Dealing with creative criticism can be super tough, and frankly something that we would rather avoid to the nth-degree. Yet, for us highly creative types, learning to cope with and reflect on the criticism we receive is vital for the survival of our creative dreams.
I was recently in the situation where I found myself being quite seriously criticised for the work that I do on my blog. I don’t want to name any names or drop any major details, but I did want to tell you that it made me seriously question myself and everything I had been doing up until that point. I immediately fell into a black hole of self-doubt and felt the need to withdraw from the blog for a period of time to get my head together.
At first, I was devastated. I cried a lot and thought seriously about giving the Universe the finger – to say ‘fuck it all’ and just give up. I was putting in so much energy, so much heart, and so much passion into my writing, my sharing, my website, my dreams and ‘this is what I get?’ I thought. ‘I’ll just go back to my day job and just do what everyone expects me to do. I won’t be criticised then will I?’
It is common (and totally normal!) to hold a lot of fear about what others think about us: how we look, the work we do, our decisions, the dreams that we hold close and of course, the precious art that we create. So much so, this fear can often find us paralysed to the core creatively; we stumble at the thought of exposing our insides, for our art is deeply personal. It isn’t about what it looks like or how much money we make. It is about expressing ourselves and what we learn in the process of making that thing; that is what really matters.
Yet in many cases, our culture – the fabric of our day-to-day reality – teaches us to value appearance over substance, aesthetic over meaning, and profitable appeal over and above everything else. This modern society we find ourselves inhabiting can be seen to value pretty much anything that opposes the purpose of art – aesthetic, mass appeal, profit, popularity, beauty – and it often can be seen to celebrate only the art that tends to fit into these categories. The mass produced kind of art: the block buster movies, the best-selling books. Sadly, we live in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey and the Geordie Shore take precedence.
And it also important to remind ourselves that not everyone thinks and feels as deeply as we creatives do. No one else can see the world through our very same eyes, no one else can experience what we have and continue to experience. It is so easy for others to shun our dreams as unnecessary fluff or even the start of a mid-life crisis: “You want to do whaaaaatt?” They exclaim whilst recoiling in sheer terror. “You’re CRA-ZY!” Honestly, you should have seen some of the face of my ex-colleagues last year when I explained I’d be making the move to daily relief teaching in 2016 – priceless.
We feel this pressure as we navigate our creative path with chattering teeth and sweaty palms. Thus, it is tempting to hide ourselves away; to bury our art under piles of paper and angst, making sure it will never see the light of day. We carry it within us, heaving this leaden load from A to B, feeling the pain and the weight of our shame: our inability to be our true selves. We deny ourselves the need to make our art. We deny ourselves the permission to go for our dreams. We beat ourselves up for not bending to convention: for not following the ‘right’ path, the path that is expected of us, the path that is valued and approved of.
A couple of days later, after stewing on the criticism I had received, I managed to simmer down and sit down with my journal. I needed to process it properly and writing is how I tend to do this. As I wrote, I started to come to the realisation that perhaps there was something I could learn, from what this person had said about me and my blog. But not only that. I also realised that what was said wasn’t necessarily 100% to do with me and that I actually didn’t have to take the criticism on board if I felt so inclined. The thing is: it was their words, their feelings, their interpretation of the situation, and not mine. I asked myself for the brutal truth: had I in any way deserved it? Hmm…well…OK – perhaps there was truth in some of it. So I decided to take on board what I felt was relevant to me at that time, and the rest I tried my hardest to push aside and forget about because that was not my problem. I let it go.
Dealing with criticism can be hard but it is important to recognise that it comes with the territory of creating. If we want to pursue our creative goals and make a difference in this world, then we have to share ourselves with the world despite our fears, despite the uncertainty of how people will react to us and to what we produce. Will people like me and my products? Will people buy it and share it with others? Or will people think I’m a dick?
Want the truth? Some will and some won’t. You’ll never ever please everyone and that’s OK! There is no way to avoid creative criticism. Well, unless you are prepared to batten down the hatches and live your life as a hermit. As Aristotle so articulatly puts it:
Another important question to ask is this…how do we know the difference between criticism that has value and criticism that we should just plain ignore?
The thing is, YOU are the one who decides that. You can’t control how people will react to your stuff, but you can control what you take away from the critical experience.
My advice is to: sit with it, journal it out, cry, even punch some pillows if you need to. Once the shock and the hurt has passed, try asking yourself some questions: is there any truth in what has been said? Do I believe that I have done something wrong, or can I see the need to make some changes to what I’m doing? Do I feel that what’s been said is fair and ‘just’ and from a place of total, rational perspective?
Trust in what you feel and what you need in this moment. You – and only you – know exactly what you have done, and what you haven’t done. You know what you want to achieve and how you are willing to achieve it. You know your motivations behind your creations and your dreams. Take away from what was said the lessons you need or wish to learn and then move forward with your fabulous self because you are AWESOME!