the dangerous spiral of criticism & how to claw your way back out

downward spiral earrings

We’ve been socialized to prioritize harmony and not create conflict.
— Tara Sophia Mohr

Being creative – being an artist – opens you up to criticism. Presenting unique ideas to the world, telling a compelling story, or sharing a work of art will always unsettle people who are comfortable with the status quo. Unsettled people say unkind things.

Tara Sophia Mohr offers two excellent questions to consider when dealing with criticism.

1.) What am I making the criticism mean? In order words, are you accepting the criticism at face value & analyzing as such? Or are you turning it into an accusation against yourself?

2.) How does this criticism touch upon a negative belief I hold about myself? Does the criticism hurt more because it affirms something you already believe is a deficiency?

But when dealing with your creativity, there’s a third question to consider.

3.) How can this feedback improve my idea?

Criticism strings like a bee. And the anaphylactic shock that follows can shut you down. But criticism can also help you kick start a better idea, a more meaningful personal expression.

Criticism can help prepare you for the conflict that true brilliance will always bring.

As an artist, your work – your ideas – your style are an extension of your deepest feelings about yourself, a tangible representation of your YOUness. Even the most well meaning criticisms – from friends, family, lovers – can feel like they’re tearing you down. And we are adept at scratching our own wounds.

When we don’t examine criticism for at its face value, it leads to self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present.
— Annie Dillard

Instead of reaching for big, bigger, biggest, we reach for safe & allowable. Self-consciousness refuses to let you create art. It only allows for “nice.” Ew.

Self-consciousness veils our experience, deadens our vision.

To create your best work, you have to shake off the veil of self-consciousness and become open to the world in a way that is fresh & new.

Every experience is an opportunity to inform you life’s work of art.

Self-consciousness feels icky and it forces us to do things we don’t really want to do. Just say no to self-consciousness and you’re on the way to a freer creative experience.

Instead of thinking about what you would do if you knew you wouldn’t fail, maybe a better question is… what’s truly worth doing, whether you fail or succeed?
— Chris Guillebeau

Whether dealing with ciriticms or self-consciousness, our main fear is failure.

If your wildest dreams succeeded, you wouldn’t be concerned with the occasional criticism or a nagging self-consciousness. You would revel in your success and begin planning for your next success.

But creative people fail. A lot.

And criticism & self-consciousness remind us of that. This paralyzes us, we are helpless to act, create, or express ourselves.

Inaction – or safe action – doesn’t change lives. Inaction doesn’t make dreams come true. Inaction doesn’t even lead to small successes.

Inaction leads to mediocrity – mediocrity just causes more criticism and self-consciousness.

It’s a nasty cycle. But you can claw your way back out. And you’ll have to. None of us are immune to the ravages of the cycle. It’s a disease that infects our creativity and sickens our spirit.

You can work against each segment of the cycle as you recognize it. Or you can work on creating your own upward cycle as part of your creative process.

  • Step 1. Accept that criticism is a necessary and welcome part of the creative process.
  • Step 2. Shed the self-consciousness that comes from negative perceptions of criticism. Experience the world with wild abandon.
  • Step 3. Recognize failure as part of the process and act on your ideas as if it doesn’t matter.

At one time or another, we all find ourselves sucked into the dangerous cycle of criticism. Criticism leading to self-consciousness leading to inaction. But we can (must!) claw ourselves back out, reclaim our own freedom to create, and make peace with the criticism we receive.

How have you been affected negatively by criticism? And how have you turned the experience into a positive one? Tell me in the comments.

{ downward spiral earrings by freeforged }

24 thoughts on “the dangerous spiral of criticism & how to claw your way back out

  1. I’m in the middle of a whole business criticism right now! I’ve been going to SCORE meetings every week and while the wonderful, thoughtful, brilliant retired businessmen are there to help me succeed, I can’t help but feel I’m being criticized being under such a microscope! The men are wonderful, they’re just doing their job of dissecting my business practices which, as I totally learned on the fly, aren’t all correct and in order. I walk out of a session feeling drained and very low in moral.

    But when I go home and do their assignments, I realize, they do know what they are talking about. Of course! That’s why I’m there in front of them in the first place! It’s not a critical eye on my practices but by the way I do them. I go in the following week after I apply their wisdom and it’s much better and they’re glad they didn’t make me cry. It’s enlightenment!

    Sometimes when people give you an “opinion” or “advice” it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s helpful because you’ve had your head down for so long working that it’s a good idea to step away and digest their bon mots. When you go back to it, you see it in a different light. This makes you expand and open your mind more and accept help instead of seeing it as an attack.

  2. Honestly I invite criticism but I am not getting any. I am on a campaign to get feedback that will help me grow. I get all kinds of praise for my work and blog, but no sales. I know much of that has to do with lack of marketing and outreach but it can feel personal. Kind of a reverse criticism. If I am so awesome where are the customers? I invite anyone here to check me out and have at me with the criticism:-)

    1. Hey Gwyn, that’s a great point. I think there are a few ways to solicit criticism (which is often easier to take, too): in a community like TCE, from a mentor, or from peers who you can form an alliance/critique group with. I think it’s well worth reaching out and finding people you can count on to give you helpful but honest critiques on your work.

