Dealing with Criticism: Staying True to your Path amidst the Critics and the Fans

As a kid and into my early twenties I loved to draw. I still do occasionally but nothing like then. Because I did it so much, and I had quality guidance and encouragement I became very good at it at an early age. Praise was the norm, and not just from family, but kids at school who would watch what I did and get me to draw for them also. In an environment where I usually felt like an outsider, this was a source of confidence and strength. This went on until I was 19 and I was accepted into the Drawing School at the Victorian College of the Arts, one of the most prestigious art schools in Australia.

This was an extremely challenging, and initially rather frightening experience, being asked to really push our creativity, to generate lots of ideas quickly. In spite of the fear I was able to push myself through to meet and exceed what was being asked, and sure enough the praise continued. Ultimately, I recognised that I had done well, because I had learned how to model my teachers. I even used to trick the other students into thinking our main teacher had arrived, by imitating his walk through the studio. Succeeding as well as I had, I began to really experiment, and push my own boundaries. The more I did this, the more mixed the reception became. It was very experimental, so not surprisingly there was a lot of rubbish. When the marks finally came in for the end of the year, I was no longer seen as the star student. Within weeks I had left the course. Even before that though, I had started to lose confidence in the teaching and had embarked on my own training outside the college.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, it’s about staying the course, regardless of our fans or our critics. I still find it challenging taking criticism, I’ll be frank about that. Praise is much easier to take, of course. More than that though, praise can (not necessarily) be a way of others saying, “yes we hear you, we understand and like what you have to say.” In truth though criticism, the more bitter pill, can be more beneficial. Taken the right way, we can use it to improve what we create, our performance, the service we provide. That’s why they say, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

I think it pays to be aware, and indeed careful, of letting either praise or criticism go to our heads. Especially in the creative pursuits, if all you can handle is praise, then you may be inclined to stifle your own creativity once you find something that is well received. On the other hand, if you take criticism to heart, this can take you right off course and cause you to give up on your real dream, your mission.

What we have to remember, that walking the path that is true to our most fundamental being, is bound to generate both extremes. Just continue to walk your path. Follow your bliss.

…While I continued drawing after art school, I no longer experimented visually. I adopted a much more traditional approach, and it paid off in some ways. The thing is however, that regardless of reasoning at the time, I didn’t learn how to take criticism and it’s something I continue to work on. It’s not easy. But I know it’s something that I have to face.

This requires getting to the root of self-perception and addressing the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, often about variations on inadequacy – believing we’re not good enough, etc. Most people have no idea that this stuff is going on in the background of the mind. This is the sort of mental conditioning that takes place when we’re small kids, and it arises not necessarily because someone has told us that we’re not good enough, or that we don’t deserve this or that, rather it is simply the way we as children internalise and interpret what we experience.

The most common story I hear, and it’s my own as well, is that we’re told off by someone of significance, usually family. It probably seemed inconsequential at the time. But to the child this can become evidence that they have disappointed someone who they look to for love and support, so the child may understandably become fearful of losing this, their primary lifeline in the world. Returning to these early events, just briefly, seeing them through the eyes on an adult, we can actually reconstruct our narrative of the event and create new meaning from it, meaning that serves us. To begin with, we’re usually better at understanding the story from the perspective of the other players, the parent etc. And we’ll understand their response more in terms of what they were going through. Maybe they were simply tired, frustrated, or even afraid. Did this mean that they loved us one iota less – of course not, that’s just what the child created. Create something better. This is the kind of thing you can work on with a coach or psychologist, as well as trained specialists in other modalities.

So, where are we? Well, the take-home from this, is that if something, or someone, is pressing your buttons, you know you’ve been given an opportunity to learn and grow. Start asking some good questions, even simple ones at first like: What can I learn from this? How can I use this as a chance to develop even more? Knowing this, isn’t this something that we can feel deeply grateful for? And of course, the sooner these things are addressed, the sooner we can get on with living our lives with even more love.

Other Resources

If this is something you would like to learn more about, have a read of this article on tinybuddha. I just thought the name was cool initially, but this is a very useful post and a different take from Robin Sharma on this 4 minute video where he discusses the notion that “unless people dislike you, you’re not doing your best work”.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

I heartily recommend looking into CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), as a very effective way of dealing with states of mind that cause significant disruption, including anxiety, depression, panic, etc.  or you just want to learn some powerful self-help strategies (to learn how to deal with criticism for example). Many psychologists practice this, but there are also free online programs that are proving to be very effective. A couple of these include: Mood Gym from the Australian National University. The St Vincent Hospital CRUfAD clinic’s online course is also free but it requires a referral. Go to: www.crufadclinic.org. This was featured recently on the ABC program Insight.

Here is a link to a great collection of free workbooks which you can print out and do in your own time for dealing with anxiety, panic and other related conditions using CBT from CRUfAD.

I have not done online programs myself, I have, however, done CBT in person as well as used lots of workbook style material – I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.

In my next blog, I’ll write about dealing with Perfectionism.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Criticism: Staying True to your Path amidst the Critics and the Fans

  1. Thank you for this. I noticed myself feeling criticized about something, when I thought I was sharing something intelligent and insightful. It was meant with disdain, and rather than realize that the person was just unclear about the conclusion I was drawing, I choose to feel criticized. I think often we can perceive people are criticizing us, when they really just do not understand us.

    • Thanks for your comment. I love your awareness that you chose to feel a certain way. Misunderstanding is a common motivation of criticism. Other times, they may not like what we do, and that’s ok. When criticism gets a bit nasty, usually there is something else going on, which may be wholly unrelated. It can become a vent for anger, sadness, you name it. This is why I believe, beyond the constructive aspect, the manner of the feedback says more about the person giving it than the object being criticised. It says more about them than it does about us. The classic case of this is with the school bully.

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