Thumbs Down: How to Deal With Constructive Criticism of Your Creative Work

Man with a thumbs down gesture.

Receiving constructive criticism of your work is par for the course for creative professionals. But it can still be hard to digest. Here are three questions to ask yourself to help you cope with critical comments.

In an episode of “The Golden Girls” (don’t judge me), Rose and Blanche decide to turn some of Rose’s crazy stories into a children’s book. And as with any new creative partnership, they start off in love with the idea and each other.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy working with you,” Rose gushes.

“Me too,” says Blanche. “You know why? Because we’re not just partners, we’re friends. Good friends.”

“I feel like I could say anything to you.”

“Well of course you can, sugar plum!”

“Even criticize your artwork?”

“Of course! The whole point of collaborating is to get beyond our egos and come up with something we both like.”

“Well,” Rose says, “this could use a few minor changes.”

“Drop dead.”

And in just a few lines of dialogue, “The Golden Girls” has mapped the arc of basically every creative partnership. Ever.

I don’t care who you are, how many years you’ve been doing creative work, or how wonderful or talented or generous you or your boss and colleagues are. You have lived this deflating moment, not once, but many, many times. And it often doesn’t get any easier.

You’ve surely heard the advice: “Don’t take it personally.” Why doesn’t it help? Because it goes against the very thing that makes us great at our jobs as creatives: the willingness to get personal with our work; to invest ourselves, express ourselves, take risks. And criticism, no matter how carefully articulated, can make us flinch, hesitate and withdraw. In short, it’s not just criticism, but the fear of criticism, that is the enemy of creative work.

I want you to ask yourself these three questions every time you receive a bit of constructive criticism about your work. The goal is not to prevent the pain (good luck with that), but to move past it with confidence.

1. What does the constructive criticism of the work mean to me?

That is, beyond the fact that you spent time and effort on the work. Obviously, any investment on your behalf is going to make the work matter more to you. But your own personal narrative, that running ticker tape of thoughts in your brain, could be broadcasting a different message.

meQuilibrium, a company that teaches resilience building (and, full disclosure, is a client of mine), has taught me to tune in to the narration guiding my responses below the surface of my consciousness. These are called “iceberg beliefs” because you rarely realize they’re even there.

When your boss or a client says, “I like the typography choice but it’s just not there yet” about your logo design, what you may hear is: “If my ideas aren’t fully accepted, it means I’m not talented,” or, “If I’m criticized, my job is in jeopardy.” Neither of these may be true. When you can separate your internal monologue from what’s being asked of you, you’ll be less likely to be flattened by feedback.

Check out the author’s tips on building your personal brand.

2. Am I reacting to the message — or the messenger?

How we cope with criticism can depend heavily on who’s delivering it. On a different project with a different person, negative feedback might not bother you one bit. Perhaps you’ve had tension or pushback from this particular person before. Or maybe you don’t respect him or her, period.

Make a conscious effort to separate the message from the messenger. Visualize removing the value of the feedback from the “wrapping” of this person. Consider the criticism on its own merits. If you resist or react harshly to feedback, you could damage relationships, not to mention your professional reputation. If you want to continue working with this person, client or creative team, take that into consideration.

Read our tips on the art of giving constructive criticism.

3. What else am I working on?

I recommend asking this question not to divert your attention from the project at hand, but because if you don’t have enough going on in your own creative life, you may be seeking far too much fulfillment or reassurance from your paid work. It’s one thing to be deeply invested in your job — and another to need way too much from it. Make sure you’ve got artistic outlets or other side projects in the works to pour your creative energies into. That way, when the criticism from a client, colleague or boss comes, as it undoubtedly will, it won’t sting nearly as much.

Terri Trespicio is a writer and brand strategist, and the co-creator of Lights Camera Expert, a program for helping entrepreneurs, experts and authors get media attention for their big ideas. Visit her at territrespicio.com. 

More posts on handling constructive criticism