When you enter the marketplace, you open yourself up to criticism. You might as well accept that fact. Some people will like what you do and others won’t—and those who don’t may well share their unflattering opinions with you.
Nothing injures the psyche more powerfully than does criticism. Whether warranted or unwarranted, calculated or offhand, criticism is so devastating a problem that millions of people let go of their dreams because of a single critical remark suffered as a child, an adolescent, or an adult. If we want to understand what really helps people heal from their wounds, regain fortitude in life, and maintain a creative life, we have to zero in on criticism and its profound effects.
Criticism falls into three broad categories: actual criticism, anticipated criticism, and internal criticism. Examples of the first are having your painting attacked in painting class, being held up to ridicule by a sibling, or hearing from a friend that your latest sculpture is your worst so far. Examples of the second are worrying what people will say when you unveil your latest paintings, fearing an attack by the critics of your latest installation, or imagining the critical things that your parents will say if you mention that you are thinking of dropping your day job and living on your meager savings so as to have more time to paint. Examples of the third are demeaning your own efforts, feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough, and presuming that you will never realize your goals.
All three kinds of criticism can produce devastating effects. A particular piece of actual criticism can cause us to stop our creative career or decide that we aren’t good enough to compete in the marketplace. Our anticipatory fear of future criticism can cause us to stop pursuing our dreams or refuse to go public with the efforts we do make. Our experience of inner criticism can color our days in a negative way, causing us to be more pessimistic and depressed than we otherwise might be. These are three equally toxic poisons and to eliminate only one from your system isn’t enough. You want to break free of all three and learn what to do to handle actual criticism, future criticism, and self-criticism.
All three brands of criticism come in two flavors, “fair” and “unfair.” If we give a presentation to a gallery owner for which we haven’t prepared and which we deliver poorly, a fair criticism is that we didn’t prepare and that our presentation wasn’t up to snuff. If we give a presentation to a gallery owner which we craft well and deliver well and he tells us that we should have started with a joke, that is unfair criticism. Maybe it has become his style to act snide with artists, but whatever his motivation, his criticism is unwarranted and unfair.
With regard to anticipated criticism, we can picture in our mind’s eye a situation where we objectively perform poorly and then receive criticism. That criticism, while potentially devastating, is nevertheless of the fair variety. We can also imagine situations where the criticism we receive is whimsical, attacking, disproportionately negative, a matter of taste, or in some other sense unfair. Both situations are painful to contemplate. In the first case we performed more poorly than we wished. In the second case we were unfairly treated and must live both with the sting of that injustice and any negative consequences that flow from the criticism.
Our own “inner critic” may likewise treat us either fairly or unfairly. We may evaluate some skill we possess, like our skill at drawing, and correctly decide that our skill level is lower than we had hoped and ought to be improved through diligent practice. Or we may also unnecessarily attack our efforts, demean our abilities, and badmouth our capabilities for no other reason than that is our learned cognitive style and that we have come to automatically shortchange ourselves. Again, both are difficult situations. In the first case, we have correctly assessed that we’ve fallen short and hence need to increase our skill level and get over the sting of that accurate criticism. In the second case, we must deal both with the unwarranted self-criticism and our persistent self-defeating style.
We could make many additional distinctions, between offhanded criticism and calculated criticism, between comments meant as criticism and taken as criticism and comments not meant as criticism and taken as criticism, and so on. But we have enough to think about already. The main areas of criticism that we have to deal with in life are the six I just described: fair and unfair actual criticism, fair and unfair anticipated criticism, and fair and unfair self-criticism. So, what can help us deal with each of these varieties of criticism?
I teach clients that they can ameliorate the effects of criticism by writing ventilating “dear critic” letters that they write, read, learn from, but do not mail. When I present this idea I give simple instructions of the following sort: “Please write a letter to someone real or imagined who has criticized you in the past or who might criticize you in the future.” That’s all the instruction a person needs in order to begin to use this technique. If you feel like it, try your hand at writing a “dear critic” letter today and see if you experience some relief, some healing, and maybe even some growth. If you want to get started releasing some pent-up negative feelings caused by criticism, give this “dear critic” letter-writing technique a try.
Next week: 5 tips for dealing with criticism.
By the way, my creativity coach trainings start the first week of February. Come take a look: