The Wall of Criticism

So far, in my explorations of what blocks people and what frees them to create, I’ve neglected one of the biggest causes of derailment. Why? Because it’s a difficulty for me as well as any other creative person. This big, bad stumbling block is criticism.

We all know that the word criticism doesn’t have to carry a negative connotation. But even if peoples’ judgements of our work is positive, it raises the question; is what I have to offer worthwhile? Because the line between getting it and not is fine. The risks of putting our work out there are great.

Being judged can be crippling for artists. It can keep us locked in silence. As sensitive, intuitive souls, sometimes the safety of not producing work is almost preferable to the terrifying specter of the world’s response. We’ve all seen great artists unable to contend with fame, with the public’s expectations. Most of us know how much it hurts to be misunderstood. Some of us would prefer the failure of not doing authentic work over the shame of trying and failing — even if the failure is only in the eyes of others.

So what to do? There are three things I know of. I’d love to learn more. If you know any, please do share them. The world could use any and all good techniques.

1. Taking criticism is a muscle. If you can allow yourself to enter into a workshop or group and listen to the judgment of others, it will get stronger and hurt less. One of the lessons learned is that other people are all just individuals, and their judgements are really only their own and not yours. If you can keep moving forward, keep working, the sting will subside. The trick is to keep inching forward.

2. Support can help. Artists form groups, colonies, salons; places where their war wounds are not only welcome, they are the price of admission. The bond between those who show their work and keep working is real. Find comrades in arms, and be as vulnerable with you can allow yourself to be with them. They will take it as a cue to do the same, and all will benefit.

3. Finally, and please take this with a grain of salt – criticism is a way to learn and get better. It is what stands between you and good work, if you can learn to use it. Within negative reactions there are those you know in your gut have truth. Use that. Learn to differentiate between what is their stuff and what is something you recognize. And by all means, take in and cherish good reactions. For many of us, accustomed to living in a alone with our demons, learning to accept praise is almost as challenging as taking complaints. But even there, judicious use of intuition will provide some ground to stand on; you are the authority on whether the information is relevant or not. Develop that skill. It can help you.

I dream of being able to take the sting out of criticism, so that artists can spend more time working and less time scaling the wall to safety. It takes a lot of energy to be a non-working artist. It erodes ones’ sense of self, of worth, of identity. Knowing you have a voice that needs to be used and yet fearing the consequences if you do can be confusingly toxic. If only the choice of hiding would guarantee safety and happiness. But it doesn’t. It only wastes one of life’s most precious commodities; talent.

What would you do, if you knew people would get it?

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One Comment to “The Wall of Criticism”

  1. I deal with criticism all the time in my writing; it can be exhausting and debilitating. I find that if I re-frame the “criticism” as “support” from people who are engaged enough in my work to want to make it better, then I can stomach it more easily. Not that I have to accept their ideas or advice as God’s truth, but it can help the process.

    Nice post, Doing By Being. I love your blog. It’s a great tool for artists of all stripes.

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