To Thine Own Self Be True and Other Difficulties


The other day, I went on a business forum I’m a member of, and I asked for some feedback on a few projects I’m working on. I got some. And then I was hurt and angry.

Hmm. As someone who has made her living designing things, I thought that I’d gotten good at asking for feedback only when I’m willing to hear whatever someone has to say. (When what you make is part of a business discussion, it can get a little callous, so it helps if you learn strategies for toughening up.)

So I clearly blew it this time, which I only  realized after I got feedback I didn’t want. AND, to make matters worse, I hid my hurt and displeasure and thanked them for their comments.

Oh brother.

And then I had a fight with my husband instead. Alas.

Because he basically said, “Who cares what they think?”

Well, it turns out I did. Too much.

Mostly, I was afraid they were right, and I was afraid about the amount of work it would take to do the things they suggested (which I felt they didn’t know how to do, or they wouldn’t have suggested it so blithely).

And rather than take those criticisms with a grain of salt, I  immediately began to question all my choices about things that I had been feeling great about and that I’m good at, and that sent me reeling.

And this is when warning bells should have gone off for me. Why was I so willing to question what I’m good at because of the remarks of two relative strangers?

It turns out that when you pour your heart into something, the tender art of sharing can feel risky no matter if it’s your artwork or a business effort.

I have been “making” my business projects just as much as I “make” any artwork or craft. It was hard to have them corrected or misunderstood in what felt like an offhand way by an expert.

Of course, this is harder when you respect the opinion of the one who is criticizing.

The Tricky Art of Receiving Feedback

As people who make things, we’re all in this situation of having a bad reaction to feedback at some time or another. Sometimes just anticipating negative reactions can stop us from taking risks or sharing our work.

For instance, when your project is “unresolved” as we like to say, or simply wet or unfinished, it must sit out somewhere in the “public area” of your household so you can look at it a while to consider what’s next, or maybe just so it can dry.

But that also means that it sits there exposed for appraisal by others as well, as your husband/partner/friends/children pass by.

It can feel like you’re exposing some elemental part of yourself, anyone can see the raw “trying” or the unmasked “doing”, that you cannot fake or dress up.

And it’s a fact of life that sometimes our spouses or families won’t “get” something we make, or they may joke about it (What IS that anyway? Hey Ma, did the dog throw up?).

Or sometimes they say nothing, which can feel worse (as our inner critic fills in the imagined blanks).

Creating anything is a form of risk-taking and most people won’t do it. When we take a risk, we usually feel pretty vulnerable. If our efforts are met with criticism or indifference, it can hurt.

Lessen the Risk

One way we can lessen the risk is to not confuse ourselves with our projects.

When I make something that sucks, didn’t turn out that well,  it doesn’t mean I don’t have talent or that I’ll never make anything wonderful. I’m not my worst project, and I’m not my best either.

At the same time, we have to trust our own opinions and commit to our own vision–even when we’re still feeling our way through a new idea or technique.

It’s important to respect other people’s opinions, just not more than our own.

Getting on Your Own Side

So I’ve been on a tear the last several months learning a tremendous amount of useful business information from a variety of experts, trying to learn and adapt and absorb as quickly as I can.

And suddenly, the other day, when I got so upset, I realized that somewhere along the way, I had relinquished my sovereignty, made my own opinion too secondary, and ended up looking for too much validation outside of me.

Why? I think it was about being afraid of doing something wrong. Of trying to avoid making any mistakes.

This is akin to wanting all our artwork to be “good”. Well, it can’t be good all the time, and if we really want to grow, it definitely won’t be good sometimes.

If we look outside of ourselves too often for permission or approval, we not only make ourselves miserable, but our actions also lose their integrity.

We might be learning something new and trying to make something “good” at the same time, but we have to balance the importance of the opinions of people we respect or experts we’re learning from with what we know/believe/want for ourselves.

So really it wasn’t what the people in the business forum said that was so bad, even if it didn’t feel so skillfully delivered.

What was unnecessarily painful was that I took it to heart and decided it was truer than anything else I believed myself.  I gave it a power it didn’t deserve, so I gave it permission to hurt me. And it did.

While it isn’t easy to “be on our own side”, what’s ironic is that when we are, it makes everything else so much easier. It’s easier to make things, it’s easier to experiment and take risks, and it’s easier to hear what other people have to say whether it’s insightful, skillfully said, or not so much.

Because when we begin to commit to ourselves, we begin to honor ourselves and our own creative process as well.

So I got to re-learn that painful lesson the other day. I’m sure I’ll have to learn it again from time to time when I forget to trust myself, but hopefully, those times won’t happen as often as I continue to practice the subtle art of being on my own side.

How about you, have you had this experience? Are you afraid to make something and “fail” somehow? Afraid that the people you love and respect won’t think you’re talented? Leave a comment or send me a note, I’d love to hear.

