"Can You Take It?" Dealing With Criticism

by AnomalousArtist

Criticism: Everyone does it sometimes, many like to give it and some are better than others at taking it...how about you?

One of the less-known facts about the work I am most often engaged in, that is, animation, is that often enough 70-80% of the work that is done never makes it to the big screen. This is because the work was deemed "not quite right" or because someone believed it needed to be improved. Everyone, everywhere, has to deal with differences of opinion that manifest as "I disagree with what your are or what you are doing and I'm going to tell you that I disagree."

In the case of a recent film I was proud to be a part of, Ang Lee's brilliant "Life Of Pi," this ratio is necessary; the director was determined to get the absolute best out of everyone on the film and the rewards and accolades the film ended up with justified his determination. This isn't always the case and criticism doesn't always come under such pressurized (and positive) situations...a critique can come in the form of an offhand remark someone makes about your looks or behavior as much as an assessment of your work on a big-budget Hollywood film.

What's to be made of criticism if you are, as most people are, protective of your special, inner core being? In this article, aided by knowledge given to me by a therapist I saw for many years and my own personal research and experiences, I'll try to shed some insight into the topic.

"Is this a good time to have a big fight?" - New Yorker Cartoon
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1) What is criticism?

A critique can take many forms; it can be a suggestion, an insult, an offering with the intent of aiding or a jab with the goal of tearing down.  It can be requested or unwarranted, a valuable prize or the equal of someone spitting in the punchbowl at a party.

Everyone has opinions, of course, as goes a rather rude expression I will only reference here and not repeat.  And where there are opinions there are DIFFERENCES in opinion. 

By and large most humans are ruled by a central core:  "This is who I am, what I am and how I feel about it all."  When any two people get together there are bound to be differences in values and belief systems, and that number goes up the more individuals are involved.  If there are enough shared beliefs a kind of unity takes place, "We think alike!"  If this unity doesn't happen another idea takes form:  "My ways are better than yours." 

At its base level criticism is a process of communication by which one person seeks to explain to another the differences one feels in comparison to another, for example, telling someone you don't like the color of shirt she's wearing because you prefer one color to another becomes, "The color of your shirt is stupid," which could be taken as a criticism.

2) How does it work?

Depending on the level of interest of each party, criticism can be something small and meaningless or harmful to another individual's psyche. 

"I don't care for your shirt" is a long ways away from, "I don't like how you look, ever."  Similarly, "Your work stinks" is a long ways from "I think your work could improve."

In both cases, whether it was anticipated or not, an opinion has been stated and the receiver of the opinion now has to decide how she or he will choose to interpret it.  Even choosing to do or think nothing is a choice of some kind. 

In this way, any opinion could be seen as a CRITICISM of some kind, "You're different than me, somehow," and, again, the angle of the opinion will depend on the nature of how the opinion is stated and how the receiver of the opinion chooses to feel about it. 

3) Is criticism a bad thing?

At an early age we learn that we're not the center of the universe and that we have to be respectful of other people and their various needs and opinions.  Most children go through a rebellious phase (usually the "terrible 2's") where they begin saying "no" to everything and start testing the limits of their personal exchanges..."What if I throw my food, for fun?"  "What if I bite my little brother?"  Or, an early form of criticism, "What if I tell people what I really feel about them." 

The way in which a child was socialized and the society he or she lives in will determine what level of openness the individual will feel comfortable exhibiting in interpersonal communications.  People who grew up in boisterous homes where everyone was speaking openly all the time are going to be different than those raised in homes with the opposite situation.  Is one better than the other?  Again, it will be dependent on the society that's in the majority.  In some cultures, giving random opinions, often in the form of criticism, can be seen as comfortable conversation; in other cultures it can be seen as rude--an example is the "East Coast attitude vs. West Coast attitude."  Neither is better or worse, naturally, it just depends on how an individual perceives it. 

In many situations, work and education for example, a voiced opinion that is contrary to what the receiver of the comment believes in is necessary for growth and development.  As long as there is more than one individual in a room there will never be a "perfect;" one person will always have a differing opinion, one will always be better or worse at something than the other and trying to share that information can often take the form of a criticism by the one who has knowledge directed at the one who does NOT. 

4) Great, so what am I supposed to do about it?

Criticism doesn't ever have to be a "bad" thing; you can always make a choice. 

In the example I gave concerning my work, criticism was essential to producing a film that would win awards and be revered by audiences everywhere; talented film supervisors needed to see their vision conveyed on the screen and that required "convincing" the many craftspeople who worked on their teams that doing things the way they envisioned was the right thing, and that other ways might not be as well received.  Maybe the work would turn out "better" or "worse" but it is the job of someone in charge of a team to take responsibility for that choice, and correct any opinions that conflict with this vision through suggestions.  "Don't do it that way, do it this way, because I believe it's better and I'm in the position I am because I know what I'm talking about, trust that." 

