How to Deal with Stinging Criticism

Closeup of menacing wasp

Image by digicla

This article is part two in Cynthia’s series on making feedback a positive and empowering part of the creative process, following on from How to Ask for Feedback (without it Blowing up in Your Face).

“You’re not always funny. Sometimes you go on and on and on and I just fast forward.”

This was only some of the feedback I received from a close friend. The rest of her comments about my web TV show felt like a physical blow. Her words stung me and I was no longer able to think, speak or interact properly. Our pleasant picnic was ruined and I left feeling shattered.

But I’ve been writing and making art for nearly twenty years now, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve received criticism that wasn’t kind. You’ve probably faced inept feedback as well. If you’re putting your work into the world, chances are someone has shared comments that may be well-intentioned but come across as an attack.

How to cope with feedback that is harsh, negative, or even mean? It may be difficult to unearth useful criticism when you feel that you’ve been attacked. Follow these six steps to work through it and extract something useful from the sting.

1. Set the Feedback Aside

Give yourself time to let the emotions settle. A perspective clouded by anger or disappointment will not allow for your best work. Don’t do anything right away. If I had gone and looked at my videos while I felt such a blow, it would have been an opportunity for my inner critic to unleash in a way that could have stopped me from producing my show.

2. Consider the Source

Whenever you receive feedback, consider the source. What are the person’s credentials? What beliefs or attitudes is she operating from? What’s her intention or agenda for you?

Decide whether the person giving feedback has expertise or knowledge of your field and whether you can set aside the manner of delivery to find critique that will improve your work. The friend who gave me feedback is a filmmaker so she her perspective could be useful. On the other hand, she could be judging my amateur video making from a professional perspective, holding it to a standard that I cannot achieve at this stage.

3. Process the Emotions

When you get news that your writing is wordy, or that your art is trite, or that your business idea is stupid and downright pathetic, you’re likely to slip into a downward spiral of emotions. You’ll cycle through anger, grief, remorse and despair. It will be a party for your inner critic who loves to say “I told you so. You’re not that great.” This critic will take the feedback and balloon it into something worse. A need for editing becomes the fear that I’m hopelessly boring and that the show is pathetic.

Do not bury these emotions. Give them a chance to breathe so they don’t fester and turn you bitter. Try these tactics to work through your feelings: vent to a sympathetic friend, beat a pillow, exercise to sweat it out, dance. Write it all in your journal or in a letter to the feedback giver. Writing helps to release the feelings and prevents them from circling around and around in your head. Clear your mind so you can discern what’s useful.

Connect with a trusted friend and ask to be reminded of the truth of you and your work. There’s nothing like the salve of our loved ones to soothe a bruised ego. Be sure to speak with one of your biggest fans, and let them tell you how great you are. Soak it in.

I asked another friend if it was true that my show desperately needs editing. He reminded me that not everyone will be drawn to the segments in my show. He also reminded me that even if I could improve, what I was doing already – producing a weekly video show that I taught myself how to do – was still pretty impressive. With that boost, I was able to unplug from the fear that my show was terrible.

4. Look for What’s Useful

Once you feel less emotionally charged, ask yourself these questions: What’s true about the feedback? What can I learn? You’ll know that the emotions have cleared when you are able to answer these questions without getting defensive or focusing on how angry you are at the feedback giver.

Now, when I edit my videos, I hear my friend’s voice. But I’ve deleted the loop that had the negative voice and have kept the part that makes me be more ruthless and sharp with editing. It’s a challenge, and one that I have accepted.

5. Respond to the Feedback Giver

You may want to respond to the person who let you have the brunt of her opinion. Before you do, ask yourself this question. For the sake of what do I need to respond? You may find that you simply want to attack back. You may want to let the person know that she needs to work on her feedback style. Responding may be part of helping you accept the feedback and use it.

Whether you respond is up to you. Be careful in your choice of words. Don’t continue the loop of negativity. My mom always told me, “Rise above it.” This is good advice when you feel like attacking back.

6. Keep Going

We are given feedback to further our creative work. Sometimes it may be harsh or inept. Sometimes we get glowing praise. In either case, do not let any feedback stop you. Use it to fuel your commitment to your projects. Take the feedback and use it to make your work better.

Feedback is a part of life, and an essential element of becoming an actualized creative person. You must learn to process all kinds of feedback and use it to continue on. Make use of my suggestions and let the feedback process – however stinging – become a powerful part of your creative fulfillment.

How Do You Handle Criticism?

Which of these steps work for you when you receive harsh feedback?

What steps would you add to the list?

About the Author: Certified coach Cynthia Morris provides e-books, seminars, coaching and free articles to facilitate the challenging work of creating. Juju Infusion, her web TV show about creative exuberance, can be seen on her Original Impulse Blog. Follow Cynthia on Twitter @originalimpulse.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. My most important tip:
    Realize that nobody’s perfect !

