There are few things in life quite like being told that something you’ve poured your heart into isn’t good enough. It hurts, of course, like a sharp sting or a festering wound, but honest criticism can be the only way to see the flaws that were hidden in our blind spots. If we want to become the best versions of ourselves or create the masterpieces that we dream of, we can’t just cover our ears and drown out every voice that might say something we don’t want to hear. But on the other hand, we’ll never be anyone or accomplish anything if we take so much negativity to heart that we despair of ever being able to do anything right. Between these points is a broad middle ground, but the question of where precisely to stand on it is one that we probably all struggle with at some point in our lives.
I would be lying if I said that I had all the answers. In fact, I’m writing this post for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s. Because I’m struggling.
But I’m reminded of the day my brother and I went to the store with our mom as kids and there were miniature cacti on display. Living in Wisconsin, we’d never seen a real-life cactus before. We thought these must be fake, like the plastic flowers that try to imitate the real thing. We both agreed on this, but my brother was the one who reached out to touch it. Well, we found out very quickly that it wasn’t fake, and I was lucky enough to learn that lesson without getting a needle in my finger. The point? An observer can learn from another person’s failures as much as from their successes. I might still be figuring this out, but I’ve given and received hundreds of writing critiques in the past few years. That’s a fair bit of experience. So here’s what I have to offer.
When Receiving Well-Intentioned Feedback, Be Gracious
Even when you want to cry or scream or whip out your most colorful array of insults, please resist the urge to turn on someone who is giving you feedback that you asked for and is honestly trying to do so in a helpful manner. Exploding on this person is a surefire way to upset them, and upset people are prone to either fight back by becoming even more harsh or to give up trying to help you altogether. And anyone else who witnessed the explosion will probably have much the same response if you later want to turn to them for their opinion. This will not help you accomplish your goals.
Of course, some well-intentioned people may not be great at giving feedback. They might criticize something that isn’t a problem. They might be vague and unclear. They might be unnecessarily harsh right off the bat. Far better to thank them and move on. Especially because anyone who was making an honest attempt will probably have told you something helpful, even if it seems like nothing in the face of what you see as being all wrong with their feedback.
If they tell you your short story is so bad you should throw it in the trash, but they correctly pointed out that you have a problem with neglecting commas, thank them for the grammar tip. If they tell you that your lullaby needs more cowbell, but they also spoke about how the piece evoked a certain emotion, thank them for telling you how they experienced the music. If they tell you that you’ll never succeed at basketball because you’re just too short, well, ok, tell them that isn’t helpful and ask if they have any feedback on something you can actually control. And if they’re a garbage person who really crosses the line, like a sexist who tells you the way to improve yourself is to be more submissive to the men in your life, ok, F them. But don’t burn any bridges that don’t need to be burned. And keep in mind that some positive reinforcement or a polite talk (if you know the other person will be receptive to it), can result in better feedback next time.
This also brings me to my next point.
Don’t Respond Too Quickly
When receiving feedback, especially if it hurts, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a step back and wait for the initial wave of emotion to pass.
If you’re receiving feedback in an email or another text-based form, don’t reply until you’re sure your thoughts are clear. A good strategy might be waiting until the next day. Or maybe for you it’s waiting an hour. Different people will likely develop different strategies, but I definitely recommend that you experiment until you find what works for you.
If you’re receiving feedback in person, you obviously can’t stall in responding, but you can keep it to a simple, “thank you for your feedback” and promise to take some time to think about it. You can always get back to them later if you decide that you have follow-up questions or if you want to tell them about the changes you ended up making thanks to them, but a reasonable person should recognize that you don’t have to make up your mind right there on the spot. If they do press you, I’d suggest politely telling them that you’d never considered that and perhaps explaining why you need more time to consider a particular point.
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of arguing with the person. Not only will this cause hurt feelings, but you just might find yourself cooling down and coming to realize they were right all along!