Outside of work or education, occasionally a friend or acquaintance will choose to offer up an opinion that may or may not be welcomed.  You may find the comment unnecessary or maybe even unpleasant...but it doesn't mean the criticism has value.  It is, again, just an opinion. 

An example:  Let's assume your hair is brown and I tell you I think people, like you, with green hair, should change colors.  Would you feel bad about what I said?  Probably you'd laugh (or tell me to get new glasses).  But you wouldn't feel bad about the comment because there was nothing in it that had anything to do with you personally.

Now, what if you really DID have green hair and I criticized it?  Perhaps you had tried a new hair dye you were hoping would work and you weren't sure if you liked it or not.  Maybe green is your natural color and you were always teased about it as a kid.  In both cases you may feel there's a modicum of truth to my insult and internalize it, and this can make you feel bad. 

It might also depend on the way in which the critique is expressed; often I'll take someone's criticism and suggest to the person offering it there might have been a more constructive way to express this personal opinion.

The key is paying attention to what the person criticizing you is saying.  You never, EVER have to feel bad about someone voicing an opinion about something you do, are or believe.  You always have the option to respect your own opinions and believe in their validity. In the case of work, education or your parent/guardian/mentor/partner you may not be able to defy the opinion of the person criticizing you, but you definitely don't have to feel that just because that person believes he's "right" it makes you "wrong."  An essential part of being good at taking criticism is to understand that, if another person does not share your beliefs or opinions it in no way has to attack your own inner core.   

If a teacher suggests a student has misunderstood an assignment the criticism is not, "and that makes you bad person;" it is actually a suggestion for improvement.  This can be followed through to just about any criticism we get in our lives:  if a person criticizes our looks, our values, our interests or anything else about us, we have the option to take the criticism or leave it, and by doing so we take control of how we feel about the critique, and our associated reactions. 

It takes a little work to get used to doing this if you've spent your life internalizing criticism, and may even require working with some form of counselor to patch up old, undesirable habits and turn them into more healthy ones.

But I believe you CAN take any criticism offered and create something out of it that makes you a better person, if you try.  Why not think about it, and start today?

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Updated: 05/16/2013, AnomalousArtist
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AnomalousArtist on 05/17/2013

Yes...there's a real art to it isn't there...when supervising I've actually been accused of not being critical ENOUGH, ha! :)

PeggyHazelwood on 05/17/2013

I think criticism is necessary but some people are just so much better at giving it effectively than others. I admit i find it hard to take sometimes. If it's helpful though, I don't mind as much!

AnomalousArtist on 05/16/2013

Thanks, guys! Frugalrvers, great point and that's what started me wanting to write an article about it in the first place, AbbyFitz, that's how I felt after I FINISHED the article and had to revise my original idea. And thanks for your last comment, someone had to say it ;)

AbbyFitz on 05/16/2013

Very good article. I think society has shifted towards criticism being a bad thing. Everything has to be politically correct. Also, criticizing someone is seen as disrespect to a person. Proper criticism can make you a better whatever you are, writer, artist, teacher, et cetera. Most people nowadays just need to put on their big girl panties, learn from it, deal with it, and move on lol

Guest on 05/16/2013

Outside of the professional world (and probably in it, too), I think criticism has taken on a life of its own in the never ending effort of modern society to "keep up with the Joneses." Perhaps it is dished with a smile or pat on the shoulder, but the endless drive to tear others down, in my opinion, has gotten out of hand in our society. Totally agree with your article, just saying it is used as an ego tool more and more, in my observation. Great article...love ALL of your articles, by the way!

AnomalousArtist on 05/16/2013

Thanks for the comment...yes, EXACTLY, couldn't agree more!

Tolovaj on 05/16/2013

Criticism is part of my business too. I have to deal with young, inexperienced writers who love to write, but have no clue how to construct a story. They don't know anything about characters, settings, tension, plots... They just like writing and - trust me on this one - the don't have a problem to find few friends who will tell them their writing is really great.

Then they come to me and I have to tell them the truth. Some of them take it as offense, some become really angry at me, but few are able to take step back and start learning. And after a while a certain percent of these can award me with a good story.

It is not easy to be criticized and it is not easy to criticize. But in rare cases this can pan out as win-win.

AnomalousArtist on 05/16/2013

Thank you! Yes, it's a rather hot topic with some of my friends at the moment, that's for sure... :)

kimbesa on 05/16/2013

Very timely! Seems like there is a lot of stuff getting dished out. How to deal with it, without losing one's mind. Thanks!

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