Dealing with Criticism

Creativity is one of the areas where criticism affects us most. Many people believe criticism is necessary to the creative process, yet no matter how strong we are feeling, or how many compliments we receive about our work, a single word of criticism can completely derail us. As creative people, it helps to be able to understand the context, and know how to respond when our worst fears are realised.

Creativity Quotes
Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud – Alexander Osborn

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots – Frank A. Clark

Dealing with Criticism
There are two kinds of criticism – the kind that helps and the kind that harms. Helpful criticism affirms our ability while opening up new avenues. We very rarely receive this kind of input, and when we do, we seldom call it criticism 🙂 Usually what we receive in the guise of “constructive criticism” might be well-meant, but is really harmful.

We might be told flat out “I just don’t like it” or “it’s rubbish” by someone who believes that their ‘honest’, ‘candid’ approach is the best route – note, they don’t say ‘helpful’ or ‘supportive’. Alternately we might receive criticism that stems from our friends / colleagues / mentors’ own fear of failure or rejection – we hear this as a reference to “what others may think” – too risqué, too busy, too subtle, too obscure – fill in your own adjective here.

This input can be very persuasive, but hold on to your direction – how are you going to learn how to be you if you don’t follow exactly your own instincts? It helps to remember that there is no single group of “others” out there – audiences shape themselves around the authentic output of people they resonate with. If your work doesn’t resonate immediately with your family’s sensibilities, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to add value to someone else’s life – or indeed, your own.

This kind of input needs to be understood as rooted in someone else’s fear – we can thank these well-meaning advisors for their concern, and even respect their feelings without taking them on (since we have enough of our own fears to deal with 🙂 ).

And finally, every now and again we might land up on the crippling receiving end of a destructive, scathing attack. Often this is more about the “critic” than it is about us – our work, in the course of following our expression, might hit someone else’s raw nerve, or they might simply have been out to pick a fight. However, there is nothing logical about our reaction in the moment – it hurts!

Sonia Simone, author of the marketing blog Remarkable Communication, wrote a brilliant post on this earlier this month, and I encourage everyone to read the original – Sonia is a compelling writer and handles this topic with humour, empathy and a great deal of wisdom. In summary, here is my take on her five points:

  1. Keep a testimonial file
    Where our creativity is concerned, we find it hard enough to believe compliments, let alone remember them. When you receive a compliment, keep a record of it somewhere easy to find, to have on hand whenever you need to remind yourself that you are okay, really. If you haven’t got one, trawl through your email (if you’re like me it can go back for years) looking for positive messages from friends and family.
  2. Resist the temptation to kick yourself for getting upset
    You don’t have to be strong in the face of adversity. When you acknowledge the hurt and give yourself permission to feel it (or “wallow in it”, as Sonia puts it), it stops lurking in the back of your mind, ready to attack the next time you’re feeling low. And once you’ve done this, you’ll find you can look at the information you’ve received objectively.
  3. Control your outward reaction
    Responding with bitterness and further insults is often satisfying at the time, but eventually leaves us cold, and carrying both the pain of the criticism and the harsh words we’ve let into the universe. Walking away is okay here; as is saying “Thanks for the input” if you’re at all able to. Chances are that down the line you’ll be able to pick out the positives you aren’t feeling right now – but it’s okay if you wait til then to feel grateful 🙂
  4. Don’t over-correct
    As above, your creative exploration is taking you somewhere. Don’t change your course based on someone else’s criticism – they may have something of value to add, but rather let that work itself into your work naturally and slowly, than swing over to ‘their way of seeing things’.
  5. Congratulations! You’re succeeding
    Yes, you have produced work, and it has produced a reaction. It really is worth a celebration, and while this is not the same as drowning your sorrows, it’s probably okay to do both at once 🙂

One thing I’d add is to learn how to give truly helpful criticism yourself (see the post below). This way you’ll know it when you hear it, and even be able to assist others in giving useful criticism.

Wishing you the courage to remain authentic and positive in the face of any challenge.

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