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What To Do With Criticism

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I don’t care what anybody says, criticism sucks. And it especially sucks when you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, pushed it tenderly out into the world and BAM! some mean nasty says something unkind about it. (Unkind meaning anything other than raving praise of course.)

But, unless you want to live safely under a rock, the business of being unmediocre will absolutely include criticism. So the question is what to do with it when it shows up.

I’m not a big fan of the FancyPants Gurus standard, one-size-fits-all response of “People criticize me because they are jealous.” Some people may be jealous and some people may criticize because of it. But to say ALL criticism is driven by jealousy is sophomoric.  It implies that the FancyPants Gurus should never be called into question. Yeah. Not real comfortable with that.

Another option is to take all criticism personally and to the heart. This is another blanket, one-size-fits-all response that assumes all criticism is created equal and that all critics are somehow superior. It implies that EVERYONE who has anything to say about your work is smarter than you are. Responses that include words like ALL and EVERYONE are usually a tad extreme. Not comfortable with that either.

I think one of the reason we opt for these kind of extreme responses is that it’s easier. If either everyone is right or no one is right, then we don’t have to go to the trouble of actually assessing the criticism to see whether it is valid or complete horse shit. That takes work. and discernment. and willingness. And who’s got time for that?

I’ve learned that if I want to get better at what I do, I’ve got to have time for that.

In case it’s helpful, I thought I’d give you a brief outline of how I (mostly) handle criticism when it gets lobbed my way. (Oh – and it does. Recently, someone on a blog said that I have unresolved child/parent issues which drive me to question authority all the time. Good times.)

Sarah’s Highly Mature  Method For Handling Criticism

1. Criticism arrives. Again, remember that my definition of criticism is anything other than effusive praise.

2. I work myself into a perfect storm and will tell anyone who will listen how horrible, terrible and generally unpopular the critic is. Mercifully, this length of this phase has shortened considerably in recent years.

3. I go for a walk. The first half of the walk is a continued rant in my head about the injustice of the criticism and perhaps the tiniest bit of revenge plotting. Somewhere around the halfway point, I weary of this. I know it comes as a shock but I do get tired of listening to myself after a while.

4. The second half of my walk usually involves looking sort of sideways at the criticism. Not full on – can’t handle that – more like looking at it out of the corner of my eye. Hmmm…..

5. Then I, ever so gingerly, consider the source of the criticism. Is this someone who, up until ten minutes ago, I adored, respected or at least holds the respect of people I like? Or is this someone whose opinion never mattered a hill of beans to me up until ten minutes ago? Or is it some unknown person (these are the worst because I give them all kinds of super-powers in my head). The source has a great deal to do with accuracy. Though I’ve learned that the source doesn’t have everything to do with accuracy.

6. As soon as I feel strong enough and way less defensive – sometimes minutes, sometimes weeks – I pull out the criticism. Upon review, I might learn that it isn’t really criticism at all. Just a really helpful suggestion. Or I might find that the criticism is accurate. I did misstep. I did make a mistake. I did do something (gasp) badly. Or I find that the criticism is small and petty. Here’s a secret  I’ve learned though – if my knee jerk reaction is to write it off as small and petty, chances are there’s some truthful gem in there that I’d just as soon not examine. Icky. But true.

7. I smoke the peace pipe with the criticism, in whatever form that might take. I say thank you for the suggestion. I clean up if I made a mess. I feel pity for the small, petty person.

8. I move on.

In case you are wondering, this is not a linear list. I go backwards and forwards through it until I finally arrive at #8. Sometimes this process is done in an hour. Sometimes this process is done in months. I try not to rush it and I try not to dwell on it. Mostly, I try to learn whatever it is this pighead is supposed to learn to make what I do better.

So there you go. That’s how I deal with criticism. Would love to hear what you do with it. 🙂

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  • Great post Sarah.

    It’s such a knee-jerk reaction to get upset at criticism.  Taking a step back from the situation and looking at what the person is critiquing is an important part of getting better!

    Thanks for helping to provide some perspective! 

  • Dancer

    Yes Criticism is horrible, it feels horrible when received. But it is what makes you or brakes you! I have a love/hate relationship with it.. I want people to criticice me but it doesn’t feel good, and I want to criticice others but society is not letting me ( small circle societies). It has changed drastically with the years and when you get in a “group” they actually add it to their rules to “please do not comment unless is nice”. So I guess society loves to be mediocre…glad there is more people out there that think like me 🙂 Thank you for putting this post in words that won’t “hurt” someone,’ cause I’m sure I would of LOL.

  • If you don’t react to criticism, its because its not criticism. Criticism isn’t supposed to just wash on by.

    But the reaction it generates is good, because it actually makes you think about it. But I always say, if someone thinks enough of you (or hates you enough) to criticize, that means you’re generating a reaction from the people who you are attempting to reach out to. No reaction at all is bad.

  • My biggest challenge is dealing with criticism that’s only delivered passive-aggressively, if at all.

    People try to be so nice and polite that I’m often left baffled, wondering where the constructive piece is between all the subtext. Some days I feel more at peace (resigned?) to taking on the responsibility for deciphering the feedback I’m able to get & recognizing the constructive nuggets. Other days I feel frustrated that “trying to be nice” so often gets in the way of being frank. I’ve learned to try and nip my defensiveness in the bud so I can be open to the nuggets when they come, however messily packaged. It’s good to be reminded that continually looking for remnants of my own defensiveness could be the best thing I can do. Thanks for this reminder.

  • “pedant” of Toronto

    “finally arrive and #8.” did you mean “finally arrive at #8.”?  I hate to criticize, but … (grin)

  • Sowmya

    Awesome, love it..can identify myself with it a lot
    criticism does kind of make me a porcupine…but after reading this i realise I ma not alone…and i need to evaluate the validity of the criticsm before ventilating..thanks!!