Here’s how hard I find it to deal with criticism: I went to therapy for it.
Yep, in a classic bit of middle-class white privilege, significant portions of my therapeutic process have been about dealing with being criticised. A former therapist once reflected to me that “goody two shoes” was an identity I seemed to have inhabited (consciously or not).
Being criticised, even now, strikes a blow to my heart.
Because of the pain that being criticised causes me, I can feel myself sometimes trying to avoid it. In certain situations, I’ll hold back from saying what I really think or sharing how I really feel. These situations are most likely to be:
- In a professional context
- In a creative context
For me, these two contexts are deeply interlinked – my professional life is creative and I run my creative life professionally. They are also two contexts where I feel excited and enthused about what I can do; the change I can make in the world, the self-expression I can share, the knowledge I can gain.
So in the very contexts where I most want to express myself, fully and comprehensively to the benefit of myself and others, I feel myself drawing back for fear of the pain criticism will bring me.
Duh, most people dislike criticism.
I want to pause and note that most people dislike criticism. When you’ve tried hard at something or put yourself on the line, it’s not pleasant to have someone say “Well, actually I think that’s shit” or “You’re not making any sense” or “This is absolute bollocks”.
The difference is whether you dislike criticism but have the resilience to handle it, or you have a fear of criticism, your resilience is low and therefore you do whatever you can to avoid it.
The latter is debilitating and will be preventing you from moving forward with your big, creative dream – because how can you go big and get shit done when you’re only allowing 60% of yourself to turn up?
Criticism vs the other thing.
I want to pause again and distinguish between criticism and something-that-feels-like-criticism-but-actually-isn’t.
The best way to describe the second thing is this: if someone disagrees with you, that is not criticism.
I’ll say it once again, because it’s important and it might not have sunk in: if someone disagrees with you, that is not criticism.
If someone asks, “What’s your favourite colour?”, and you say purple and I say green, we disagree. But I’m not criticising your choice.
Yet many of us are so conditioned to be fearful of disagreement that we conflate this with criticism. I sense our egos can become so puffed up that when someone says “My favourite colour is green” what we actually hear is “Purple?! Oh gross! That’s the worst colour! You’re crazy for choosing purple. Boo and also hiss!”.
We make what other people say all about us. And it’s not.
So why do people criticise?
If people disagree with us, it’s a pretty simple reason why: they don’t agree and they’d like to tell us. Why do they want to tell us? Well, have freedom of speech and most of us, fundamentally, don’t feel that we are often heard, so we like to say our opinions. Loudly. Whenever we can.
And maybe people share their disagreement for the very same reason I just mentioned; they think what you’re saying is a criticism of their beliefs. It’s not, but they’re ‘reading’ that, jumping ahead and wanting to explain themselves.
It’s completely bananas when you think about it.
You: “My favourite colour is purple”.
Them (hears: ‘Your favourite colour isn’t as good as my favourite colour’). “Well, my favourite colour is green, and here’s why …”.
You (hears: ‘You made a stupid choice with purple, and there’s evidence to back it up’ etc). “Actually, purple is a really important cultural hue …”.
I mean, what?!
Disagreement doesn’t mean someone is criticising you. People are generally not great at communicating, so disagreement can feel like criticism. But it’s not.
(An example: I once did a talk on Marxism and fashion based on my MA thesis. Afterwards someone came up to me and said “Well done on your talk. I mean I think it’s all nonsense, but you did well.” Of course I felt crushed and angry at the time. But looking back – they were disagreeing, not criticising. Their disagreement was poorly phrased, but it wasn’t criticism.)
So why do people criticise – specifically, pick a hole in what you’re saying, pull apart your ideas, argue logically around or against it? Not disagree, but tunnel into what you are saying?
I <3 criticism. Sort of.
I sense there are two reasons people do that sort of ‘digging’ criticism which pulls apart what you’ve put out there.
- Because they feel threatened by what you’ve done and want it to be destroyed
- Because they feel excited by what you’ve done and want to understand it more
Another pause – let’s not fuck around and pretend there aren’t people out there who are frightened of you, your power, your creativity and your excellence. There are. They might be anonymous internet strangers, your friends who thought they knew you, or they might be your family.
You, The Artist, might create something which they believe threatens their world – the recent furore over the Good Omens TV series is an example of art which is ‘threatening’ to a specific group. People feel frightened of what you have created, and use criticism to take it apart so it’s destroyed and can’t harm them any more.
But for every person in Group 1, there will be someone in Group 2.
People may be appearing to criticise your work when what they want to do is understand it. They want to get in it, roll around in it, really be part of it. And this well-placed, well-intentioned, intelligent criticism can really help you develop professionally and creatively.
As an example of this Group 2 type of criticism: when I was teaching, we called criticism ‘critique’ or ‘crits’ for short. Students would haul in their work, we’d run through it and we’d – essentially – criticise it.
But we weren’t doing that because we wanted it to be destroyed. When I critiqued a student, or when I provide recommendations for my clients now, I’m not threatened by what they’re doing. I’m excited – I see the potential in it and I want to understand it more. I want to get in there and help them grow, help them blossom and push forward what they’re doing into something world-shaking.
The key is to really listen to what someone is saying when they appear to be criticising you. Are they disagreeing? Are they threatened? Or are they excited?
And under it all, is a need.
Non-violent communication has taught me that under all of our communication is a need. Every time we share a feeling, problem, worry, thought – we are expressing a need that we have.
Recognising the need underneath my fear of criticism was the *ding* moment. And actually, this need is what’s being expressed in my response to any criticism, whether it’s disagreement I think is criticism, destructive criticism or useful critique. My response is always based in that need.
And that need is affirmation.
I want to be affirmed. I want my work to be affirmed. I want how I think, feel and act in the world to be affirmed. I want someone to say “Yes, you are right” or “Yes, you are allowed” or sometimes even just “Yes”.
I want that because from a very young age I didn’t receive that. I don’t remember being affirmed – I remember being encouraged and critiqued and I would not change that for a thing, because that’s what’s helped me do all the things I want to do and get to where I am now. But I don’t remember being affirmed: someone saying “Yes, what you have done is just right and no need to do anything else.” There was always something more to do, think, write, feel, create – always something just out of reach to strive for.
If you are fearful of criticism, maybe this is your need too.
Maybe you need your artistic expression to be affirmed. Maybe you need someone to say “Yes, I agree with your political views”. Maybe you need affirmation of your right to exist in the world.
This is painful, deep down bone stuff. That’s why it’s so important and that’s why it’s always part of my coaching. I could tell you exactly how to improve your marketing or your strategy or your writing but if you have needs which aren’t being met, all that advice will mean fuck all. The needs must be met first.
Meeting my need and fighting fears.
So this is what I did.
I recognised that my fear of criticism comes from a need for affirmation. Then I looked round and said “Right, where is that need being fulfilled? Where in my life am I already being affirmed?”. Then I stopped insisting my creative and professional contexts should fulfil that need, and just let them be.
When I did that, here’s what happened:
- I received a wave of joy and love by acknowledging my need was being fulfilled
- I stopped worrying about forcing my creative and professional contexts into a certain shape
- I freed up my brain and started being myself in these contexts
- I ended up getting my need for affirmation fulfilled through these contexts because I wasn’t trying so hard!
Often, the process of letting go brings you what you need.
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