Dealing with criticism.

Dealing with criticism is exponentially easier the longer you are a creator, but it's still tough to sit with sometimes.

Being a creator means learning how to cope with self-doubt, and for someone who hasn't developed a thick skin for it, criticism is going to exacerbate those feelings—like gasoline on a fire.

Criticism is something that everyone does, even if they might not mean to, and something everyone experiences, even if they might not want to.

It's safe to say that we creators are especially sensitive to criticism. I know for me one of my most vulnerable states in life is waiting for someone, most often my wife, to finish reading something I wrote. Even though I should be reminding myself that, from experience, she'll likely enjoy it, there's still that looming shadow behind me, that question in the back of my mind, that keeps saying, "What am I doing… Is she going to hate this… Is she going to think I am an awful writer now… Why are you doing this... You're not a good writer..." And so on, and so on.

I guess you could say that even with the people closest to us—including ourselves—we can still feel this impulse toward self-doubt. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because of the responses we are expecting to get; I think it's because most people never learn how to offer constructive feedback.

When offering criticism, people talk about what they like and don't like. That's largely to be expected, especially if you're creating entertainment—which by its nature is designed to entertain, and if it doesn't, people will react negatively to it. This is sometimes painful because no one wants to hear that the thing they've spent so much time and energy on is garbage—and that's a lot of pressure we're putting on whoever close to us we've shared our work with, even if they are creators themselves.

But it's not just creators who are sensitive to negative criticism—everyone is. That's because there is a human component to all this: we are biologically designed to react to negative situations with anxiety.

Before we explore that, though, let's step back and talk about what's going on behind the scenes when someone offers criticism.

Deconstructing criticism.

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

—Normal Vincent Peale

Criticism is a form of feedback that itself tries to deconstruct the why and how of what you’re doing. In a way, any form of feedback on your work is some type of valuation of its contribution to the culture of a society.

However, feedback from one person will usually be highly individual. Sometimes feedback will have societal implications, sure, but unless your reviewer is an academic, ninety-nine percent of feedback will be grounded in the individual tastes of that one person.

Recall that the value of our work can only be set by other people; you can’t provide a valuation of a social artifact that you created—but remember, all valuations are highly individualistic—and since these valuations are highly individual, it would be appropriate to assume that the general reception of your work will be evenly distributed at the very least.

Of course, when you’re first starting out it can feel like you’re only getting one end of that spectrum. Where are the reviews? Where are the people speaking fondly of your work? They’re out there, don’t worry. You just have to be patient. This is the age of the internet; as long as you are putting your work out there, someone somewhere will find it. (You could always work on marketing your work to a larger audience, too. Capitalism instills impatience in us when it comes to our art, and we have to consciously keep the impulse to move faster and faster at bay).

This isn't always the case in the beginning when we're starting out. Some people get lucky and run into the half of the world who loves their work before they get bombarded with the people who don't.

That's definitely not me. I have always had a slew of negativity in the beginnings of my projects. It's to the point now where I just expect that the initial feedback I’ll get on a project will be negative. At this point, I am so used to rude comments and downvotes and baseless criticism that when it doesn't happen, I get suspicious. It's almost like if I don't encounter a bunch of roadblocks and people who are overly critical of my work, I think I'm doing something wrong.

One could argue that this has helped me along the way. I have an easy signpost to follow when I am unsure about myself or my work, even if those signposts are, ironically, people telling or implying to me that my work is garbage.

The important thing to remember here is that everyone's experience will be different. I always hear that luck is a factor; I guess I am just an unlucky person.

So a good way to look at it, at least for me, is that all of the years and years of people not liking my work for whatever reason has given me years and years of learning how to let the really bad comments roll off me and how to pick apart the other ones so that I at least have a takeaway or two. And remember that some criticism won't teach you anything about you or your work, but it will teach you about the person doing the criticizing.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of video game design. In a video game, how do you know you’re going in the right direction? You encounter obstacles, and more importantly, you interact with people who don’t want you to continue.

In games we might call them enemies, but in the reality of your world as a creator, the people who want to see you fail are not so concerned with what or that you’re creating, they’re concerned with the fact that they just encountered someone who is one level ahead of them in the arcade of life.

You are the creator—you are creating something from nothing—and, well, they resent you for doing that.

Do you know how I know this? Because no one who is a creator themselves would negatively criticize another creator’s work—unless, of course, they’re projecting their insecurities onto someone else (which is an entirely human thing to do).

Criticism, then, is not the type of negative scorn that you might have come to expect from years of experiencing it that way. Instead, it is honest feedback that you can learn something from. If you can’t learn anything from the feedback, then it’s not criticism—it’s just someone’s opinion. Simple as that.

You must teach yourself to differentiate between criticism—real, useful feedback—and someone projecting their own insecurities onto you—real, useless feedback. Projecting insecurities is something both creators and non-creators will do, and unfortunately, you’re going to encounter this a lot. Maybe you’re encountering it right now, today. It’s a function of being human and it’s especially prevalent among people who have never worked really hard on their emotional intelligence.

Learning from any criticism—the good and the bad.

“Be an encourager. The world has plenty of critics already.”

—Dave Willis

If you are receiving criticism or when you do (because you will, I promise) it can be frustrating how strongly it can affect your emotions and infect your thoughts. But while not being affected by criticism is impossible, we can learn to stop being so affected by it, and we can do this by encountering it head-on.

Get your work finished.

Get it out there.

Get it in front of people.

