I will admit it plainly: I don’t usually respond well to criticism. I may not rage and throw things like a child, nor do I throw temper tantrums as I actually did in childhood, but I don’t take it well. There are times where I’ve worked to put heart and soul out there on the Internet, only to see it torn to rags by the slavering opinions of others. In those instances, I’ve often just deleted the content, hiding it from further opinion…or I’ve just sat at the computer and cried. Neither response is a healthy response to criticism, yet it appears to be the first response for me.
I would venture to say that most of us probably dislike criticism; I don’t think anybody likes to admit that their work has flaws that someone else saw. But we can change our response to criticism to a healthier one, if we work at it. That’s what the following post is all about.
Step 1: Admit How You Relate to Criticism Now, and Why
Taking criticism “like an adult,” not letting it bother you, is the ideal for most of us. But unfortunately, that ideal is very, very hard to attain, especially if you can’t admit to yourself that you don’t deal with criticism well.
Like I stated at the beginning of this post, I myself struggle with it, though I thought it bothered me less these days than it did in childhood. I was wrong, though; I may be able to hide my reactions to criticism better, but I still hurt over it. So I sought to discover my personal reasons why criticism hurts me more than it should, and I came up with the following three:
My Three Reasons for Hating/Fearing Criticism in the Past
- I am a sensitive person, far more attuned to emotions and to everyday life than most people I know. This sensitivity makes me a much better artist; others have found my music and writing to be unusually cathartic and soothing. However, being this sensitive also makes me hyper-aware of others’ opinions, especially the negative ones.
- I am both obsessive-compulsive and perfectionistic. My flaws and failures haunt me, sometimes keeping me from sleep and normal emotional function, and I experience strong compulsions to either eradicate the flaws themselves or to punish the person who failed–myself. (Example: as a child, I struck myself on the back of the head 30 times because I made a 99 instead of 100 on a test. The memory of that almost-but-not-quite-perfect grade still makes me irrationally angry at myself, two decades later.)
- I was bullied often and brutally by my classmates in childhood, partly because of my sensitivity and partly because of my visible perfectionism. The only way I could get my bullies to shut up? To make better grades than them, to be academically better than them. That mentality has carried forward into my adult life, in the form of being a well-prepared, conscientious, and yet overly anxious person.
What are your biggest reasons for hating and fearing criticism? Note these for yourself; really dig into your own thinking, as I have done above, and root out the basic causes. It’s surprisingly enlightening; I didn’t think my childhood experiences of bullying were still that important to my thinking, but they are!
Step 2: Acknowledge This Reaction as Human
The reasons I detailed above have shaped my art and my personality over time, in positive ways as well as negative. But to people who have harder shells and thicker skins, I am a laughable excuse for an adult. Some cynical people in my past (and my present) have labeled me a coward and a crybaby, or have laughed at my sensitivity and told me to “grow up.” Others have critiqued my most highly-polished works with a throwaway comment like “your work sucks” or “you’re stupid,” and the only comeback I can think of is “Well, YOU try it if you think you can do better!”
The thing is, I’m secretly terrified that the ones who criticize me are right. I’m scared that my absolute best efforts are not worth anybody’s time, and that no one will like them. In my mind, I associate myself deeply with my opinions and works–they are part of my self-worth because they come from within me. If they are attacked, then in a very real sense I’m being attacked. If they are found lacking, then I am found lacking by association.
To my obsessive, perfectionistic, sensitive brain, to be found lacking is a cardinal sin. But this is still a very human reaction to criticism. No one truly wants to be seen as “less than”–we all want to be the best at something, to have the admiration of others because of something we do well. Failure, in the form of criticism by others, makes us doubt our own self-worth, doubt whether we can keep doing the work that was critiqued, or even lash out at the person who dared to critique us.
However you react to criticism, whether it’s to doubt yourself, quit trying, lash out, etc., it’s a human response–acknowledge it. Know that while it isn’t the best part of your personality, it is part of it, and it doesn’t have to be a ruling trait in your personality, either. I’m finding that out for myself.
Step 3: Rethink Criticism’s Purpose
Is criticism by others really a personal “failure?” Actually…it’s not.
Think about this for a moment. When you receive criticism–and I don’t mean thoughtless, throwaway criticism, but really thoughtful and thorough criticism–haven’t you just made someone else think and feel enough to want to respond? Didn’t your words, your art, or SOMETHING in what you said or did strike a chord in someone else, even if it engendered a little disagreement?
I would say yes. And if that’s true, then how could that be failure? After all, your efforts have made someone else respond, and that someone took enough time to put together their opinions on what you said or did–you affected them, quite possibly in a positive way, by making them think.
(One side note here: when you receive critiques on your work, it’s important to sift out the people who just left you a one-line “this sucks” kind of comment. Since these people didn’t take any time to enumerate their reasons behind their opinion, who cares what they think–they are likely only jealous that you did something they couldn’t. Instead, focus your attention on those who have given you thorough critical feedback.)
This more thoughtful kind of criticism, what is generally called “constructive criticism,” can actually help you make your work even better. Of course, most of us would prefer for our ideas to be “right” or “good enough” without anybody else’s help, but just as jewels must be polished to see their brilliance, sometimes our ideas must be polished by others’ opinions and input to bring out the best that the idea has to offer.
For me, this was a difficult but necessary realization. Just because I produced a flawed work that has garnered some criticism does not mean I am unworthy of anyone else’s friendship, time, or love, as I have so often feared. Thoughtful criticism, instead, can be used to make the work even better, to bring the idea to its full flower instead of killing it. The useful kind of criticism is more about shaping and honing the work rather than critiquing the mind behind it.
So when someone else takes the time to critique our works in depth, perhaps the better response is to thank them and ask them to elaborate on what they would change, add, or delete. We get very protective and defensive of our ideas, precisely because they came from within us–but if we realize that others’ opinions are helpful to the process of creation rather than a reason to quit, our ideas and works just might be better for it.
We human beings don’t like criticism very much, especially when it’s directed at something we’ve worked hard on. But as much as we might hate it (or fear it, in my case), it can be a useful tool for us as we come up with new ideas of every sort. Perhaps that rough-cut diamond of an idea in your head is going nowhere, but with the helpful opinions and ideas of another person (or 50), that diamond might just start to sparkle. 🙂