How to handle criticism when you’re an over-sensitive wuss


There are issues I struggle with when it comes to photography, creativity, and art in general. They’re the kind where I seem to have totally conflicting thoughts or mixed emotions, and which continue to niggle at me like a small stone stuck in my shoe. Periodically I try metaphorically banging the shoe against the wall to loosen the stone, shaking it out, only to find when I put it back on it’s still obstinately stuck there. Recently I’ve been grappling with a load of issues centred around criticism, how it’s delivered and how to handle it.

(Warning: this is a loooong post; if you’re short on time, you can just skip to about halfway, where you’ll find some ways of dealing with criticism)

I’m going to be honest – I have quite a thin skin, and on occasions it can become positively transparent. I don’t really believe anyone who says they find it easy to take criticism, but I do seem to take it harder than most. For those of us who have a particularly difficult time with it, it’s often because we grew up in an atmosphere where we were constantly found wanting, not good enough, and not valued for ourselves even when we got things wrong. We like to think that we’re big girls and boys now, but that small vulnerable child-being is still in there and it takes things hard. What we did or said in those days was not usually separated from who we were, so that we’ve been left with the feeling that we haven’t just got something wrong, there’s something wrong with us as a person. This can feel like an attack on the very root of our being; it’s tough to handle, even when you’re all grown-up and sophisticated.  It’s not so bad when criticism’s handed out in a kind and considered way, but when it involves tactlessness, derision or dismissiveness, it can leave you quivering under the bedclothes for the next week.

I think this is particularly so in the creative fields, where our products – if they have any hope of being good – must come from our selves and what lies deep within us. Criticism really can feel like a personal attack, even when it’s not intended that way at all, and it’s not helped by the ‘toughen up’ school, who like to blame us for our over-reaction rather themselves for their heavy-handed inability to deliver something constructive. But, you know, just because we might be a little over-sensitive it doesn’t make their methods acceptable. There are too many stories of people abandoning some creative pursuit or other because they’ve been told they’re no good. Some of these have eventually bounced back and gone on to become very successful in their field. Others have given up for good, and who knows what they – or we – may have lost in the process. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.  Yes, we need to become a little less sensitive, but some critics need to become a little more considered.

I teach, as many of you know. I wouldn’t dream of going into a class of beginners or even intermediates, or – well anyone, really – and telling them just how terrible they are at producing a decent image without expecting them to walk out and never come back. On the contrary: I see it as my job to give them confidence, to find something in whatever they do that can be praised. I want them to go out the door full of life and motivation. This is not a bleeding heart thing: I don’t lie to them – I tell them where something falls down as well, but I’m more interested in bolstering their enthusiasm as this is what will carry them through the learning curve when things get difficult.

Criticism is generally accepted as being essential to growth and progress. If that’s the case, how can the wusses among us handle criticism, especially the difficult kind, without becoming de-motivated and discouraged? Here are some ideas I’ve found useful.