And that is why you should follow this next advice.
Don’t Write Off Criticism Without Consideration
Some criticism is going to be bad. Some is going to be so transparently bad that you can write it off right away and never give it any credence. But sometimes you’re going to hear criticism that seems bad just because of how much it hurts you to hear it or because of how much it conflicts with your viewpoint. It’s important to remember that your viewpoint isn’t the only one in existence, nor is it the only one that matters. It’s also important to remember that just because something hurts, that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. If you can be empathetic enough to put yourself squarely in someone else’s shoes and strong enough to face even the most painful of truths head-on, you’ll be able to reach heights never dreamed of by those who don’t bother to make that effort.
Think about a time when you could see something that was clearly a problem and you tried to tell someone who refused to hear it. Ever tried to argue with a flat-earther or an anti-vaxxer? Ever tried to tell someone they were being racist when they insisted there was nothing wrong with what they’d said or done at all? I bet you wished they would at least stop and consider what you had to say.
On a less extreme end of things, consider someone in your chosen field who’s ignored advice you think they should have followed. Whether it’s a film director who insisted on including a scene that no one else in the production understood the point of or a business person who ignored negative feedback from a focus group and went on to launch the worst-selling product in their company’s history, you can probably think of some examples. Don’t be one of those people.
Remember You Can Never Please Everybody
No matter what you try to do or who you try to be, there will always be somebody out there who doesn’t like it. The most famous painting in the world has people who don’t get it. The best-selling novel will always garner one-star reviews. And the most universally beloved person you can think of is almost certainly hated by somebody.
Are these people wrong? Well, that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? And that’s the thing. This is all a matter of opinion! The question is: whose opinion matters to you?
If you’re trying to sell a novel or a knitting pattern or a software application, you are going to need some customers. But you don’t need every person on earth to be your customer. If you think about it, you probably don’t even want them to be. If your novel is about a family escaping the horrors of North Korea, you probably won’t expect Kim Jong-un to be too fond of it. If your knitting pattern is for a baby hat, you probably only care about the opinions of parents. And if your brand-new app is only available on Apple devices, you would be a fool to waste any marketing efforts on Android users.
But there will also be people out there leaving a bad review of your restaurant because they don’t like the way you season your food. It’s impossible to account for every person’s taste. What one person loves, another person hates. If you try to create a dish that pleases everyone on earth, you’ll either end up with something no one objects to because it’s so bland or you’ll give up on cooking altogether because it can’t be done. You can give your customers options for low or medium or high levels of spice on a plate of hot wings, but even within those categories you’ll find people saying your medium should be hotter, right next to people saying it should actually be milder.
Some advice you have to ignore. Or, if not outright ignore, choose not to follow. Set your goals wisely. Are you setting out to achieve your own personal vision, no matter what anyone else thinks? Are you trying to sell enough of your product to make a comfortable living? Are you trying to create art that speaks to one particular group of people on a deep level? Whatever the case, decide before seeking feedback and weigh all the feedback you receive against it. If your dancing moves people of your culture or subculture, don’t worry that someone far outside it has complaints. And if not everyone within your chosen group likes it either, be content with most of them. You were never going to get 100% anyway.
As for how to be content when there are people telling you they hate the things you love, well, that’s something I’m still trying to figure out. I guess at the end of the day, we each just have to try as best we can. Knowing where to draw the line between what feedback you accept and what you ignore, how much criticism you seek out and how often you draw back to nurse your wounds before they incapacitate you, these are the questions for which we each must find the answers. If you’re finding your own way through this, I wish you the best of luck. At least we know we’re not in this alone.
One thought on “Handling Criticism”
Great insights on criticism. What most helped me accept criticism without being defensive was finishing more stories; that helped make a given story less personal and easier to view objectively. Of course, accepting criticism is only half the battle – then you have to find ways to turn around and use that criticism to make qualitative improvements to the story, which might be even more challenging.
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