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Why Does Criticism Sting?

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Why does certain criticism sting so much? I’ve come to believe that it’s often not for the reason we suspect.

When doing creative work, especially in public, you are essentially inviting feedback. I’ve said before that those who work in public are essentially painting a giant target on themselves, and thus must be willing to deal with the sting of the arrows. However, while I believe this to be true in principle, in practice it is often much more challenging.

For example: in the past week I’ve received precisely six eight emails from people telling me how much my books have impacted their lives. Each person shared their story about how something in one of the books changed their mindset or habits and enabled them to launch a business, get started on a long overdue project, or have a difficult conversation they’d been deferring. These emails always fuel my fire and help me stay grounded in why I do what I do.

Also in the past week, Die Empty has received exactly five reviews on Amazon, three of them fairly negative. I normally don’t care about reviews that much, but if I’m honest, these stung a bit. I’ll explain why in a moment.

So, which of these two inputs do you think I focused on more over the past week – while on airplanes traveling between five cities to give talks – the positive or the negative feedback? You can probably infer that I spent a lot more time obsessing on the negative feedback than the positive.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uncovered why these three pieces of negative criticism hit a little too close to home for me. The reason is that they each spoke to an insecurity I have about my own work, which amounts to a chink in my armor. Their arrows found a gap in my defenses.

One of the critiques mentioned something akin to “why should I listen to this guy?” I’ve written in both of my previous books about the struggle many of us have with imposter syndrome, or the fear of being uncovered as essentially “faking it”. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are in life and work, it’s likely that you will continue to struggle with this insecurity as you strive to find your voice and create impact. (In their most vulnerable moments, several accomplished and well-known business leaders and artists have confided this to me.)

A second critique was that Die Empty contained “nothing new”. Again, one of the limiting narratives that plays in my mind fuels a fear of rehashing old territory and being an imitator. While I obviously disagree with the criticism, the arrow still stings.

So at the heart of the sting are two narratives:

Who are you to be writing this?

and

You’re just an imitator.

As I considered why the negative reviews stung so much, everything revolved around these two false narratives. Somewhere in my mind, these two limiting beliefs (or outright lies) were causing me to fixate on criticism at the expense of receiving encouragement.

Which leads me to this question: have you ever considered why certain forms of criticism sting you more than others? Do you respond with more anger, defensiveness, or aggression with certain types of feedback than with others?

If so, it could be that there is some form of limiting narrative or embedded belief/fear that is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Here’s an experiment I’d like to propose:
1. Pay attention to your response to critique and feedback over the coming week. If it suits you, perhaps even write each piece of feedback down.
2. More importantly, see if you can identify why that feedback elicited such a strong response in you. Is it possible that there is some defining story that’s affecting your engagement?
3. If you can spot some beliefs/narratives, consider how else they might be playing out in your life and work. Are they affecting the choices you make, the opportunities you seek, or your relationships? Is so, how?

It’s often not the circumstances we learn from, but our response to them. Identifying limiting narratives or patterns of self-destruction can help us spot them when they crop up, then nip them before they cause us to implode or obsess needlessly over critique.

So… I’ve shared a few of my limiting beliefs. Are you willing to share one of yours?

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