Artists get scolded often for one thing or another–at least, that was my experience. My art teacher in secondary school (high school to you American readers!) was harder on me than everyone else. She screamed at me about contrast and shadow; for other students, she dispensed “OK”s and “yeah”s. My classmates all saw clearly the difference in treatment. My lot in art class, it seemed, was to be picked on for concepts she hadn’t even begun to cover for other students, not that I saw this as any advantage. This style of experience repeated through much of my life–with me hypersensitive to criticism because it was almost exclusively what I got from my “betters”, and distrusting praise because I got it from people who didn’t have the “eye” that I did.
Along with the view from my parents that painting was worthless, unproductive, and would lead me to starvation, this created a very persistent program inside me to downplay my work. It didn’t work well when I was freelancing; I just wanted to create, and not to market or submit my portfolio and open myself to more rejection and criticism. At the same time, I could clearly see artists with “inferior” work getting ahead of me in popularity and positive feedback; it took me a long time to realise that it came from the amount of sharing they did–not waiting until they were “perfect”, as I was doing, but just sharing, every step of the way.
Before I figured it out, I bitched bitterly about it, holding my self-criticism and painful toiling in the dark as somehow morally superior. I had no one to tell me that it was about courage to put oneself out there. After all, my default “cure” was to listen to my parents to quit painting and to find something else more rewarding (read: lucrative and respectable) to do. People were stupid, there was no point trying to scrape for money with a method as difficult as creating pictures for subjective tastes. I’d received these lectures so often that I could always anticipate my father’s next words. He never knew how much these lectures ruined me for pursuing recognition as an artist, and by the time I once threw this information in his stunned face, I was crying so hard (and still trying so hard to not cry), he shut up and apologised. But occasionally he would return to ranting (for whose benefit, I don’t know) about the financial difficulties being independent creative in this country (true), but I’m the last person who needs to be enlightened on this topic, and by someone who’s been a well-paid salaried employee his entire life.
Darlings, I needed to learn how to tell people to shut up.
But this is not something little Asian females are taught to do. On the contrary, you only earn the right to be a respected shrew when you’re old and have pushed out a male heir whose wife you get to boss around. Then and only then are you given carte blanche to dispense the misery your superiors (males and older people) dealt to you before. Without male progeny, I’ll never qualify according to Confucian principles (alas), but, I have learned some things about shushing one’s inner and outer critics. I’m still honing these skills as I’m learning to come out of my shell.
1. Remind yourself that all critics have only got their limited past experience to go on.
Fine, some of them have vast past experience, but they’ve also been different people producing different work and putting it out for a different audience and during a different time with different technology. Their insight or casually offered advice is only as helpful as it is specific to a situation you may be facing now. If they are not facing the same situation with the same resources (or lack of them), personal challenges, audience, type of work, medium, geographical location, culture and etc you’re working with, be open but listen with a discerning ear. If it’s stuff you’re already familiar and people are just being “helpy” (obliged to be helpful but not having the expertise to actually help), discard the advice. If it seems the advice could be remotely helpful, try it.
2. Remind yourself that you have more wisdom than you think.
You’re going to make some mistakes because they’ll be the only way you get the totality of the lesson. You’re going to make some mistakes because you’re going to experience in a way that’s necessary to you and someone else down the road. You’re going to make some mistakes because they’re going to make hell of a story, and because they’re going to make you human, and humble, and wiser, and stronger.
OK, I can’t actually guarantee any of that, but I believe this is better than being so scared of all mistakes that paralysis and powerlessness are chosen instead.
I choose to believe that making mistakes always comes with the power of correcting them. Of course it helps to fix the small mistakes before they become big ones, which may still come your way.
3. Remind yourself that you’re still worth it.
So you screw up. You still deserve happiness. So there are things about you or your technique that could stand improvement. Still deserve happiness. So you could learn more, and try more, and listen more. Still deserve happiness. So there’s a goal you haven’t reached yet, presumably because you’ve done it all wrong so far. (Bullshit, and you still deserve happiness.)
There are several tricks to learn here:
- Realising that you can still be happy wherever you are in relation to your goal
- Realising that anyone’s opinion of you is not as important as how you feel about yourself. Or in mathematical form:
How you feel about you > other people’s opinion of you
- That self-love is the key to determining your feelings about yourself, and if you don’t have it, you’re going to believe all the critics, all the criticism (even the BS advice), and all the negative programming, because you’ve placed your goals, your dreams, your supportive inner voice, and your feelings last. Because of a screwed-up sense of self-worth (and I know this lousy belief can be taught and imparted), other people’s opinions get prioritised over one’s dreams and self-respect. This practice is toxic. A life of constantly deferring to other people’s opinions, thoughts, and values of your worth is a life terribly lived. Because now you’re not even making your own mistakes, you’re making other people’s mistakes. While you can, for a time, blame others for bad advice, getting burned more than once is a choice. Don’t make that choice too often–it’s a terrible habit to keep.
Being creative and being daring is not something that everyone sees themselves capable of, even if it is my belief that all of us have this potential. And the thing is, while you’re being creative and daring, someone is always going to have something to say about it, and it won’t always be helpful. This is not something you can control.
But you can control how much weight you give that kind of criticism. That is how the inner critic gets shushed.
The attention one withdraws from the unhelpful criticism can be channeled towards something more useful, like getting on with the work.