    We all make mistakes, and it isn’t the end of the world. Switch your mindset so that all feedback is help for you to improve.

    Ignore the tone/voice/harshness, and focus on the essence; what is the important part of the feedback, and can it help me improve.

    If you never receive any negative feedback, you probably haven’t tried hard enough 🙂

  2. Mariane says:

    sorry for your painful experience…

    But there is a better way than to suffer in the moment and then go back home reconstructing.

    take charge of the setting. Take responsibility for the flow.

    1. make sure the person you ask for feedback have the time and the proper amount of goodwill towards you to actually put in the hard work needed to deal with work in progress. Never ever ask someone who is on the short end – spend time building the relationship in a true way or else go to someone you pay properly for their professional assesment. Trust is the currency that breeds honest, constructive and sincere feedback.

    2. make sure you are well prepared when you meet. Do not throw half finished work in someones face expecting them to fix it. We are all new to something at some point and it breeds anxiety regardless of age and experience. But if you are honest and truly have stretched for the stars knowing it is the streetlights you have in your grasp and have done your homework then you know what questions you can ask: and then listen, listen and listen some more.

    As you might understand I am not at all in favour of the “FUGGEDDABOUTIT!” approach to criticism.

    reason being this:
    unsolicited comments as well as advice may be dropped as lightly as a feathery cloud and the “giver” ignored completely without any further ado and even in fact be put up to the wall and shot. but! if we ourselves actively enter the social arena on a one-to-one basis we have the obligation to ourselves as well as to our fellow beings to choose with discrimination as to whose opinions actually matters to us.

    and then follow 1. and 2.

    good luck!

  3. Timing on this was perfect. Just went through something similar. Struggled with it and, amazingly, processed it exactly as you outlined. That in itself was a wonderful affirmation.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    Atle, I love your reminder that nobody is perfect. Neither the person producing work, nor the person giving inept feedback. It’s great to remember that we’re all doing the best we can at any given moment!

    Mariane,

    When we’re putting work out there, we’re receiving feedback all the time. The number of visits, tweets and comments for a blog post are all signs of feedback.

    Ideally, when we’re seeking critique to advance our work, we are designing the process as much as possible, as mentioned in my first article about feedback.

    You’re right that it’s up to us to manage our emotions and thoughts about the feedback we receive. For me, unsolicited and unexpected feedback can come as a painful surprise. Without a designed process, you can be in the middle of something shocking. I do experience things emotionally first, then use my logical mind to sort through and process the emotions. And then, as mentioned in step four, I look for what’s useful.

    >>>Do not throw half finished work in someones face expecting them to fix it.>>>

    In my other article about feedback, I emphasize the need to be sure your work is truly ready for critique before asking for comments. This is a vital step in the process and I agree with you, I would never make sometime partially and expect someone else’s critique to finish it.

    Thanks again for commenting and sharing your perspective.

  5. I know of a phrase that helps me a lot. It goes like this:

    “No one is smart enough to be a 100% WRONG all the time.”

    I think it is good to have a structure, to healthily deal with criticism in order to not just react. This is the more “therapeutical approach”. But even though it is a wise approach, it can be very difficult to be this “rational” when one feels hurt.

    I think it is a good idea to look at why the criticism bothers you so and this you can perhaps do on your own. It is difficult to do, but can lead to some very deep insights and understanding about yourself.

    If something bothers you truly, you can’t get rid of it no matter how smart you are. You can of course “put it aside” so that you don’t just react in a foolish way in the moment. But if you don’t deal with the source, it will control you in the end.

    Anger isn’t alwasy bad. In fact, anger comes from the energy to live. It can be great to use this energy to become alive and do something. I mean that angers points at something neglected. What could that be? So welcome frustration and anger as a road-sign.

    Sam

  6. It’s so hard to take the positive from a remark like this!

    The tricky part for me can be separating out the valid part from the simple subjective “I didn’t care for it” bit, which may or may not reflect anything other than preference.

    There exist people who hate Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It doesn’t mean Buffy was a bad program. In fact, Buffy was a magnificent program. It just means Buffy isn’t for everyone.

    And yet, of course, that can be used to justify ignoring feedback that you truly do need. Tricky.

    Thanks for the practical advice on this one. 🙂

  7. Suzan,

    How fortuitous! I’m glad to know that you have the wisdom to lead yourself through a process of sorting what’s good and what’s to be left aside.

    Samuel,

    It is a good idea to look at why criticism bothers us so much. I for one can take things personally, especially when it concerns something I’ve created from a deep passion and intention.

    I’d love to be so cool and collected that nothing bothers me. But then I wouldn’t be much of an artist, would I? If I’m not moved emotionally, I’m not going to be motivated to create.

    I think you’re right that what we don’t deal with controls us. Great point.

    Sonia,

    You’re so right – it is tricky to know how much of the feedback springs from personal preference or craft issues. I can only take the basic feedback – I can improve my editing – and work with that. I’ve been writing for so long that I know that most pieces are served by a sharp and ready scalpel, so it’s the same for video!

