Risking Criticism


"We won't lie. The decision to become visible is a risk." - Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

We have put ourselves out there, followed the dream, taken the stand, shown up because it was right and necessary… and someone takes a pot shot, undermines us, talks trash. Being visible can suck. Not acting because we fear visibility is worse.

In order to be criticized for what we’ve done, we have to be willing to do something. Sometimes the continued activation of our true Will in the world can feel difficult because it means we fly above the radar. There is no longer as much room to hide from ourselves or others. This is true whether we end up in the larger public eye, or step forward within a small community of friends.

This is often the bane of work on scales small and large. We grow tired of scrutiny, or shy from even the idea of scrutiny. We complain about other people’s projects and have to field complaints about our own. There are two facets of this that interest me:

First, when I am offering criticism of someone else’s project, it isn’t just good form to think of something to compliment them on in order to bracket the critique. What is more deeply important is that I have to realize the risk and effort required for them to have put the project together at all. If I can start with that, my view changes immediately, which then enables my critique to offer more valid information. Truly, something in me needs to applaud the chutzpah and will necessary to have dreamed the dream, nailed the boards together, built the coalition, organized the event, written the book, planted the garden, raised the child…

The attitudinal shift I’m speaking of changes something that connects me more deeply to my core and broadens my vision of what it is I am facing that I wish was different. This applies in multiple situations and with many people: at work, at home, amongst friends, with public figures, artists, politicians, committee members. If I can access my frustration after I acknowledge an appreciation of someone sticking their neck out, I bring both power and compassion to my response. That is always a good thing. It also serves to shift mere carping and complaining toward actual criticism, that might help me or someone else to learn something different.

The second thing I want to address is our internal difficulty with ideas of perfection. Thinking things have to be exactly a certain way or be counted as failures not only attaches too much importance to the outcome rather than the process, it ties our life energy up into knots, often with the help of thoughts and emotions. When we are worried about “what will people think” we are not moving from our core desires, nor are we daring to enact our will. We allow fear to dictate our growth and our learning. We end up staying home, smaller and less rich than is possible.

In order to enter the creative phase of activation, we have to be willing to risk censure, derision, and even applause. We have to be willing to be seen. To help turn energy toward greater flights of daring, let us make an internal turn first: whenever we start to criticize someone - even ourselves - can we first pause and thank them for showing up to try? That alone is a source of inspiration.

Since everything is a risk, we may as well learn to shine.

28 Responses to “Risking Criticism”

  1. Leanne Pemburn

    This may point to part of my current work. Thank you, another nugget to chew on!

  2. d.bella

    Fantastic post, Thorn. Especially appreciating the paragraph about the pitfalls of perfectionism. Kudos.

  3. Kaye Luck

    In the way these things happen, I just read an excellent essay on envy and it’s root causes. This ties in nicely since it also works to move critique away from being rooted in envy and a sense of lack and into a place of honoring the effort. Thanks!

  4. Jesi

    Sometimes, when I see you have a new blog post, I will read the title and know it will make me uncomfortable. This is one of those times. 😉 Thank you for posting this. It is something I have been avoiding working on… that needs to change. Blessings, Thorn, for your teachings and your kicks in the ass!

  5. Soli

    I’ve been learning this lesson over the last few years in two arenas: belly dance and grad school. With dancing, I now find I WANT my teacher to say “you’re not doing this correctly and here’s the problem,” and I even know now when I am not executing a move correctly because of it. I can even watch others in my class and see where they need improvement, though I am nowhere near the ability for teaching yet. With grad school, the criticism makes me a better student and potentially scholar and librarian. I’m getting sick of As in some arenas, even, because I feel like I am just putting out stuff and it’s supposedly amazing. No no, that doesn’t help me learn and get better at this, it just says I have been in my job a long time and seen a lot.

  6. Beth Ann Mastromarino

    This is exactly why I have committed to blogging every day for a year: To get over the fear of rejection, and even the fear of acceptance and the pressure of expectations (from both myself and others). Constructive criticism is always welcome in my circle of compatriots, complaining from those sitting on the sidelines is not; The first, we take to heart, the second rolls off our back.

  7. Crystal Blanton

    Thank you for bringing this topic to the forefront. This is so true and can be really challenging to deal with. We have to bring light on how we treat one another, including those who are able or willing to do what some cannot. It is essential to our sustainability.

  8. Rosalind Lord

    If someone only says “This sucks,” that doesn’t tell me anything. To me, that just means they’re bitching, moaning, and/or whining.

    But if someone says “This is not working for me,” and then describes why it’s not working for them, and makes suggestions on how it could be changed and/or improved, then that is helpful to me. I am willing to help them.

