Criticism Stings, and that’s Okay
Image by sadaharuoben, available under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Criticism Stings, and that’s Okay

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence

“One bit of criticism cannot be overcome by fourteen complements.” Barbara Sher

Criticism stings.

Surprisingly few “successful people” out there are willing to admit this simple fact. Yes, they all address the issue. They tell you not to let criticism affect you. But rarely do they admit to being bothered by criticism themselves. They are beyond this. And they say that you too should be stronger than criticism.

We know, great wise sage, most criticism comes from people who have never created anything themselves and don’t know what they’re talking about. We’ve been told that if you’re successful, there will be haters. It’s a good sign, it means that what we’re doing matters. We’ve all heard these messages, and they’re true.

But is telling ourselves such things enough? What if it still stings? What then?

An Admission: Criticism Bothers Me

I’ve found that thinking about critics’ motivation helps, as does time, experience and confidence. But even now, after years of putting art out into the world, criticism still stings. And you know what? I’ve accepted that. It’s okay.

Instead of waxing poetic to you about how you must be bigger than criticism and not let it affect you, I’m going to grant you permission to hurt.

There’s nothing shameful about admitting that criticism stings like a mo-fo! It doesn’t make you weak.

Give Yourself Permission to be Hurt

I think that if the “successful people” of this world stopped trying to convince the rest of us to become immune to criticism and instead gave us permission to feel whatever it is we’re feeling, criticism would be easier to get over.

Instead, we’re expected to be bigger than criticism. To “learn how to deal with it”. And if it still gets to you? Well, keep that to yourself. For god sakes, don’t admit it! Admitting that criticism stings is a sign of weakness!… Right?

Well, guess what. I don’t care how successful you may or may not be. I don’t care how invalid, well-meaning, non-constructive, incorrect or misconstrued the criticism is, or whether it’s cloaked in positive reinforcement or delivered in the friendliest possible manner; criticism still stings. And being hurt by criticism is nothing to be ashamed of– it’s normal.

So by all means, get used to being criticized, learn to let it go, and develop a thick skin. If you get to the point where criticism no longer affects you, that’s fantastic. But in the meantime, I hereby grant you permission to hurt.

It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.

The only exception I’ve found is when I ask someone I trust for feedback on a project. That’s usually incredibly helpful and not painful at all. For some reason, that sort of critique– the solicited kind, feels… consensual?

***

Does criticism ever sting for you? Be honest.

38 Comments

  1. Emilie says:

    Hey sorry everyone, for some reason my comments were turned off. No idea how that happened! However, it’s rather ironic that it happened on this particular post… haha. Anyway, comments are now open. Post away!

  2. Lex Mosgrove says:

    Finally, someone eventually dares to say it! Yay! :)

    No, seriously, criticism (nearly) always hurts. Even if it’s constructive, and sometimes even when it’s consensual (though I think in that case it’s painful because it pointed out some truth you did your best to deny).

    I see the point in the whole be-above-criticism talk, after all, if I was sulking for as long as I wanted to every time I was criticized, I’d never get out of that corner again.

    Yet you’re right – pretending at all cost to be immune to criticism-induced pain doesn’t help anyone.

    • Emilie says:

      Thank you Lex!

      And yeah, I agree. There’s definitely something there with the be-above-criticism thing. Criticism certainly becomes less shattering once you understand those things. And yet it can still be painful, especially for writers/artists, or really anyone who puts something personal out into the world.

  3. Criticism hurts frankly. What do I do when I get criticised? I don’t suck, but I feel the pain and agony, am human not a chip or micro-prosessor (they get hot too :D)

    Recently, I was told am a twitter addict. It was painful, but I tried to hide it. The truth is I am. Rather than break down totally, I dusted myself and focused on what changes are necessary.

    Thanks for taking us down this thought path and your boldness. (Y)

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Jesse,

      Yeah exactly. There’s no point in letting it ruin your life. But there’s also no harm in wallowing in the pain a little before you decide what to do with that criticism (assuming something can be done with it at all)… I think a bit of wallowing is completely healthy though.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Telling someone that they should not let criticism affect them is like telling someone with a broken leg to “walk it off”. It’s silly, condescending, disrespectful and completely unrealistic.

    Now, let me tell you what I really think. ;-)

    I’m actually being very sincere here. I have never understood any guidance that involved telling someone to pretend that they don’t feel what they feel or telling someone to try to talk themselves out of feeling a particular way. Your feelings are what they are. Logic doesn’t come into play. If it did, we wouldn’t be talking about feeling. We’d be talking about thinking.