  • Give yourself time to get past your first reaction: if at all possible, try to be on your own or to at least have someone there who cares about you when you receive a critique. When we get negative criticism our immediate reaction is likely to be shock – I have felt it like a kick in the stomach at times – or a deep sinking feeling in the pit of your abdomen, or some other horrible symptom that feels so physical you’d swear you’d been assaulted. You need some time to get over this.  If you have to be criticised in public – and most face-to-face art education works this way – don’t immediately react. You’ll probably feel defensive or completely cowed; either way, you won’t be in any position to assess things objectively. If you have to say anything, you can say that you find the criticism interesting and will take time to consider it. And do just that, but do it later.
  • Get it out of your system: go home, cry, scream, bash a pillow and pretend it’s your tutor, eat a lot of chocolate and hit the wine bottle. Write down exactly what you’d like to do to that person in excruciating detail, how you’re feeling, how unfair life is, and how you’ll never amount to anything worthwhile and how your mother always said that was the case and, heck, she was right all along. Then do something, anything, to take your mind off it – watch a film, go swimming, lose yourself in a book, soak in a hot bath with a cool cocktail, go out with some friends (but if you do, don’t talk about it). Physical exercise is always good for getting rid of the stress hormones; walking somewhere green works well.
  • You should feel a teensy bit better the next day. Probably better enough to give what’s been said some sensible consideration. First of all, is it the criticism itself that’s getting to you, or the way it was handled? Try to separate the two; it’s easy to be blinded to the merits of the first when you’re feeling angry as hell about the second.
  • Ask yourself if the bad stuff was justified? Even a little? Be honest with yourself and try to take a balanced view.  If you still don’t feel it was, it might be worth seeking out some other opinions.  And keep the next few points in mind.
  • Remember that not all criticism is created equal (1): you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take, but is good and fair; you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take and is biased; you can be criticised in ways that are simply mean and thoughtless. If you’re really lucky, you can be criticised by someone who knows how to do it: a fair evaluation of your efforts, some pointers about where it’s gone wrong, some encouragement based on what’s right with what you’ve done, finishing off with a topping of constructive ideas about how you could improve. If you’re at all sensitive, you’ll seek out the first and last of these and avoid the other two like the plague.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (2): consider who’s doing the criticism. Do you respect them? Do you respect their work? No matter how successful or famous someone is, it doesn’t make them infallible. It doesn’t mean they’re always right about your work. It doesn’t mean they have any idea how to help you. But it doesn’t mean they don’t, either, so you need to weigh up where they’re coming from and decide how much importance to give to their opinions.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (3): is the criticism relevant to what you’re trying to do?  I’ve written about this here, in more depth, but if the criticism comes from the buyers at IKEA but you’re doing degree level art, then it just isn’t relevant.  They’re looking for, and valuing, quite different aspects of your work.
  • Make sure you understand what’s been said: go back to your critic and ask them questions – exactly what do they mean by X? What would they suggest you do to change things/improve? Can they give you some examples, other artists to look at? It’s easy for them to dole out the heavy stuff and then swan off into their effortless, sun-kissed lives – make them work a bit!  But seriously, discuss it with them.
  • Try to imagine the criticism is about someone else’s work and you’re trying to get a full understanding of what the critic is actually saying, and how that person could improve on what they’ve done. Really, this is what we should be aiming for at Step 1 – it would save us a whole lot of angst if we could detach a little from it in the first place – but let’s be realistic here, it’s something we have to work up to. You can get some perspective by literally putting yourself in their place. Put two chairs opposite each other; sit in one and pretend you’re the critic, and imagine yourself sitting in the other chair. Now go over the criticism again, and see how it feels when it’s coming from you (you’re the critic now, looking at yourself over there). Do you understand better what your critic was trying to do?
  • Do your best to remember that they are not your mother! Or your father, your headmistress, your Aunt Mabel, or whoever spent your entire childhood putting you down. Much of the time what your critic says is well-meant, even if it lacks something in the delivery. It’s good to remember that.
  • Get some strokes from somewhere: yes, we all know that ‘wow’ comments on Flickr are pretty meaningless, but it’s still good to get them isn’t it? Seek out people who’ll be nice about your work; don’t take what they say too seriously, just use it to give yourself a temporary boost. Psychologists say for every negative we need five positives to make up for it; seek the positives wherever you can find them.  A good idea, if you’re affected badly by criticism, is to keep a folder/notebook/scrapbook of all the compliments you’ve ever had about your work or your person. Then get it out, read it, and you’ll feel a whole lot better. I promise.
  • Get back in the saddle: as soon as you can, go and produce some more work.  Don’t agonise over whether or not it’s any good, just do it and do your best to have fun doing it.  If you’re on a course, give yourself a little break from the coursework and enjoy your photography (or whatever your thing is) for its own sake.  Try to remember why you took it up in the first place; it was because you enjoyed it, wasn’t it?  See if you can get that feeling back.

So, is there anything else you could add to this that might help others?  Please add it in the comments so we can all benefit!  And remember:

To escape criticism –

Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing