my work second. I’m never going to be a writer who is mild in her opinions, and I’m never going to write lots of short sentences.  I appreciate a bit of mystery and space within my words. Owning my style and my preferred subjects frees me to say what I need to say.
  • I have stopped justifying what I write to people who don’t like it. Recently, someone responded to my post about orcas and berated me for not being more direct and clear, for not writing journalism and for expecting my readers to know more than he was willing to know. (He didn’t want to Google Tahlequah because it was my job to tell her who she was.)  I replied and told him that I didn’t write journalism and that it was okay with me if I wasn’t the writer for him. His reply to me was that I certainly wasn’t and he was done with me.  In my heart, I said, Good. Via email I said nothing. Via Voxer I vented to a few writer friends. (I’m not fully there yet.)
  • I have settled into the place where I can disagree with people – sometimes fundamentally about some very hard things – and still be in relationship with them. I don’t want to sever ties with someone because we see the world differently, even when the way they see the world is painful to me.*
  • I have come to expect unsubscribes and unfollows when I say things that some deem controversial or that speak of a way of being that not everyone loves. For instance, this week I wrote a newsletter where I discussed being a writer who is a Christian but not a Christian writer. The unsubscribes came quick, probably from both people who only want to read Christian writers and those for whom Christianity is hard or bothersome or deluded. Do I love that my list got smaller? Of course not. But do I appreciate that people make space for new things if my things don’t fit? Sure do.

It’s Inevitable

Some of us write about controversial topics that often divide. Some of us choose to avoid those topics with vigor. But all of us will sometimes write something that upsets someone. Perhaps it will be that thing about your kid and pacifiers or that note about adoption that you didn’t realize would be so hurtful to adoptees or that tweet about how you love the smell of wood smoke that will cause someone to launch a tirade about asthma and your lack of respect for air quality (that one happened to me).  We can’t avoid upsetting people if we are going to write. That’s just the bottom line.

So let’s embrace what we do. Let’s apologize when we cause harm. Let’s recognize the difference between when we harm someone and when someone’s wounds are making them lash out at us. Let’s write what we need to write today and know that tomorrow we may have something – maybe even the opposite something – to say because we are not stagnant, static beings and our writing needs to reflect who we are now.

In short, let’s do our best to write the best we can and let readers respond as they will. Their reaction is not our responsibility – good, loving, honest, true, powerful writing is. 


*Note – that doesn’t mean I tolerate abuse or don’t speak my mind about injustice. It just means that I don’t walk away from human beings if I at all can help it without subjecting myself to harm. And sometimes, friends, we have to talk away because sometimes, harm is the only thing there is.