    If I stub my toe, it’s going to hurt. It’s perfectly reasonable for me to swear (loudly), grab my toe, jump up and down several times while continuing to curse (maybe a bit less loudly) until the pain subsides to a reasonable level. Since the human brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain, it’s just as reasonable for me to do the emotional equivalent when someone criticizes me.

    If by “rise above it” someone means to feel what you feel, learn something if you can and then move on, fine. But, I doubt that that is what most people mean when they say that.

    We’re human beings. We feel things. That’s normal. That’s good. It’s how Nature intended us to function.

    Many thanks to you, Emilie, for having a candid discussion about this. It’s an important topic.

    • Emilie says:

      Nicely put Kellie! It’s amazing how often people try to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be feeling. If I feel something, I feel it– end of story.

      This is one of the things I appreciate about Barbara’s approach. She seems to really encourage people to accept/honour their feelings. It’s great. I’ll definitely have to find my way to one of her events sometime! It’s gonna happen.

      Thanks for sharing Kellie. :)

  5. Thanks, Emilie!

    I think people want you to feel a certain way for a few reasons. One being that our culture labels feelings as “good” or “bad” when they really just “are”. Another being that your feelings may trigger an uncomfortable reaction in them. By stifling you, they are stifling themselves and (temporarily) making themselves feel better. I think a 3rd may be that it helps them convince themselves that whatever you are suffering from is somehow under your control and, therefore, something that couldn’t happen to them. I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that come to mind.

    I totally agree about Barbara’s approach. Her stance on emotions is one of the key things that drew me to her and her work.

    You probably know this, but she has a Scanners Retreat scheduled for late-April in France. I attended one in early October in 2010. It was, in every sense of the phrase, life-changing. I strongly encourage you to beg, borrow and steal whatever you need to in order to attend one of these retreats. You won’t regret it!

    Hugs!!

    • Emilie says:

      Really interesting! People are definitely uncomfortable with emotions at times (for the various reasons you mentioned, and possibly others). I’ll have to give more thought to this– I see a potential future blog post starting to form in my head… :)

      And I’m already looking into how I might make the Scanners’ retreat happen. I’ve got a few ideas.

  6. Mark says:

    The haters can always hate an criticize. I’ve gotten my fair share of hate emails and comments coming through, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me at all. What’s nice is having an awesome group of like minded individuals, family, friends, and leading an awesome life. Nothing can get in the way of that.

    • Emilie says:

      So true Mark. Support is fantastic. It also helps you get past criticism. Just being able to call up a buddy and talk about it can make you feel a whole lot better!

  7. Tom says:

    Hi Emilie,

    I am still at university and have written some film scripts, one of which was made into a short film.

    I relish the ‘consensual’ feedback from my tutors, and director/producer, as it allows me not to be complacent and helps my scripts grow into something better.

    That being said, when you spend hundreds of hours pouring your heart and soul into your art, one offhand negative comment can really get you down.

    I tend to respond to criticism by ignoring it or trying to rise above it, but from now on, I’m going to allow myself to feel the pain of it. I’ll try not to wallow for too long, but it’s better than trying to squash the pain.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Tom,

      As a former film student and aspiring TV writer myself, I can totally relate. A lot of people are really insensitive to the fact that you did pour so much of yourself into your art. But it’s like you said, that consensual feedback can be quite helpful too. I learned a lot from my teachers and class critiques.

      But I feel like in those contexts, it’s more like minds coming together to try to make your piece as good as possible. They’re not simply trying to point out where you went wrong, they’re trying to help. It’s a blurry line, but there’s usually a distinction.

      Good luck with your writing and the film pursuits. I was just checking out your blog too, which seems really awesome! I’ll definitely be swinging by from time to time. :)

  8. Ayngelina says:

    I was once told my site was boring and whiney at best. Now I smile when I think about it because someone felt strong enough to insult me, ha!

    • Emilie says:

      Haha that’s awesome. I received some early criticism along those same lines in the early days, which I too fondly look back on. That kind of criticism usually comes from people who DON’T have their own blogs. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

  9. Jesse says:

    Now, I can just feel the pain of criticism deep, like a knife jab.

    I have been contributing to this blog as a volunteer and helping drive traffic. Only to be told by the author of the blog that my comments on twitter are embarrassing to the blog.

    No thank you note.

    Haters would hate, critics have one job, to criticise, and they do it darn well. (Some are more humane with criticism than others. However, the name doesn’t change)

    The good part it, like nay sayers, we should feel it, but not sink in it. Right now am feeling hurt, but tomorrow, I would bounce back on my feet.

    The fear of being criticised could helm us in and cause stagnation. May that never happen. +1 emilie <3

  10. Nick Laborde says:

    I have to admit that, I’m the one who’s always telling myself and others that haters are a good thing. I believe that strongly but on the other hand it’s kinda a shield against the sting of it.

