You’re about to put yourself in a position where all your painstaking effort and creations are subject to more direct scrutiny without the luxury of a line manager to dress it up for you. You take your craft seriously and you inevitably invest your soul into what you make. So when people voice unfavourable opinions about it, that can hurt.
Are you ready? Have you thought about how you’ll react to criticism?
What we’re talking about here is fortifying your self-esteem through stronger belief in yourself. But let’s stop for a moment and remind ourselves that this isn’t a spiritual self-help book. Self-belief here simply means confidence in your skills and ability to do the best job possible. There’s nothing wrong with believing in yourself. After all, if you don’t then how can you expect your clients to?
Deep down, we all know our flaws and doubt ourselves a little from time to time. That’s natural. But an unhelpful reaction to criticism occurs when the feedback seems to confirm all our worst fears. Or at least that’s what we perceive it does.
A friend of mine is an extremely talented and shy artist who always does her very best even though she doesn’t believe in herself and her astounding abilities. Once she spent weeks lovingly preparing some artwork for a client of hers. When she arrived to present it, her client (who loved the new artwork) sprung it on her that she had to do that in front of some very important fat men in suits. She did her best to hold things together but inside she fell apart because public speaking isn’t her thing. As a result the presentation could’ve been sharper and more coherent. Afterwards my friend’s client scolded her “I’m so disappointed – you’re not the real deal” which deeply disturbed her.
Refracted through the lens of her flaws and self-doubt, my friend heard “you’re a complete failure”, blind to the dedication and talent she’d put into her gratefully received artwork. One selfish, sweeping remark made by a mere acquaintance seemed to confirm all her worst fears, despite the fact that it was extraneous to the quality of her work. Worse still, when her client later apologised and admitted fault, it was too late – the damage was already done and my de- pressed friend didn’t create anything new for many gloomy weeks.
Being self-employed raises the stakes by putting all the pressure on you to achieve. So there’s a temptation to work harder and even more endlessly than you would for someone else in pursuit of extrinsic validation. That creates ideal breeding conditions for perfectionism – relentlessly striving for excessively (and impossibly) high standards and the resultant overly critical evaluations when you inevitably don’t always meet them. Watch out for this, it’s a bastard.
While we’re on the subject of warnings, another productive way to obliterate your self-esteem is to do what every business adviser will tell you – research your competitors. I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do because you inevitably compare their best work with your worst. Especially if you’ve just started out and your portfolio is less than plump. By all means seek inspiration but skip the comparisons.
What we can learn from my poor friend’s unfortunate example is the need to react in healthy ways to criticism. Here are a few ideas to try when things don’t go to plan:
- Find balance between positive and negative: despite this one mistake you got ten things right
- Remember it’s only a minority who has a problem, they’re just having a tough time and everyone else thinks you’re wonderful (especially you)
- Is the criticism really about you as a person or one tiny aspect of your work?
- Can you substitute healthy responses instead: like regret instead of shame, disappointment instead of despair?
- Frame it as a chance to improve yourself and the end product rather than denunciation of you as a terrible human being
It took me a few years to be comfortable with the fact that it’s OK to do an OK job sometimes. Not every project is a magnum opus to guild your portfolio. Unpleasant or mediocre jobs that you did your best with under testing circumstances can simply be filed away under a special category (wank). This doesn’t make you a bad person either, it’s just a fact.
To protect your self-esteem acknowledge your shortcomings but accept yourself for who you are. You’re a human being, you make mistakes but you learn, improve and grow as a person. This takes time, plenty of perseverance and apposite self-congratulation.
- You’re in control of how you feel about criticism
- It’s OK to do an OK job sometimes
- If you must, compare yourself to yourself (not other people)
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