    Overall, I prefer to try things, to put things out there and to see what happens, even if I’m not perfect. I’m interested in learning by doing, and sometimes I trip and scrape my knees. I confess it took a couple of weeks before I was able to actually use the advice to be a tighter editor!

    Because my overall commitment is to offering something engaging and useful to my audience, to learning and to leading by example, I’m willing to make mistakes and weather the feedback!

    Thanks for reading and commenting, everybody!

  8. Cynthia,

    Thank you for the steps you provided in this article. I believe each step is important. As you stated, we need to consider the source.

    I also found success in respecting the fact every person is entitled to have an opinion. In fact, I respect someone who does have an opinion versus no opinion.

    It helps to understand opinions are often mixed with subjective (i.e. emotions, beliefs, values, experiences) and objective (i.e. fact, truth).

    A person may not be the best communicator in delivering the message, but defining a person‘s credibility or intentions would be to explore the person’s opinion and ask questions.

    This allows the person to expand from providing a general comment he or she made and helps to separate subjective versus objective information.

    Once objective (fact or truth) is identified, restating the comment by making it a sound (i.e. valid or true) statement will help in deciding whether the comment warrants consideration, and what actions to take to improve my work.

    Thank you for the insightful article.
    Marcy

  9. Cynthia,
    Thanks for this article. I appreciate your willingness to share such sensitive stuff.

    Here’s what came up for me:
    1. It takes a lot of courage to ask for feedback on creative work we have done. I consider it a “high space” to ask and to receive it. When it is unsolicited, I give what they said, less weight. When I ask for it and receive it and don’t like it, it means I am finally ready to take it out of the closet and hear what they have to say and use the feedback. At that point, I am a lot more open and confident that I have taken steps and I need feedback to go further.
    2. I focus on the part that people comment on–given all that they could say. What they say is about them–the part that stood out to them. Perhaps they are triggered by something–even jealous. At any rate it is something about them so I put more of my attention and desire to understand by looking at what I know about them. Finally, I consider how credible they are to me, and go from there.
    3. The more ways we put our selves out there, the stronger we get–seeing that we are pretty darn amazing!!It all becomes more fun and not quite so personal. Thanks again, Cynthia.

  10. I really needed to hear this, Cynthia. Thank you for an insightful post. I find it hard to deal with my inner demons, which arise whether it is harsh criticism or praise.

  11. Dannie Woodard says:

    This is very timely advice for me as I exprct to get my first real appraisel/critique on my work in the near future. I am fearful of my reaction but relieved to see how others have weathered criticism and moved on to even better work.

  12. Marcy,
    Thanks for responding. I like your perspective, inviting us to adopt a fuller point of view around subjectivity.

    And, it’s a great reminder that we’re not always the best communicators, no matter what our intention! I’ve certainly been accused of that.

    Gloria,

    Interesting point about giving less weight to unsolicited feedback. It’s a good place to look – when someone gives unsolicited feedback, is it about them or about me and my work?

    So many issues are at play, awash with all the attendant emotions. That’s why I suggest stepping back and not doing anything for awhile, to let all those issues about potential jealousy or intention settle to the bottom so the good stuff can rise to the top.

    Beth,
    I’m glad this was useful for you! Wrestling with the inner critic is a whole other topic, and one that I love to address, as you well know.

    Dannie,
    Please do read the first article in this series. It’s a guide to designing the feedback process and I think it will be very helpful to you.

    Do not go into a designed feedback process expecting harsh criticism! You’re likely to get kind, constructive feedback when you ask for what you need and the person is qualified to give it.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  13. danniewoodard says:

    Thank you. Helpful as always. I did not know this series existed. I suppose I became so involved in blogging that I dropped out of following some of the helpful sources. Today I reread the first two chapters of BG and being in a goof mood, decided the writing was pretty darn good. Its a bit strange that I’ve become ‘friends’ with my chacters. Reading the third chapter may change my mind!
    Now, back to the first article. Is it permissable to copy and add to my notebook?

  14. Very good tips.

    I have found that criticism that is deliberately mean is more intended to be personally directed, rather than a statement against my work.

    And that is actually pretty cool, because it indicates something about my work really is engaging. Possibly negatively, but still.

    I also avoid people like that, because I’m aware my personal challenges, and prefer feedback on what could be doing better.

  15. Thank-you for a great post. It is helpful to have a step-by-step approach to dealing with tricky comments.

    My own experience has been that quality (i.e. well founded and potentially valuable) critique is very difficult to find, so it is well worth overlooking issues of delivery style.

    I think that quality critique will always sting at least a little, it is an important part of developing work to the next level.

  16. Checking the source from which the feedback is coming from and the intent are very key indeed. Most times some feed backs are just a reflection of that person’s jealousy of your work.

    Thanks for sharing!