Whether by nature or nurture, many of us grow up trying to break and/or fit into various molds and roles — and as a result, we can sometimes become our own worst enemies. We stop ourselves from everything as big as chasing our true dreams, to simply writing down our thoughts in a journal. After what Tara Mohr describes as a “decade-long sabbatical from writing, sponsored by [her] inner critic,” she decided to make a change: to write for her own pleasure, without the intention of sharing it; but something unexpected happened. Only once she unhinged from the fear of feedback — good or bad — and realized that criticism wasn’t necessarily personal, she was able to see her potential, pursue her real passion, and even write a book.
Today, Tara is joining us to share an essay (including plenty of bite-sized takeaways) on her experience of unhooking from praise and criticism, what happened as a result, and how you can do the same. —Sabrina
There’s a particular moment from the early days of my business that I still remember vividly: It was 2009. I was working my full-time job in a large nonprofit organization, but I was feeling the pull to move in a new direction. That new direction didn’t have a clear definition yet, but I knew it would be all about writing, creativity, supporting women, and starting my own business.
I was sitting at my laptop, staring at a blank screen, trying to write a blog post — one of my very first. The words were not flowing, to say the least.
My mind was full of imagined reactions to the post I was trying to write: my English professor friend saying the writing wasn’t very good; my MBA classmates thinking my blog was too woo-woo and irrational; my family members being upset that I was sharing personal reflections on the Internet.
Then, I had one of those miraculous moments where a still, small voice inside says something helpful. I heard a quiet little thought that said, “Tara, if you are going to write, you have to write for you. Not to get anyone’s approval or praise. The reason to write is because you are a woman who loves to write.”
That day, I decided I’d write the blog post just for me — for the joy of the creative process. The words came. The next day I again reassured myself: this is just for you Tara, not to earn anyone else’s praise or approval. Day after day, then week after week, I wrote with that thought: “this is your joy, Tara, that’s all.”
That was what allowed me to start writing consistently, after what I affectionately refer to [as] my “decade-long sabbatical from writing, sponsored by my inner critic.” Writing consistently for myself, over the months that followed, allowed me to find my voice, discover which topics I gravitated toward, and then develop a sense of what my blog, courses, and eventual book would be about. I still appreciated praise, comments, new subscribers and all that — but those things had become nice cherries on the top of the sundae — not the sundae itself. And paradoxically, it was when I was writing for myself that my work started to draw a reading audience.
I noticed as I started working with other women that this wasn’t just my issue: many of us had to go through a process of unhooking from praise and criticism in order to create the careers we wanted for ourselves and do our bravest work. We’ve been socialized to be good girls, to be likable, to not rock the boat. And if we’ve been good student types or high achievers or people-pleasers, we just want lots of embracing reactions to what we put out into the world. This topic — of changing our relationship to praise and criticism — became part of what I wrote about, coached women around, and taught about in my courses.
Early on in talking to women about this, something really surprised me. When I’d talk to women about doing some brave thing they wanted to do, but that they feared might bring criticism or controversy, their voices would often tremble with fear. Why was this so scary for so many of us, I wondered, myself included? What I realized was that for most of the past few thousand years, women couldn’t ensure our safety by political, legal or financial rights — we simply didn’t have those protections. Likability, fitting in, social influence — these were women’s primary available survival strategies. For many of us, doing work or expressing ideas that might rock the boat, cause controversy, or bring others’ disapproval can feel very dangerous because, for millenia, it was. Today, we’ve got some serious unlearning to do.
For me, the key to incorporating feedback — which of course is an important part of growing a business and living a life — is this idea: Feedback doesn’t tell you about yourself. It tells you about the person giving the feedback. In other words, if someone says your work is gorgeous, that just tells you about their taste. If you put out a new product and it doesn’t sell at all, that tells you something about what your audience does and doesn’t want. When we look at praise and criticism as information about the people giving it, we tend to get really curious about the feedback, rather than dejected or defensive. When I write something and it gets a huge response, I don’t view that writing as “better” than the writing that got no response. I simply look at what the huge response tells me about my reading audience, and sometimes, I then choose to incorporate that information into what I write about in the future. I know it’s not personal and I know it’s not a verdict on my artistic talent. That’s something I didn’t always know.
With that in mind, here are some practical tips for unhooking from praise and criticism as a creative entrepreneur:
- Remember that all distinctive work is going to bring both praise and criticism. Your boldest (and best) work is likely going to be adored by some people and strongly disliked by others. Period. No need to fix or change that — you have your audience, and it’s not everyone.
- To reinforce that idea for yourself, I recommend this quick little exercise: look up one of your favorite books on Amazon.com. Read a five-star review. Then read a one-star review. Toggle back and forth between the negative and positive reviews. Notice the diversity of reactions. This is a great way to see that even incredible work doesn’t earn universal praise.
- Always look at feedback as giving you information about the person or people giving the feedback, rather than information about yourself. The next time you get negative or positive feedback (praise, criticism, an award, lots of sales, a lack of sales), ask yourself, “what information does this give me, not about me, but about the person or people giving the feedback?” What does it tell me about their preferences, desires, or needs?”
- Look for “the match-up.” Typically, when there’s a type of criticism we are really afraid of, the real issue is that deep down we believe that negative thing about ourselves. In other words, we worry about being told we aren’t talented when we doubt our own talent. We’re thrown into an emotional whirlwind if someone implies our work isn’t worth the price — if we ourselves believe maybe our work isn’t worth the price. If you notice there’s a particular past experience criticism you are feeling very wounded by, or if you spend a lot of energy trying to make sure you never get some particular criticism, look inward. Check if you believe that criticism yourself — that’s the real issue. If so, think about when you first developed that negative belief about yourself. Then rigorously question whether that belief about yourself is really true, and update it with a more compassionate and true one. (More resources about changing your beliefs, here.)