Criticism stings. Many of us may be so focused on protecting ourselves from the potential pain of criticism that we start to tailor our work — and our lives — to avoid it. We may let criticism dictate everything from the ideas we bring up in a board meeting to the passions we pursue.
Interestingly, we do the same with praise. We get so used to positive feedback that we may change how we act. And, when we don’t receive the accolades and applause, we start questioning ourselves and feeling like failures.
Years ago Tara Mohr found herself letting criticism and praise rule her writing. She went from writing for the pure joy of it to fearing feedback and creating inauthentic work to not writing at all.
Seven years later she had an a-ha moment: She realized that if she wanted to write, she’d have to unhook from both criticism and praise. As she writes in her excellent book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, she told herself: “You are going to have to write for you — for your joy, for your pleasure, for your self-expression, not for anyone else’s approval.”
That day, she started writing because she is “a woman who loves writing.” She realized that she deserved to judge her work, to determine what needed improving and what she was proud of, as much as anyone else.
Maybe you also have given up doing something because you fear critical comments. Maybe you were scarred by biting criticism in the past. Maybe your family taught you that it’s best not to stand out and make a splash. Maybe you get sucked into the sweetness of praise and worry about rocking the boat with unconventional or potentially controversial ideas.
So you stay silent. You abandon beloved pursuits or anything else.
In Playing Big Mohr shares insights into savoring praise without being driven by it and incorporating useful criticism without being paralyzed by it. Here are three key principles for unhooking from both praise and criticism, from her book:
1. Remember that feedback is information about others.
The feedback we receive doesn’t tell us about our worth or talent or even the quality of our work. Instead, it tells us something about the people providing the feedback. For instance, if your paintings don’t resonate with any of the three successful artists you showed them to, all it tells you is their preference, Mohr writes.
If a potential investor isn’t interested in your business idea, it simply tells you what does and doesn’t pique their attention, she says.
According to Mohr, “Feedback is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.”
A teacher who wants to create a knowledgeable and enjoyable class would need feedback directly from her students. An entrepreneur who wants to create an effective pitch would need to hear feedback from potential investors on what inspires them to invest.
Feedback may provide useful data on how to reach the people you want to reach. Approaching criticism in this way helps us improve. It stops us from getting caught up in a persistent and problematic cycle of negative thinking: I’m not good enough! My work is worthless. I don’t know anything. Because that kind of approach only paralyzes us and sinks our self-worth. And it’s not true, anyway.
2. Incorporate “strategically useful” feedback.
When considering what feedback to incorporate, Mohr suggests asking ourselves: “What feedback do I need to incorporate in order to be effective in reaching my aims?” and “Who am I trying to influence or engage?”
She notes that the most important people to collect feedback from are your intended audience and the decisions makers you need to influence or reach. For instance, for a business, this might include “investors, customers, potential partners.”
3. Focus on what’s more important than praise.
Mohr stresses the importance of remembering our true priorities. She suggests asking ourselves: “What is more important to me than praise or being liked in this situation?”
Her clients have said everything from being useful to being truthful to fully living in their own skin to liking themselves to spreading their message to doing something they believe in.
We don’t need to eliminate our desire for praise. We don’t need to stop caring what others think.
According to Mohr, “I didn’t try to stop wanting praise, lots of readers, plenty of blog comments, a positive reception from the audience. I didn’t give up on wanting the magic of human connection that can happen between a writer and a reader. That would have been unrealistic, and, I think, it would have denied a basic humanness in me.”
It’s a healthy desire to want to know that we matter to others, Mohr writes.
It becomes unhealthy when we let praise and criticism dictate our actions and rule our lives.