Be a Walled City: How to Deal With Hostile Comments From Readers

February 14, 2022

minute READ 

Today, I received a pissed-off message from an internet stranger who was angry about something I had written. 

When you’re a writer, that happens.

It doesn’t matter how nuanced you’re trying to be, if enough people read you (and “enough” doesn’t have to be a huge number) someone will inevitably get upset about you for something. 

In this case, as in all cases of drive-by writer trolling, I apparently did something wrong (but it’s not so clear to me what). What follows is a familiar sequence: … angry rambling…unclear accusation…baseless assumption about my character based on a few paragraphs from an article the person may or may not have actually read. 

In some way, getting these types of messages is a rite of passage for a writer. It shows that someone is paying attention. Not only that, but your writing impacts them so much that they take the time to inform you, in great detail, about all the different ways in which you’re wrong. 

Given that time and attention is the most precious commodity we have, that’s… a strange type of honor. 

As the saying goes, the opposite of love isn’t hatred, it’s indifference. And, well, a pissed-off reader is clearly not indifferent to you. 

Handling unprovoked hostility as a writer

How then, should we react to this? 

Well, I think it’s up to you. Personally, I no longer respond to people who leave me hostile comments or messages. Hostility is not the same as constructive criticism which can help us become better as a writer.

In contrast, hostility is primarily about disrespect. And I don’t want to waste my time with people who approach me that way, so I just delete their comments or messages. 

However, after deleting the message Mr. Raging Reader hat sent me, I noticed that the negative energy generated by that exchange lingered. 

Because I still felt affected by the hostility directed against me, I wondered how to defend myself against this. So, I reached out to someone (let’s call him Mark) who’s an expert in warfare. 

I figured if anyone could tell me how to best defend myself against verbal hostility, it would be him. 

Given Mark’s hotheaded personality and specialization in all things martial, I expected intense and aggressive advice. You know, something along the lines of: “Throw him a gauntlet! Challenge him to a duel! Take no prisoners!” 

However, Mark’s advice surprised me. It didn’t involve any suggestions of a showdown at noon (or whatever I was expecting to hear). Instead, he said: 

“You don’t need to defend yourself.”

Why you don’t need to defend yourself

Even though it wasn’t the answer I expected to get from someone with such a fiery spirit, upon thinking about it, it made sense.

Mark wasn’t telling me to be a doormat or to be nice to someone who was being a jerk to me. He wasn’t even telling me to be the bigger person or turn the other cheek, or whatever. 

All he did was remind me that I wasn’t in a defensive situation. 

Defense implies you’re threatened. 

But I wasn’t threatened by Mr. Raging Reader. Someone was venting his frustration to me. Big f***ing deal. I don’t need to let this impact my self-esteem or day. 

If Mr. Raging Reader wants to take an energetic swing at me, I can just move out of the way. Let him shadow-box with the empty air. Scream into the void of my trash folder. 

Forget defensive

So often, we give negative people energy and attention because we feel threatened. We go on the defensive. 

But maybe we should strike the word “defensive” out of our vocabulary. 

After all, being on the defensive implies that we’re in a position of weakness. 

So often, we give negative readers energy and attention because we feel threatened. We go on the defensive. But maybe we should strike the word “defensive” out of our vocabulary. 

Being on the defensive implies that we’re in a position of weakness. 

But our true self isn’t weak. When we’re in our strength (as a human and as a writer), we’re not a house without windows to shield us from the outside. We’re a castle, a fortress, a walled city with lots of inner resources. 

And, as military strategist Sun Tzu put it in his 2,400-year-old classic The Art of War:“… the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.” When you directly assault a walled city, you often incur heavy losses and it costs a ton of money and time to starve it out. 

Walled cities aren’t fragile. Just like writers aren’t fragile. After all, it takes guts to share your thoughts with your audience, no matter what size the audience is. 

Mr. Raging Reader threw a few rotten tomatoes (and manure) at my city wall to showcase his annoyance. 

So what? It’ll wash off and maybe I’ll get some juicy tomatoes out of it. At the very least, it has already given me food for thought.

And what could be stronger, more badass than growing crops from the crap someone left you? 

P.S.: I like helping people turn gunk (problems) into gold (opportunities). If you’re interested, you can find more about my coaching here.

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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