    I experienced the former type of the criticism when I was growing up (and consequently went through a phase of being very sensitive to it), and the latter kind of criticism in my line of work. Knowing this distinction helps me.

  9. Helen

    Thank you Thorn, this post was very helpful to me as a blogger/writer.

  10. Sphinx

    I liked that you mentioned perfectionism here. It is sometimes the thing that stops me from sticking my neck out. ” isn’t perfect enough yet.” However it is usually the imperfections and flaws that give whatever I try to convey the most depth, the most ‘realness’.

    Brene Brown talks about this in her TED talk,
    “The Power of Vulnerability”

  11. JuJu

    So often when I read a blurb you’ve posted on FaceBook, I am drawn to go read the entire article. Invariably, I am rewarded by a “drink of water” in what is often (both metaphorically and literally here in New Mexico) a dry, DRY land. This blog could not have come at a better time.
    I have RE-set my intention to tend to my own spiritual oasis. Once I build it, who will come? Who knows? I DO KNOW I am driven by my own thirst and the recognition that “sharing water” is a profoundly sacred act.
    Thank you for the drink and, as always, for being Synchronicity Central. Blessed BE!

  12. Lindsay B.

    When I made my first turn of daring to Create, was concerned with everything being perfect. But what amazed me was that the things which I felt were less then perfect, others gravitated towards. I began to recognize this in myself as well. I liked and something bought something, especially a handmade creation, because of it’s “imperfections”, for they seemed to speak of the life and choices made in the process of it’s creation. I think this applies to art, writing, and looking at people as well. To see the beauty in how the thing or person was “woven” together from their choices and opportunities is a sacred act, akin to reading scripture.

  13. Thorn

    These reflections on the creative process and risk feel so helpful. When we risk committing to ourselves, when we risk deep practice, when we risk art and communication… worlds open up. When we can do this with even a modicum of compassion, life becomes, as Lindsay says “akin to reading scripture.”


  14. Star Foster

    There is a reason Witches DARE. I think sometimes Keeping Silent is the hardest lesson of the Witches Pyramid.

  15. Leslie Walker

    Perfectionism is the ruin of all beauty, and certainly the murder of everything interesting about creative work. I began writing as a perfectionist, and had a difficult time believing my mentors when they said that polishing any particular piece of writing usually means sanding away the rough edges, and the rough edges are what engage the reader. After a couple of weeks’ workshop during which we were not allowed to rewrite or polish anything, it became apparent that they were right. That was some years ago and since then I’ve become interested in not only the rough edges of story, but the rough edges of everyone and everything. These are the places in which we are all human, and humanity is beautiful. These are the places in which heaven and earth marry each other most exquisitely.

  16. Lupa

    A lot of it, for me, comes down to A) who the criticism is coming from, and B) what the apparent intent is. “Random Internet Person” who comes in with general kvetching with no substance barely registers on the radar. “Random Internet Person” who actually makes good points gets more attention. Someone I know will generally have substance anyway, though I have also sadly found that sometimes people who know me *won’t* say critical things because they have this idea that they’re not supposed to “hurt my feelings”. (We feel so much more comfortable unloading that sort of thing on someone relatively anonymous.)

  17. Peter O

    Honoring the creative spark in someone else is honoring the Divine… in yogic terms — namaste. In the rough and tumble world of advertising, especially in NY, I’ve found that respect to be rare. The toughening and hardening has its pluses, though. It enables one to stand the heat of creative friction, and the work is that much better.

    On the other hand, in my personal creative endeavors… music and poetry… it has also made me much more sensitive and appreciative to the risks that my collaborators or peers take in unveiling themselves.

    Once again, I feel the value of embracing the Whole.

    Thank you for a beautifully heartfelt article. It came at a point in my day where I could use some *softening.*

  18. Marian Phillips

    Nicely put. I’m writing the last chapter of my second novel, and I still find myself dithering around, reluctant to start — because as long as I haven’t written it, I haven’t screwed it up. Eventually I remember that even a poorly written novel is better than no novel at all — and can be fixed on a second draft — and that’s when I can start moving forward.

  19. veedub

    depends on the criticism. even unfavorable criticism which has some thought behind it about the the general intent of what i’m doing goes over much better than unthinking “+1″s or “like”s.

    but unfavorable criticism which tries to tear me down because i’m doing what i’m doing…i never listen to that. perhaps it is taking too much for granted, but i assume that what i’m doing or trying to do is at least a stab in the right direction, for my definition of “right.” if i totally have my head up my ass, i won’t learn to see that from anyone telling me, but from the results of what i do.