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  1. Karen says:

    Wow. Powerful stuff. You will probably help a lot of people by sharing this so openly.

  2. Wow. Hard. That sucks.

    I’m sorry you had to go through all of this … and relieved that you’re figuring out smart ways to think about it.

    My own personal rule (which you don’t have to adopt or anything) is: I don’t ask for feedback from anyone who isn’t one of my Right People.

    Because, in my experience, the feedback of people who don’t get it isn’t worth very much. And it hurts. And it’s so often completely irrelevant. Oh, the stories!

    Anyway, you are so right on so many things. It’s awesome.

  3. Sarah says:

    @Karen–thanks, I hope so!

    @Havi–Yes! So true about the Right People thing–I actually think that’s why I felt so hurt–because I thought that was what I was doing(!) Which got me thinking about how important the sovereignty thing/being on our own side is, because we can’t always be right/safe about these things. Easier said than done of course–as you speak so wonderfully about on your site!. :-)

  4. Nat says:

    I think working in the creative industries is far more challenging than anyone outside them can understand. Naturally we pour some of ourselves into our work, and we can’t rely on facts and figures to say “yes, I calculated things correctly, therefore, I am doing my job perfectly.”

    You’re right Sarah, taking criticism is really really hard. Thanks for posting your advice. Glad to have found your blog through Brazen Careerist.

  5. Sharon says:

    Love it! I feel the same way too very often. It is, however, the judgment developed inside ourselves over time allows us to take what feedback is good for us and what’s not.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Faith says:

    Wow! This is so helpful for me to read right now. I am a performance artist so often what I am putting “out there” is very personal and by its nature vulnerable — since it’s me, my body, experiencing live how the audience is reacting. I’ve been thinking about this so much — how to put some distance between the performance and me as a person — so that I can handle it when the crowd’d not into it. Because of course they won’t always be. And especially if you’re into taking risks and making discoveries… well, what you’re risking is that people won’t follow you, won’t connect, won’t get it, and that hurts.

    I’ve been thinking about the ‘toughening up’ that is required… I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m equating performance art with civil rights, but in a way I think there is something to be learned from people who take the worst slurs used against them and reclaim them. I think taking the worst criticism that you can imagine or that you’ve heard said about your work and wielding it with pride — quoting your worst reviews in press releases, say, or titling your sculpture “piece of shit” — can be a way of owning that risk and not letting it overpower you. But I don’t know, I’m still working it out. Obviously.

    Anyway, thanks for giving me some good perspective!

  7. Susan says:

    I find confidence in my work when I really understand what I’m doing and why. It may not have the intended result (which can be exciting) the first or second time but I know where I’m going and, with convition, I go there. This gives me a stable base from which to receive feedback. I know I may have to explain what I’m doing before a real conversation can take place.

    I also avoid asking people outside of my area of trust to (either professionally or personally)comment on my work. You have to find people who are open to your work, how you’re pursuing it and where you going with it and that’s a rare find. You can’t expect people who don’t have a backgound in your medium (whether an artistic pursuit or not) to understand what it is to produce your work. It just doesn’t translate across diciplines without helping them understand what you’re doing and why. And if they don’t understand, I take what they have with a grain of salt but not as a personal insult or a serious suggestion.

    That’s been my experience. NIce to hear that others struggle with these issues as well.

  8. [...] thought I’d continue to explore the nuances and perils of getting feedback (and the different ways it can manifest) because it brings up a lot of complicated feelings that [...]

  9. Sarah says:

    @Susan–so true, and good to remember that people who don’t have a background in your medium probably won’t understand–easier to take it when they don’t!

    @Faith-Wow! Yes, performance art is really putting your art out there because you are your artwork! I find your idea interesting of owning the negative reviews/criticism and reclaiming them. And a work called “piece of shit” –it seems like we could get it to the point where it’s just really funny instead of hurtful. Thanks for reading and I’m SO happy it was helpful for you. Keep me posted as I’d love to know where you end up taking this thought stream…

  10. One of my fabulous clients sent me this post. I learned about what you are sharing here many years ago when my ceramic artist business partner educated me on how you aren’t just putting a finished report or a new piece of software out there (those these, too can require a type of creativity), you are putting a piece of your heart and soul out there and it can be VERY vulnerable. I love the phrase “stay on your own side.” So crucial. Thanks again for your post.

  11. Victoria says:

    A central part of art is the gift. It is what you give in the artistic creation and present to the world. Not every gift is received or embraced with the love that was poured into it. But that rejection should not stop the artist from pouring more love into the next project. Keep in mind you will never control receiving. What you do control is giving love and art to others. Identify your real, authentic source of love, keeping that source open to continue gifting art to others.

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