    I also view that sting as a great sign that I’m pushing myself beyond my comfort zone… that is a good thing.

    It’s just like exercise, if you quit just before it starts to hurt, then you’re not making any progress. If you do a couple more reps past the pain point, then you will see some momentum.

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, I’ve been guilty of that too Nick. And I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I just think it’s okay to feel the sting as well.

      You’re dead on with the pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone stuff. I think a lot of people are so afraid of feeling discomfort that they run from it at all costs. But there are major benefits to sticking it out. (And momentum is awesome huh?! Love that feeling.)

  11. Julie says:

    Yes criticism hurts, but only for a short time. Once I get over the initial sting I usually take the information and question the heck out of it, making it into a learning experience. Were they right? Were they wrong? Maybe I didn’t communicate my idea good enough. Whatever I end up doing because of the criticism is a positive for me; whether I agree with the criticism and improve or disagree and become stronger.

    • Emilie says:

      That’s a good way to view it, Julie.

      I guess the amount of time it takes to get over the sting depends on how it’s delivered. Sometimes criticism can be really unnecessary and hurtful. But you’re right, often you can learn from it. That’s one reason to get past the pain, though I do still think that allowing yourself to first feel that pain and not deny it, is important.

      Thanks for the comment Julie. :)

  12. Chase Night says:

    Haha, I was so confused yesterday when I tried to comment. I really like your end point about criticism you’ve sought out being consensual, which implies that unasked for criticism is like some kind of thought-rape. You’re doing your thing and someone just comes at you, telling you how you’re not good enough and it just feels so raw and violent. What’s the point in doing that to someone? Even if someone genuinely says “Can I give you some constructive criticism?” and really means that, it’s better than just being attacked. It definitely hurts, and it’s definitely not healthy to pretend that it doesn’t.

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah… I mean not to minimize sexual assault or anything (eek), but it does feel a lot like thought-rape, doesn’t it. Like something “raw and violent”, as you put it– exactly. It’s totally unnecessary and unhelpful.

      By the way, I read your post about Augmented Humanity and I’m definitely considering buying it, though I may wait till I finish one of the 4 books I’m currently reading (a common scanner problem)… But if I do buy it, I shall use your link. :)

  13. Consensual criticism is the best!

    Seriously, getting criticism means you’re actually doing something. It’s a win…sort of. The people who are never criticized never do anything. Criticism is just an external form of resistance.

    Oh yeah, criticism stings, and it will continue to sting like the barb of a monstrous insect. The question is, will you let that stinger break off and infect you with it’s vile poison, crippling your further efforts?

    I’ve had that happen, and the results are disastrous.

    I find that it helps to take a ‘f**k you!’ approach to criticism. For me, a little defiance goes a long way.

    If anyone reading this wants to get some experience in handling criticism, try posting a few things on reddit.com. Many of the comments are great, but a few are guaranteed to be nasty and brutish.

    • Emilie says:

      Haha I like your imagery there Seth. And I like the way you frame it as external resistance. You’re right, it has the same quality, in that it could prevent future creations, but it doesn’t have to if you don’t let it. And like inner resistance, sometimes acknowledging it is the first step toward overcoming it.

      Thanks for the colourful comment Seth. :)

  14. Angela says:

    Criticism has always hurt me, bad. I’m learning more and more to take it and learn from it, but it still does hurt. I used to think it was because I was weak that it hurt so much, because it IS rare to see successful people talk about criticism hurting. It does bring some good though to see what needs improving. Thank you for talking about this subject. It’s one I definitely needed to re-evaluate.

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks for sharing Angela. I’ve noticed the same thing, successful people tell you to just ‘get over it’. But emotions don’t work that way.

  15. Jason says:

    Hey,

    You suck for not having your comments on! Ha ha just kidding, I love ya!

    I’m up late drinking coffee. So I don’t care much wtf I am saying!

    As far as criticism goes, I hate it, but dammit if only people would just

    realize How insanely inferior they are compared to me and just SHUT UP!!

    Ok , just kidding again!

    But I did have a paper due for my English course and part of it was “peer review” Man, they abused me!

    I was like, “ok, that’s cool” I will find out if any of this is credible

    (it was) and F the rest right?

    I guess, I do hate it, it is so much of what holds me back!

    Good post, sorry to hear you were troubled when the comments were off.

    I don’t have any comments on my blog and frankly I don’t really give a

    shit, but that is only because I haven’t put much real effort into it.

    I will get out of it, exactly what I put into it… No more no less,

    averaged out over time, of course!

