How to Deal With Criticism from Random Strangers on the Internet

Computer button - delete

Last night, I received an email from a woman I’ve never met before in my life. As far as I know, she and I have never even corresponded virtually, so her communication was that much more confusing. I deleted the email almost as soon as I read it, so I’ll have to paraphrase the gist of it here.

Rosetta – I think you could use this advice. I would never hire you to speak because you look very unprofessional in the photos on your website. Your skin looks ashy. I like natural hair, but yours looks unkempt.

You need a power suit. Would you really show up at a corporate event in that multi-colored skirt or is this just the standard for nonprofits??? Honey, you need a stylist.

And then, she signs her name to this nonsense, including her contact information as the CEO of a staffing agency in Beverly Hills, CA. Really? I’d hate to see how her business is doing if this is how she spends her time.

There’s a lot I can say (and could have said to her directly) about this email, mainly that 1) I would never want to be hired by this person to do anything ever and 2) I love the “unkempt” look of my hair, which is kinda why I wear it that way and 3) Even if I did hire a stylist, you’d never see me in a “power suit” because I hate suits. I don’t even know what to say about the ashy part except WTF.

But the real lesson in this exchange came through the feelings it brought up for me. As soon as I read it, I felt a surge of adrenaline and a string of curse words began forming in my mind. Mind you, I rarely get angry anymore but I have to admit that my first thought was:

Who does this b***h think she is? 

It took me a few minutes to realize that on the other side of the country, there was a random stranger on the internet asking the exact same thing about me.

Who does this b***h think she is…marketing herself as a speaker? Who is she to promote herself online, especially looking like that? Why does she think she’s worthy of a successful business when she doesn’t even look the part?

It’s easy to forget the truth that some women derive a sense of confidence from comparing themselves to other women they deem inferior.

In fact, some women will be triggered by your very presence.

When you look back and observe your own behavior, you will see that you’ve done this before in some form. I know I have in the past and I’m not proud of it. You see a public figure or celebrity or successful businesswoman and start snarking on her looks and behavior.

Who is she to have money and fame and power and happiness when she looks/talks/acts like that? And why haven’t I achieved that level of success in my life yet when I’m just as talented/pretty/ambitious as she is?

It’s hard enough for women, especially black women, to put ourselves out there in the first place without the verbal abuse we throw at each other. I get enough emails and work with enough coaching clients to know that this is true. In my own life and business, I struggle with forging my own path, promoting myself and offering my services to the people who might need them. In the back of my mind is always the question:

Am I worthy? Is what I have to offer good enough? Do I really deserve this life?

It’s in those moments of self-doubt, even in the midst of adversity that I can hear that still, small voice rise up in my heart to answer:

Yes. Yes you are. That’s why I put you here. 

That knowing is what gives me the peace to immediately delete any messages I receive that do not add to my life and work. You’ll never find any flame wars on my blog, Twitter beef or drama on my Facebook page. Of course, I enjoy honest discussion and I appreciate hearing constructive criticism from friends, family, colleagues, clients and others that know who I am and what my work is about. But random strangers on the internet telling me how I should dress and wear my hair? Not worth the back-and-forth exchange. (I mean, what did she think I was gonna reply? “Thanks for the feedback on my appearance, I’ll try to change it for you?”)

Before you judge someone who’s actually making that leap to walk in their purpose, take a moment to think about why their appearance or behavior is triggering you. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s probably because you want to be doing more with your own life and feel frustrated about that.

And before you rush to respond to someone who’s judging you, get centered in compassion so you can remember that they’re coming from a place of lack and projecting that onto you. Understand that their discomfort with your presence is not your problem.

Then press “delete.”



Comments & Feedback:

  1. Judy Mott

    I love how you answered the lady. I can tell you me coming from an island. I had a lot of negative comments. Some I smiled off. Some I said. Well,well. Lol.

  2. She obviously has no idea how successful you have become by just being yourself. Your image is perfect for you, your audience, and the road you have chosen to travel. She needs to recognize that we can all travel in the same direction, but in different lanes; her lane is obviously not your lane and vice-versa. As others have stated, her comment was clearly a reflection of something she has going on internally; inadequacy, jealously??? You did the right thing, hitting the delete button; no reply required. Keep up the good work!