      Good luck!

  3. As of late, I’ve been getting lots of negative criticism fr family/friends that are worried about how THEY will be portrayed in the memoir/book I am currently writing. They don’t seem to understand the need I hv to write my book, to tell my story. They know my story is very different fr their story.. and so this makes them uncomfortable. I am trying to plug along anyways. I’m in the midst of setting boundaries w certain ppl in my life. Much needed. It’s time. Time to live my life my way and BE ME… not the woman they seem to want me to be, or to fit into. Time to embrace myself and be proud of the person I am! Right now!

  4. My latest experience with criticism:

    I like to re-frame critical comments (good & bad) as “information”. It’s easy to generalize criticism, and then act on it, in fear…and then, as you mention, this becomes a vicious cycle that blocks intuition and creativity.

    My hope/goal/dream right now is to find local mentors/peers that I can share this journey with. It’s tough!

  5. Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with question #2! The most frequent criticism I get about my jewelry is that it is “too weird” or “too freaky.” Which, now that I think about it, are the exact criticisms I used to get from the “mean girls” in middle school and high school! whoa… no wonder it stings! That’s probably why feeling ignored on Etsy can really sting too, now that I think about it…

  6. This is a TERRIFIC post. I get criticism, ironically, from other jewelry designers, because I don’t make all my own glass (I’m a beginning lampworker). I feel like I’m a chef using the best ingredients I can find to make an awesome meal — not a poser!

  7. When I am at my best and creating what I want to – regardless of how “practical” or “smart” (business/money-wise) or whatever – I find I am completely open to criticism. It’s when I’m leaning to hard to satisfy other people or other’s “shoulds” that criticism hurts.

    When I’m at my best, if I fail I can laugh about it and it’s easy to admit. And when I succeed, nothing can take that away from me.

    Thanks for an inspiring piece.

  8. I recently was totally shot down by a fellow artist who I thought was a friend. It was really painful. But once I stepped back from it I realized that sometimes people throw criticism because they feel jealous. Yes, we can absolutely learn about ourselves in how we respond to it. But it is important to remember the criticiser may be just processing their own crap and hurling it at you. Often times it’s not about us at all.

  9. Excellent post, we need to step outside the norm in order to grow & avoid stagnation, but we’re almost programmed to accept mediocrity & keep the status quo. It’s hard to risk criticism & the pain it might bring. It helps to realize where the critics are coming from, that they’re afraid of change & trying to keep the status quo themselves. Thank you for another thoughtful post!

  10. Hi, I’d like to contribute something regarding self conscious making. I wrote somewhere recently that i like self conscious work, but I meant it differently. So maybe I used an incorrect phrase. I like it when the creator is aware of their abilities and limitations and pushes their own definition of what they do, like a self commentary on their technique or the materials. For example a painter that depicts their own creative process in their painting or a dancer who questions what dance is, I guess I like self reflective work, then not self conscious work. Can anyone relate?

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  12. Excellent advice – now I must try to apply it :o)

    I have found that criticism is about 80 percent jealousy and 20 percent good advice. The trick is to junk that 80 percent and not let it get under your skin.

    Nice blog… Keep up the good work!

    1. Hey Duncan! I have to disagree on junking the jealousy. I think jealousy can be a very useful tool for identifying what it is that you actually want. You have to look deeper than face value… but using that emotion can really help distill vague dreams into concrete desires.

  13. Really thought provoking piece, thank you. I for one find criticism hard to take but in some ways this is a useful trait as it pushes me to design better work.

    I think it also depends what the criticism is about, if someone criticized my accounting skills I wouldn’t feel hurt at all, as I don’t see this as put of my identity. Design However is very much an expression of myself so it is personal – I make humour based work so when someone says it’s not good or the don’t get it, they are saying they don’t get me and that really stings and often it isn’t useful advise. I can’t and wont change my work to suit everyones tastes – which I guess at the end of the day was one of the points you are making:)

  14. Every few months I come across another of these “how to view criticism” articles and the best ones, like this, always advise ways of turning what at first glance seems to be an attack to positive actions of study and decision which then render all criticism emotionally emotionally non-aggressive.

    These reminders are so useful to keep things in perspective.

  15. I’ve been thinking about this post since I first read it a few days ago because it’s so true; when you lead a creative life, you open yourself to criticism. When I was in grad school, one of my writing professors told us at the beginning of the term that when we read each others’ screenplays, we were not allowed to say off the bat, “I didn’t get it” or “I didn’t like it” or “Why the heck did you write this?!?” Those comments aren’t helpful. Instead, she urged us to ask each other specific questions about each other’s stories, and find suggestions that would help each of us continue to move forward. The result was a weekly workshop that was more like a gathering of good friends and colleagues who respected each other’s talent. This doesn’t mean that I liked everything my fellow writers produced, and I’m certain many of them thought my stories weren’t great. But criticism, when it’s constructive, is a good thing. If it can improve your art, great; otherwise, take a breath, understand it will probably happen again, and move on.

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