Get those negative experiences out of the way so you can make room for the positive ones.

Once we encounter criticism head-on we can start to focus on the human components of criticism—and master the art of dealing with it effectively.

Thanks to the way we have evolved, our minds have an increased capacity to recognize and be aware of harmful things due to a phenomenon called the negativity bias. We are hardwired to place greater emphasis on situations and conditions that resulted in negative feelings than ones that produced positive ones.

Our minds are hardwired for survival—and avoiding negative situations and conditions was essential to survival for our ancestors.

Remind yourself that of course we respond with anxiety and fear when someone is negative or mean or rude about our work—our brains are hard-wired to put a big red stamp on that experience so that we can more quickly classify future experiences as threatening or nonthreatening.

It’s just a tool—a primal response mechanism that we will never be able to change.

And since this visceral reaction is just a tool, we must begin to think about it as something we can learn to control and even use in our favor.

How can we do that?

The first step is to determine where the criticism is coming from. Is this a fellow creator? Or is this just a random person on the internet? Who is offering the criticism should greatly impact how much you care about it. If it's just a random person online, they might be one of the many people in this life who define their worth by their judgment and review of things that other people—like you—have the courage to create and share. On the contrary, if this is someone who also creates things, are they really trying to help you, or are they projecting insecurities about their own work?

Determining where the criticism is coming from will help with the next step, which is to determine what the criticism is for. Is someone criticizing something you made? Or are they criticizing you directly? If your first response is to feel hurt by what they said, it may be because they themselves are hurting inside, and they're projecting their insecurities about themselves, their own work, and their lives onto you and your work. If someone is criticizing you personally because of a creation that you shared with them, the only response they deserve is this: "I'm sorry you don't like yourself."

You may also have some room to grow if you feel like people are attacking you directly but they are actually only talking about your work. The tricky part about this is that there are two perpendicular forces that will sometimes clash with each other:

  • On the one hand, we have people who have never learned how to give good, constructive criticism without attacking someone personally or offending them

  • On the other hand, we have creators who are sensitive people by nature and who have yet to practice the art of separating criticism of one’s work from criticism of oneself

Since we can only control ourselves in this world, our only hope is to 1) practice recognizing when someone is projecting, and 2) focus on divorcing our sense of self from our creations.

It will take practice, but over time, this will become second nature to you. Once you can determine whether or not someone thrives on negativity in this life by defining their worth in this world by their reactions to other people’s creations, you can save a lot of time and energy by not engaging with them.

The final step in learning how to control our reaction to criticism is to constantly remind ourselves that there is more to you than your creations. You are an incredibly complex human being, and your work is only a small glimpse into a very thin sliver of who you are. I’ve said before that our work is our way of expressing ourselves—but that doesn't mean our creations can express all of ourselves. No, our creations are just little envelopes of self-expression, pieces of us that we have chosen to share with the world.

And so when it comes to people in life who constantly have to have an opinion about everything, who are constantly shooting down the hard work of others, now you can see just how sad those people are. The thing they choose to share about themselves with the world is their sad, lonely, and self-loathing perception of themselves, and that’s disappointing.

If you really want to emphasize this point, take a step back and look at how much more courage and strength you have shown by choosing to express yourself through your creations instead of negative comments about other people and their creations.

Be proud of yourself for transcending that simple worldview—that something is bad just because you don't like it.

Remember also that some people are just jealous that you have done this thing and they cannot. The price of success is to bear the criticism of envy. Remember that.

Ideally, you'll follow these steps and find someone who has been in your shoes that offers constructive criticism on something you made. That's what I would like to see happen but I can tell you, having been creating different things for many years, usually what I get is negative criticism and sometimes it's targeted directly at me.

And to be honest, sometimes people call out my work for having something that really is bad. Some of the reviews on my first fiction novel, Burrow, pointed out that there were some typos and grammatical mistakes in the first few pages. Imagine how I felt, here with a Master's in English and as someone who is trying to be proud of my developing skills as a writer, learning that I published a book with a bunch of typos. It's embarrassing. It’s hurtful.

It’s a shot of energy for those negative thoughts about myself and my work that I have worked so hard to restrain.

But mistakes like that, even if they are shown to me through negative criticism, only give me opportunities to improve. I love when people tell me how I am doing something wrong—as long as I can ask them questions about what they think "doing it right" looks like. Obviously for typos and grammar mistakes, those are just things I had to go back, find, fix, and republish (it's a Kindle book, thankfully, and I have the only print copy).

And yes, that hard-copy is full of typos. And you know what? I make sure to keep it in a prominent spot on my desk at home to remind me that it's okay to be proud of something that is or was flawed to you at some point in time. Maybe it still is. Whatever. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be proud of your hard work—no matter what the outcome was.

The journey is always more important, especially when you’re still finding your voice and developing your craft.

In my case, the negative comments were basically a road-map for me to follow, a checklist of what I needed to do to get my creations from good to great. It is my hope that when you encounter criticism, you'll keep these things in mind so that the energy you spend on it is productive and healthy.

Keep creating. Keep going forward. You can cross the river even if the current feels overly strong, even if you have to spend a little time learning how to build a bridge first.

So to recap:

  • Negative criticism is to be expected. It means you're going in the right direction.

  • Is the person criticizing you or your work? If it's you, brush them off—they're trying to make you feel like they feel (which is insecure). If it's your work, ask questions and see if you can find something to put in your toolbox.

  • Remind yourself that you're strong and courageous for sharing pieces of yourself with the world through your creations.

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