  3. you are better than me – because i have lastworditis and would have put her in her place!
    plus in this day and age, people should be really careful to throw slander at people and then give their professional details. linked in recommendations and your internet reputation can be ruined. you never know who someone is connected to.

  4. My first presentation I received horrible feedback on how I was dressed, when I was in a suit and how my hair was, when it was in a respectable bun. Then they criticized me for being “too casual” because I apparently must be rigid and boring when talking about slavery and it brought me down. I felt so incompetent at that moment.
    Then I stopped to think and realized that my presentation style is just that…mine. It has worked for me since then and I think that people who have such harsh criticisms should make sure they are in high demand, well paid and an expert in all things before they open their mouths, or emails to criticize others.

  5. Zizi

    The unprofessional nature of that private communication with you reflects very badly on how that woman sees herself and others. I agree with the poster who mentioned the need to update awareness of the modern workplace, particularly in the creative/advertising, IT, and academic environments. A power suit would seem overly dressy, almost stiff in most Silicon Valley or indeed many West Coast creative or IT workplaces (Portland, Seattle, Bay Area, Vancouver BC). I speak as someone who has worked or collaborated with people in those settings. Dress + jacket, sure. Power suit? Nah. Blazer & separates are more common, & I see women wearing flat shoes. When I attended an invitation-only campus speech by Bill Gates he wore a blue shirt and khakis.

    Both corporate and academic settings are changing — for the better in the sense that these environments are indeed more inclusive, diverse, and open to valuing new, global perspectives. Your look is fresh, yet professional and I like seeing color and patterns in workplace clothing. I think that the colors and patterns you choose to wear indicate engagement with life, optimism, and the independent, creative thinking Americans are supposed to admire!

    I wear a mid-size Afro in the workplace, but even if I did not I would feel glad to see others wearing natural styles; I make an effort to compliment women who are wearing natural hair, because I remember being mocked on public transit by others for wearing my own hair natural (1990s).
    I’m probably much older than many of your readers (over 40). I remember reading about a Black woman filing a lawsuit during the late 1980s/early 1990s in order to be permitted to wear a simple braided style at her hotel receptionist job — a simple bob style with extensions pulled back into a neat ponytail, a style which probably wouldn’t even raise eyebrows today. People such as the woman who wrote to you should take a moment and think carefully about the historical & sociological role of race & gender in relation to ideas of ‘professionalism’.

    Much of what I have to say has already been well expressed by other posters, so I won’t be repetitive. However, I will say this: if you visited my workplace as a presenter I would be pleased, interested, and excited to hear what you have to say. I’d also add that I would try to be welcoming. Sisters take enough verbal, physical, emotional abuse in this world from people who do not treat them fairly — and I’m not about to give those people any help.

    Thanks for continuing to write such thought-provoking and encouraging posts. Best wihses to you in all your endeavors.

    • Zizi, ah a fellow over 40 reader. My experience in the workplace and attendance at corporate events mirror yours. And I was one of those young women in the 90s who got flack for my hair but not often. As I got older I chose to work in environments closest to what I wanted in a work culture. And where there was intolerance, as long as there was no significant backlash, I simply rejected the comments and attitudes. By my 30s I had learned to discern the difference between my issues and other people’s issues. My issues were enough work. :-)

  6. Bretagne

    Frankly, this woman sounds dated. And her thinking is obviously unber basic.

    You are not Diane Keaton circa 1986 Baby Boom. The “power suit” is overrated, and can border on ridiculous depending on the type of work that you do. Also, when folks feel the need to preface their disparaging comments about unprocessed black hair with “I like natural hair, but…”, it’s a sure indication that they find natural hair anything but likeable.

    If her idea of success or professionalism comes wrapped in a is St. Johns suit and fresh roller wrap, that’s fine. But it’s staid and certainly not the uniform of millennial knowledge workers or the new media/creative/tech classes. Has this woman ever watched an @Google Talk and caught a glimpse of what the employees in the audience are wearing, or even a TED Talk? Doc Martens, Toms, graphic tees. And I haven’t lived in DC since I graduated from Howard nearly a decade ago, but my sense is that black woman rocking funky natural hairstyles probably outnumber those with a more conventional ‘wash & set”, or whatever. And DC is the capital of black bourgeois striving in America.

