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

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words………

Starry night Van Gogh“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing”

Everywhere I look at the moment there’s discussion about criticism and feedback. Brenda wrote of how some feedback given by experts on an online show was derisive and rude, my fellow OCA students Eileen and Penny have both written this week about their reactions to some hard-to-take feedback they were given, and Tara Sophia Mohr has written a very interesting article on the topic that puts a slightly different spin on things.

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my italics). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

Only consider them, though. It strikes me that a successful photographer can tell you what has worked for them, but not necessarily what will work for you.  That doesn’t mean – at all – that what s/he says should be dismissed. S/he’s successful at something you want to be successful at too and on that basis is worth listening to and has much to pass on that’s useful, helpful and interesting. I suspect, though, that if you put the same photos in front of six very successful photographers, you’d get six very different critiques – each person will give feedback from their own perspective of what they would do, how they would create, all filtered through their particular value system. This can be very useful stuff, but none of them are you, and many of them are only able to tell you how to be ‘them’. To accept without question what they say about your work is as mistaken as dismissing it without thought.

There is also a school of thought that says you have to be able to ‘take it’, that life is full of rejection and that harshly worded critique helps you ‘toughen up’.  It’s mostly men who hold this view (and deliver criticism accordingly), and it seems to be based on the view that ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.  It’s the kind of thing people used to say to justify hitting their children.  Honesty is essential; brutality is not.  People who think that it’s good to knock someone down in order to get them to try harder are often emotionally damaged themselves and don’t have much understanding of human nature and how to get the best out of people.  The big stick may work for some, but most people respond far better to a more enlightened approach.

Mark McGuinness, writing on his blog Lateral Action, gives an ideal example of how criticism can be delivered effectively. At one stage in his career he had several of his poems critiqued by Seamus Heaney, who went on to win the Nobel Prize and who is therefore no lightweight in terms of merit and reputation. McGuinness tells how Heaney focussed on what was working and encouraged him in that, while staying honest about what wasn’t.

“Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback.

Effective criticism doesn’t have to be delivered in a hard-to-take manner, and is usually far more effective when it isn’t.  The problem is that very few people are skilled at this and so, if you want feedback from someone who isn’t, you need to be prepared to take the flak and not let it get to you.  If you can’t do that, and there’s a danger it will end up blocking you in your path, then it seems to me you’re better off without it.  You have to know yourself – how much can you take without being discouraged?

Which brings me back to where I started: criticism, and how it’s delivered, says at least as much about the expectations and values of the person delivering it as it does about the merits of the person receiving it.  It tells you if you’re reaching that person and people like them, in the way that you want to reach them.  It doesn’t tell you a whole lot more than that.  If you’re able to adopt this attitude, it can certainly take the sting out of negative feedback and make it easier to deal with the badly-delivered kind.

I do think there’s a small caveat to this which Tara doesn’t mention: that if large numbers of people give you the same negative feedback then there’s probably something to it and you should take it on board.  That certainly applies to most of us.  Of course, if he were alive today Van Gogh might disagree with that………



Art subjective? – here’s the proof……



I’m dedicating this post to anyone who has ever been floored by criticism of their work – here’s proof that you shouldn’t take what anyone says too seriously even if they are qualified and experienced.

The tutor I started out with on the course I’m currently studying is not known for his tact or empathy.  He didn’t like my first assignment one little bit and criticised it so harshly that it took me the best part of a year to get my confidence back.  I asked for a change of tutor at the time and so the same assignment was marked a second time.  What you see in this post are a few of the images with both tutor’s comments added to them.  I don’t think I need to say any more……except, don’t take anything too much to heart!


Yellow tree

Apple tree