    Jason

    • Emilie says:

      Haha thanks for that, Jason. :)

      You should consider opening up comments at some point. As much as the criticism sucks, I receive far more positive feedback. That’s the stuff that really lights me up. A little bit of criticism is a price worth paying for the love and support and interaction with awesome people, in my opinion.

      Thanks for the comment Jason. Hope you managed to get some sleep.

  16. Mark Powers says:

    Darn you for beating to writing this post, Emilie. :)
    Yes, of course it’s completely human to feel (and admit) the sting that can accompany criticism. My friend Todd plays drums for the band Styx. He mentioned once how difficult it is to go onto YouTube and see videos of himself from performances and clinics. Everybody and their mother tear him apart in the comments. I personally feel that Todd is one of the absolute best players on the scene right now. But, even at his level, seeing that [often immature] criticism can be detrimental.

    • Emilie says:

      Wow, yeah that’s so crazy! I think YouTube commenters have got to be the absolute worst on the web! So brutal. How does Todd deal with it? Does he have any tricks? I think I would probably just avoid YouTube if that were me… Not sure.

  17. Kim says:

    Hell yeah criticism hurts. We’re all human, after all. I’m glad you called it out because I’m don’t think it’s healthy for people to think they have to let it roll off of them all of the time. Perhaps, as an artist, you feel things a bit more deeply. Isn’t that, in fact, what you’re good at? Strong people power through, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Good post.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Kim,

      That’s very true about artists. We open ourselves up and pour the private aspects of our lives into our work. As a result, we’re so much more in tune with what we’re feeling. So yeah, it’s that much more hurtful for someone to just swing by and make some offhand remark.

      Thanks for the comment Kim. I’m liking your site btw. :)

  18. Steve says:

    First off, I would not classify myself as an artist…I’m much more on the science side of things. I don’t mean scientific, just more on the numbers, logic, rules, etc. I think that sometimes that equips me to handle criticism better…as long as the criticizer is giving me proof or an opinion based on something they’ve actually done.

    Also, I’ve found that it can sometimes actually be difficult for me to get the level of criticism I would like.

    I must admit, however, that criticism from loved ones does hurt. While it is often the more well-intentioned type, it just sometimes is too close for comfort.

    As an aside: I’ve not really been a commenter on blogs up to now, but am starting. I’ve enjoyed your writing lately and look forward to what you do in the future.

    • Emilie says:

      Good point about the sciences. My little brother and I were talking just today about this. He was saying that he likes math and science because there’s always a correct answer. I’m not sure if that’s exactly true, but it is far less ambiguous/subjective than the arts. I can see how it would also be far less personal where criticism is involved.

      Thanks for the comment Steve. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  19. Matt R says:

    Glad you re-tweeted this!
    Criticism hurts.

    It reminds me of when I was doing my rejection adventures.

    When you let yourself feel a negative emotion like criticism and rejection, then you can understand why your brain is reacting the way it is. You can ask yourself, “Why did it sting that much?” so that you can slowly create that thick skin.

    That’s why it is important to do crazy things, be creative, and take risks.

  20. Thanks for the great article and encouragement, Emilie!!

    I’am working hard on learning to stay calm when being confronted with criticism lately. And I’m trying to divide the helpful, somewhat practical part from the harmful, somewhat personal one. There’s very often some grain of advice even in a very bitter feedback I get and very often there’s plenty of projections, anxieties and ego-stuff mixed up with it.

    After the first rush of negative energy has flushed my nervous system I do try to calm down in order to understand what has happened. Sometimes I have to try very hard for instance when criticism comes form beloved ones and/or is attacking my scanner/creative personality fundamentally. And sometimes I realize the person critizing me to be incapable (in contrast to unwilling) to understand me which triggers an attitude of compassion rather than anger inside of me ;-)

    I do think that it is very important to consume lots of the great advice, inspiration and thoughts you and others offer so generously in order to foster ones proper creative identity. That again might be a consequence of and leading to realizing that there’s people who can and do understand and are therefore capable of giving great, helpul advice and that there are others that are not. And it might lead to realizing that we are meant to choose the people we want to get into deeper conversation and encounter with where we didn’t have that much of a choice when we were younger ;-)

  21. Gabrielle Stubbs says:

    I got very upset today when a manager made a passing joke to a friend about my gift painting to her , asking if it was the right way up – he did not know I painted it- it was impressionist blossoms , not abstract .
    I put a lot of emotion in my art work ( it is an escape from office day job) so I know I have taken it personally.
    I felt a big loss of confidence in my painting . I have come on this site to know if I am over sensitive and how to deal with people who make comments disguised as jokes. Thanks !

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