    Yeah, she’s projecting big time.

    Carry on.

    • Bretagne

      Ok, just scrolled down the page and saw a comment in which someone said that black women should stop hurling “basic” as a pejorative.

      This is true.

      I will revise that second sentence to read, “Her notions about what constitutes the visual indicators of success and professional competence appear to be somewhat stunted and circumscribed.”

  7. Wow – I definitely didn’t expect so many comments on this post! Thank you everyone for reading and sharing your own take on incidents like this. There’s always something to learn from the negative encounters we have with people.

  8. That was a great post. I have a friend who works a funky fro. At first I was like what? But the style works with the type of personality she has. I know that I couldn’t pull that look of but she does it with style and panache.

    It seems that people just can’t stop hating on each other and the internet makes it so easy to do, which makes the problem even worse.

    Bottom line – it doesn’t matter how or what you look like, it is how you carry yourself that really shines through.

  9. As Krista pointed out this: “And before you rush to respond to someone who’s judging you, get centered in a compassion so you can remember that they’re coming from a place of lack and projecting that onto you. Understand that their discomfort with your presence is not your problem.” was everything! LOVE this post and it resonates with many like it I’ve been coming across this week across social media. Folks are out in attack mode in full force lately, but letting it roll right off our backs and responding in silence is a great tactic as we continue on our trajectory of success. Thank you for the motivation!

  10. Monique


    I enjoy reading your blog, you are very knowledgeable about your field, and about life in general. You bring such richness to your blog that’s why it’s very hard for me to stay away from it. I haven’t posted on your blog in a while, but that doesn’t mean that I am not reading it.

    Remember: When you are living on purpose you are always going to have critics, it’s when the critics stop criticizing you is when you need to worry. So, apparently, you are living on purpose.

    Many Blessings…

    Keep up the GREAT work !

  11. Cindy L.

    I think that’s a dreadful type of thing to leave in a comment. While potentially making you feel bad about yourself, makes the commenter look like an asshole. She said way more about herself than she did about you.

    You handled it beautifully and used it nicely as an object lesson for the rest of us.

    There is nothing wrong with giving someone constructive criticism, but I think it is always best handled in a kind, positive manner and IN PRIVATE, for crying out loud.

    • Cindy L.

      Ok, after re-reading the post, I see that she did handle it in private. That’s still no excuse for being an asshole to anyone.

  12. This really resonated with me. It saddens me that we can’t just accept each other… or not… without such ugliness.

    The internet can be such an ugly place, BUT with people like you out here it can also be a lovely, welcoming, safe place.

    Keep doing what you’re doing… there are people who get it.

    • I’m glad you’re one of the people who “get it.” Thanks for reading – I agree that the internet can be a ugly place and I’m grateful to have such a beautiful community of readers like you here.

  13. When I met you, you weren’t wearing a power suit, and your hair was in an un-tamed fro…and I LOVED IT. It made me more comfortable with myself and reinforced for me that I could just be me. I was really inspired by how *not* the “standard” you were, as well as your presentation of course. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    • Thanks so much for sharing that, LaNeshe. Authenticity is one of my values and part of my personal mission statement, so that means a lot. I’m glad it reinforced that it’s OK to just be you – our time on earth is so limited I don’t see the point in going about life any other way.

  14. You are a class act and I couldn’t agree with you more here. I pity any human being and in many cases women who have the need to be vulgar and rude to other women as a way to bring them down. Its human nature to compare ourselves to others or even feel jealousy, but what differentiate us is how we react to the ego and frailty of our characters. I always remind myself to count my own blessings, instead of being envious of someone else.

  15. DeAnna

    Rosetta, you handled that very well. Actually, you handled it like a happy black woman. It is very easy to shake off negative comments when you are content with yourself. I get so tired of these people with “keyboard courage”. Keep doing what you are doing, exactly the way that you do it.

