Handling Constructive Criticism Without Feeling Personally Attacked, Defensive, Quitting or Shutting Down

illustration by  Justin Parpan

illustration by Justin Parpan

Receptivity to feedback and criticism is a cornerstone of growth. If you can’t take notes, no one is going to want to work with you. If you can’t take constructive criticism, it’s unpleasant to be in a relationship with you (personal or professional).

When getting feedback feels unbearable, detangling why your is reaction is so strong is imperative to change your reactions. If you feel shattered when you get negative feedback I get it:

During my first year at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, I experienced my first group critique in painting class. In high school, I was a teacher's pet in my various art classes and considered young and talented in adult summer extension classes at Otis College. I was not emotionally prepared for what having my work seriously critiqued by a room full of driven, intelligent, talented peers and professors would feel like. 

My shame and wounded pride was so great, that red-faced and short of breath, I was unable to hear, receive or remember the feedback which was LITERALLY WHAT I WAS IN SCHOOL FOR and would've been useful regarding how to improve, learn or think differently about my work. 

Rattled to discover that everything I painted was not innately brilliant because I made it, I was unable to differentiate between ME and (not me) my work- If I painted a bad painting that meant I WAS A BAD ARTIST, if I was a BAD ARTIST that meant I was a total failure as a human. 

It was an all-consuming, black or white way of thinking, where I assigned value as only GOOD or BAD. Lacking the awareness that I was unaware of the separation between myself and my work resulted in my first few rough critiques being internalized as assessments of my value as a human.  

The experience of going through art school helped me begin to change my relationship to critique and feedback, but also It took years of maturing, growth and work on myself in psychoanalytic psychotherapy to develop the capacity to hear feedback without feeling personally attacked, ashamed and quitting. 

And it’s still hard, but for instance, writing this and putting it “out there” is scary, and if I get negative feedback, it would sting. But, I won’t quit, I won’t fall into a spiral of self-loathing and I won’t think it means I’m worthless.

Many of us were raised on steady diets of mindless praise from our teachers and parents, and find the experience of being critiqued as an adult emotionally jarring. At the same time, many of us were shamed for failures and mistakes. When you combine those two common childhood experiences, it’s no surprise that many people are thrown completely off balance by critique, notes or feedback on their work.  

Sharing work with people is a vulnerable experience. Getting their thoughts can feel painful. To receive feedback on work, you have to be able to stay calm enough to hear what someone is saying and not take it personally. From that foundation, you are more able to think about the feedback and respond with grace and equanimity. 

Sometimes, working as a creative professional, you get notes that are total B.S., ridiculous, or even make the project worse— however, even if you outright disagree with the notes and even if you’re right, your ability to respond calmly, with collected intelligible thoughts is vital. 

I want to start this list by saying all these responses to feedback are normal and predictable, especially if you have a childhood history of being praised. It’s especially normal if you have a history of feeling like your value is contingent on your capacity to give to others, make good work, or be useful in some way.  

Be kind with yourself in regards to learning how to take feedback, if no one ever helped you learn how to do it, it’s no wonder you don’t understand the feelings come up when you get feedback or how to handle them. 

SHUTTING DOWN— If you find yourself shutting down, feeling hopeless or growing terribly depressed after you get feedback, you are probably deeply afraid of what the feedback means about your worth or your capacities as a person. You may feel out of ideas, and like you are unable to move forward. It could be part of an even bigger fear related to the meaning of your existence.

A part of you is trying to protect you from feeling even worse, by having you shut down and forget. Take some deep breaths, and work on coming back to the moment. If you shut down in response to stressful feedback, you may have some really deep things to work on in regard to your relationship with your work as an artist.

ANGER— If your knee-jerk reaction is to feel angry with the other person, or get defensive, then your anger and defensive feeling are working to protect you from uncomfortable feelings. It feels safer to attack the person giving you the feedback then think about the feedback itself. The thing is, usually getting really angry when someone gives you feedback doesn’t help you in any way- it hurts you because people are less likely to want to see your work or tell you what they think about it, and you’re less likely to learn anything. In this case, it can be really important to not say or do anything until you’ve calmed down. Once you’ve calmed down, try to think again about what you heard. Try and think if there is any value to it.

QUITTING—If you want to run away or give up after getting criticism, it may mean that it hurts so badly to not already be great, that you would rather quit then try. It may mean you’re afraid to try and fail. It may also mean that you find the experience of being seen by another person so uncomfortable that anything aside from praise is humiliating. so painful. If you’re already a shame-prone person, giving up probably feels less painful then the embarrassment of being seen trying and failing. Either way, you will learn more if you force yourself to keep trying. If you quit, you know what will happen- nothing. If you keep trying, at the very least, you may begin to understand what is going on that could be improved.

SELF-LOATHING —If hating yourself is your natural response to feedback, you probably have some work to do on understanding that WHO you are is separate from the work you do. Your work changes, depending on how much time, effort and care you put into it. Some work is amazing, some is pretty good, some sucks. This is normal, and not reflective of your worth as a human being. It’s probably pretty important for you to take a deeper look at what could be going on with you that has resulted in your identity feeling so entangled with your performance/work. 

I know that it is possible to work through all these difficult feelings and have a healthier relationship to feedback and criticism because I’ve done it myself and I’ve seen other people do it too. I hope that by noticing the emotional chain of reaction you feel after getting feedback, you will feel more equipped to soothe yourself, and move forward with it. If you are struggling with taking criticism, and it’s causing problems, I would encourage you to reach out and get support on how to start working through these feelings.