  20. Morpheus

    I find that what helps me with risk-taking is to focus on my relationship with the being or beings that inspired the work. So for example the devotional projects I am working on are really driven by a private relationship with my Queen. It doesn’t really matter what other people say about the work that comes out of that – the rituals, statue project, etc. They are something that I *need* to do to fulfill my relationship with Her and if it also inspires or feeds others, so much the better. Keeping this in mind helps me to focus on what matters and to spare less concern for gaining approval, or for criticisms I might get.

    Similarly with creative works – and I think this could apply to any artist or creative. If we can focus on our work as a devotional offering to our Genius (in the ancient sense of an indwelling divine spirit that grants inspiration) and as a product of that relationship, it stops mattering very much if other people like it. I think this orientation helps people produce purer works of art, that are more concentrated and uniquely powerful because they are not diluted by attempting to shape them so as to please other people.

  21. Amber Rose

    As an artist as well as a podcaster, I can understand about how it is to put yourself out there and how scary it can be when you’re just starting out. While I’m sure that taking a step back on a personal level when criticizing someone else’s work is important, I think there is a larger problem at hand that may need to be tackled.

    I’ve seen there seems to be a lack of balance between being proud and comfortable in one’s work and learning to take constructive criticism. I think it is important for those of us that choose to put ourselves under a critical eye, to accept that we have chosen to do such a thing. I feel I have learned the best from being in not so pleasant confrontations with others offering criticism. While it was not comfortable by any means, the gift of being able to look at my work with confidence and pride while still being loose enough to accept cynicism and turn a bad conversation around into something positive…is well worth the discomfort.

  22. Tony Rella

    Something interesting in my writing process is that I found it difficult to find people willing to read early drafts of the novel and give feedback. Some wonderful people did, which was incredibly helpful, but others said they would and did not follow through, or simply did not. All of which I can understand. But once I actually published the damn thing, one of the silent people read it and suddenly had all this astute criticism and I had this moment of irritation—where were you two months ago?

    It’s something I felt in organizing public ritual or other community events. Beg people to show up to help and give input, and some blessed people do, but most will wait until the product is finished and then happily give their opinions, which is not nearly as useful as it could have been before. But that irritation is part of the creativity-killing perfection others are discussing. The creator has little control over how the work will be received.

    In the end… I had an intention and creative process that led to the product, and I had blind spots, and those who could help showed up when they could. It is easier to critique than create, but an excellent critique is so valuable to my creative learning process.

    When I am giving criticism to others, I try to come from the position of speaking as though I believe the person is trying to do their best, and I want to offer them information that can help them refine their best. I don’t want to tear down their work or efforts, I want to support them in their excellence.

  23. Jen M.

    You know, it’s funny: I have yet to come across anyone who offered me constructive criticism. I’ve had the snooty comments, the high praise, and in the case of the art classes I attempted to take in college, the admonition that “you’re not following the directions!” (In fact, I was–They could never explain what they meant.)

    As hard as criticism can be to face, I find the lack of it that I’ve faced kind of disturbing. Do people care about what I’m doing, I wonder?

    I know it’s not as important that other people care. I create, because I HAVE TO. I took a huge chance and started a business in 2008 around my art, because the Universe was telling me to. The day I filled out the paperwork, wrote out the check to the Maryland Department of Revenue, and sent in the package was a thrilling and scary day for me, but I’d do it all over again.

    I’m considering trying to go back to school, because though I love what I do and get compliments, I find I WANT some guidance and constructive criticism. I need to know I’m not shouting into the wind.

    Blessed be.

  24. Barbara Graver

    Wonderful post! I have always thought that being creative calls for a certain detachment, a willingness to put your project out there and then take an emotional step back. Having said that, I think that almost everyone wants to be well received and that criticism in general is not as helpful as many people imagine.

    I do reviews on my blog (TheMysticReview.com) and made the decision early on to only write positive reviews. There are so many wonderful spiritual resources available to us at this time, in my opinion, that I am happy to be able to concentrate on recommending material which resonates with me. Also – I don’t have to finish any book I don’t find enriching!

    I loved what you said about taking an internal turn first and giving others credit for trying. Something we should all do absolutely!

  25. Amethyst

    Great post! I just wrote about how you can’t put yourself out there without offending someone the other day. I’ve been really struggling with the decision to open myself up to the world, but I have to do it. Great suggestion about changing your own perspective when offering criticism and comments. 🙂

  26. Jordan Hoggard

    Fantastic post, Thorn! A stand and deliver resonance. I have felt this at times in the strangest of ways, and I like the iron you have heated up. . .to really get those wrinkles as I find them to stay n loosen the knots.


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