  16. LOL! girl, WHAT?
    you are SO much better than i am, ‘cuz that’s exactly what i would’ve sent back to that woman.

    i totally know what you mean about presence triggering folks, though. it makes for a lonely life sometimes, but it also helps to weed out folks who mean you no good. i used to try to “adjust my presence” to make other people more comfortable. naturally, i failed. how do you even “adjust your presence” in the first place? i am, however, working to be more observant of how others behave when i’m around.

    this post, though? pure comedy for me right now. just wow…

    • What you said about a lonely life made me think of the Lorraine Hansberry quote: “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”

      I attended a book talk a couple years ago where the author shared the concept of managing your energy around certain people, because they will only drain your light. I do that more and more these days, which has meant spending more time alone as well. It’s also pushed me to seek out others with similar energy to connect with and support. This year, one of my goals is to meet even more people who encourage and inspire me to be more of who I really am.

  17. “Before you rush to respond to someone who’s judging you, get centered in a compassion so you can remember that they’re coming from a place of lack and projecting that onto you. Understand that their discomfort with your presence is not your problem.” I love what you said and needed that this morning. When the peson that’s judging you is someone you know and love it’s hard not to repsond in anger because you feel like they should know better but getting centered in compassion before repsonding will take the flame out their fire. One to grow on!!!

  18. “And before you rush to respond to someone who’s judging you, get centered in a compassion so you can remember that they’re coming from a place of lack and projecting that onto you. Understand that their discomfort with your presence is not your problem.” I love what you said and needed that this morning. When the peson that’s judging you is someone you know and love it’s hard not to repsond in anger because you feel like they should know better but getting centered in compassion before repsonding will take the flame out their fire. One to grow on!!!

  19. Rosetta!

    I so appreciate your response in this. I saw a fear of mine being addressed with the “Who am I to try and step out on my own?” Well, I’ve learned that we are all well worth the risk. And this was the BEST way to handle anyone’s negative thoughts. There is room for us all in the world regardless of how we do our hair, wear our clothes, and live our life. What’s on the inside is what matters.

  20. Amazing advice at the end of this post, Rosetta. It’s tough to get to that place of compassion when someone “comes at you”, and to remember that (even if they don’t know it) their behavior or remarks come from a place of hurt or past rough experiences. I am so proud of you for deleting the message right away to keep yourself from re-reading or responding. TOTAL WTF moment, for sure.

    And–I know you don’t need this, but–here’s what I would write in an email to you: You are absolutely adorable. I love that you unabashedly wear your clothing/hair/jewelry etc however the heck you want because they are YOURS, and you can do that. I think you are a blogging rockstar and your journey to self-employment has been, and continues to be, a mega inspiration for me. Those who relate to you will love you and love what you do and that’s why you keep getting hired. Eff a stylist–keep radiating that beautiful and warm personality, because they will ultimately take you farther than anything you could ever wear (mind you, I adore dressing up, but you don’t have to for me to adore you as well).


  21. Leigh

    Thank you for sharing this story and being so honest about your initial reactions. It has taken some time for me to realize the insecure place criticism often comes from. Why we use comparison tactics to demote others and raise our self-esteem is beyond me. I just try to focus on what I can control, myself. I can only be better at not bringing down other women. We cannot let the times that others criticize us become moments in which we demote ourselves. Your insightful story is an important reminder.

  22. That is amazing to me that someone would take time out of their day to send an email to someone to criticize them in that way. I certainly agree with your sentiment of it being “a result of some women derive a sense of confidence from comparing themselves to other women they deem inferior”.
    I see it online a lot with other women calling other women “basic” and telling them they need to “step up” something in the looks department, when usually that woman is doing just fine being “basic”. I’m glad you were able to take something positive away from this experience and share it with us.

  23. Deirdre

    Not sure why this woman felt the need to email you that unwarranted drivel, and yet you seem to step over that rock effortlessly. You described my own initial reaction to negative things that I see on the internet, and I admire how you handled it.

    No wonder I’m such a fan…Keep Up The Good Work!

  24. Gotta love internet trolls. Ignore ’em and keep up the good work.

    Knowing my triggers helps me with combatting my own issues/insecurities/(insert something here). Acknowledgement is one of the first steps; action gets you “there” faster. Thank goodness for age & wisdom.

  25. I know what you mean. I got that kind of treatment one time from a person who do not know me personally. I just brushed the criticism off of my mind, thinking maybe the person has her own issue to resolve.