Friday, 15 February 2013

An artist's guide to dealing with put-downs and critics

Yesterday, one of the participants in my #creativebeing online artists group asked an excellent question that I think many of you may have:

"..........I would very much like your advice about how to deal with put downs to do with a rejection of my art work by my parents? I have got to the point where I don't show them (or most people) things that I have done."

She also wrote about a comment that a friend had made on her Facebook art page, asking who her pseudonym is, but that's another blog post!

All artists will deal with their work being misunderstood, disliked, even ridiculed, at some point, so it's important to have a system in place to deal with this.

Here's a simple version of the process I use to deal with put downs.

1) Make sure it actually is a put down.

Many people suffer from severe foot-in-mouth syndrome, we've all done it at some point!  Social media can make this even worse, putting badly thought out, throwaway remarks on a screen for all to see and for you to read over and over - and read far too much into.  

Even spoken comments can be taken in the wrong way, leaving you thinking you've been put down when no such thing was intended!

Before you react to a put-down, make sure it was actually meant as such - most of the time you'll find it wasn't!  Ask the person politely to clarify what they meant, perhaps (on social media I would switch to private messaging for this).

2) Consider your own baggage

Most people don't harshly put you down, so what we're talking about are suggestions, or comments with a possible double meaning.  

The truth is - if we are feeling low about our own work, we will be more vulnerable to the opinions of others.  

A put down will never hit home unless we believe it ourselves.

It's vital as an artist to get a good grip on your own inner critics and develop your self esteem constantly, so that you are more able to take the criticism of others without it stopping you from working or sharing your work.  We deal with inner critics on my free UnEarth your Creative Nature eCourse, we also spend a whole week dealing with these critics - inner & outer - in Follow the Butterflies.

It's important to have a good regime of self care as an artist, to enable you to deal with the inevitable criticisms you will face.  Make sure you support yourself with what you need to cope with critics!

3) Consider the source

Is the person putting you down a great artist?  Do they have the type of happiness, fulfilment and success YOU long for?  Are they, in short, living your ideal life?

This is the best question of all to check whether you should take criticism on board or not.  If somebody isn't already happier and more successful than you are (not by the 'common' definition but by YOUR definition), then their opinion isn't likely to be very useful to you.

Another thing - our parents and other family members, whilst they may be very wise in other areas, may not know tuppence about art.  Recognise your own expertise as an artist and accept that not everyone knows enough about your artform to offer a helpful critique.

We are far too inclined to value the opinions of others over our own, when the truth is that YOU are the expert on how to live your best life, and make your best art.

4) Consider the reasons for the put down

Don't spend too long on this one, as it can lead you to pointless speculation about what's going on in another person's head - which is never terribly helpful!  

In the case of parents and others close to you, chances are they are putting you down out of a misguided wish to protect you from disappointment and harm.  

Many of the people I work with have suffered at the hands of parents, teachers and other 'caring' people who think that putting you down will 'toughen you up', or 'protect' you in some way from 'the big bad world out there'.  

Some family members and friends may see art as a road to poverty and disappointment, even mental health issues, as this is the way it is often portrayed in the media.  They may think that telling you your art is rubbish will save you from cutting off your own ear or dying in a garret somewhere.

Whilst this concern is touching in a way, it is badly expressed by undermining your ability to make and share your art, the very things you need to do to avoid the fate they are so worried about!

The truth is, those close to us can be harder on us than anyone else, not least because we care about their opinion.

Accept that somebody close to you is well-meaning, thank them (either in the real world or just in your mind) for their concern for you, and move on.

Another, less common, scenario is the person putting you down deliberately out of unkind motives.  In this situation, the best reaction is compassion for the person.  A person must be very unhappy, and possibly creatively frustrated or stifled themselves, to be taking it out on you by trying to stop you being creative.

Remember, though, that compassion in this case probably doesn't mean you are the best person to help them - so avoid that trap!

5) Take it like a pro and don't make it personal

Sometimes, a put down can be a useful observation badly phrased.  For instance, the friend asking who your pseudonym is (and perhaps subtly suggesting that you should use your own name instead), is giving you another person's perspective on something you've put in the public realm.  

That doesn't mean they're right, of course, but it's useful information for an artist to have.  Take is as a professional would and don't make it all about you as a person - make it about the work.  

You can't look at your work from another person's perspective, so these 'outside views' are a great way of checking that your message is being received as you wish it to be.

Ultimately, though, remember that YOU are the expert on your work and your personal brand, so never let the viewpoints of others make you go against your own better judgement.  Many great artists weren't really understood by their public at first, so if you believe in something you're doing, stick with it and people will come round.

6) Ask yourself: Does this serve my purpose?

This is a valuable question for absolutely everything that faces you as an artist.

Life is very short, and most of us feel we have little enough time to spend on our artwork.  Anything that stands between you and putting the beautiful art inside you out into the world DOES NOT SERVE YOUR PURPOSE.

Contrary to popular opinion, there IS enough time to make your art - but there isn't also time for things that don't serve your purpose, trust me.

If a critic is stopping you from making art, find a way to move around them and keep creating.

So, next time you are feeling put down as an artist - check it's actually a put down first, and check what baggage you're bringing to the situation - do you need a better support system for yourself?  

Decide whether the person putting you down is happier than you are, and if know, respectfully ignore their opinions!  Understand that most critics mean well, and that some of what they say may actually be useful feedback, but that doesn't mean their opinions are valid - trust your own expertise.  

Lastly, ask yourself if listening to the critic is helping you to be a better artist.  

Ultimately, it's up to us what we allow to distract us from making and sharing our art.  We choose whether to let critics - inner and outer - have power over us.  The only way, in the end, to deal with the challenges of being an artist is to keep on creating regardless.

Take back the power, fellow artists, and get busy!

Do you have any tips for dealing with critics?  Please share them and your other thoughts on this in the comments section!.......................
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  1. Arrrrgh! This post is awesome. :)

    I identify with it really strongly--every aspect of it speaks to me as an artist who was self-conscious as a child and wouldn't show her drawings to ANYONE--especially her parents.

    I wrote a lot more earlier, but I had to fetch my Google profile and it got lost in my clipboard--I feel it needs restating, though: This post rang true for me. As an artist, you can't listen to people who are "trolling"; You can't think too hard about people's motives; and you really can't take your dear mum's comment the wrong way when she doesn't interpret your favorite piece exactly the way you intended it to swing.

    I'm going to be following you, my dear fellow artist! :) You seem to eloquently say what needs to be said for many!

    1. Thanks! I'm pleased that it resonates with you :)

  2. This goes further in life than our art, and this was a great reminder.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I need to remind myself, often, of these things as well :)

  3. wise woman Jani...this happens all over, not just an artists thing! For me acceptance, clear boundaries, and really working on my own awareness of what is my "stuff" and what is projection of those is a constant work in progress....blessed be xxx

    1. Yes, those three paths do lead to things being much easier, don't they! Bright blessings to you x

  4. Thank you, Jani! Another brilliantly helpful post! xo

    1. You are most welcome! Thanks for your kind words :)


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