Life & Business

Unhooking from Praise and Criticism with Tara Mohr

by Sabrina Smelko

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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

Photography: Portrait photo by Margot Duane |  Lifestyle photos by Hi5 Studio, taken at The Hivery Coworking Space & Inspiration Lab

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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With that in mind, here are some practical tips for unhooking from praise and criticism as a creative entrepreneur:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.)

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Comments

  • “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.”

    Love the articulation of real anxieties. This gets to the root of problems I have often imagined to be coming from another source–an internal one. I needed this perspective, thank you.

    • Hi Sara!

      I’ve read Tara’s book and taken her online course and it’s truly game-changing. If you’re open to it, I’d like to gift you her book (I’d pay for it through Amazon and just get it shipped to you). If this sounds great, just send me an email – amanda@groundedgoodness.com. (This is the first time I’ve done this…but my intuition is leading me and I’ve learned not to question it!) If not, no worries at all. :)

  • What a beautiful journey of self-discovery. I found your essay to be profound, honest, enlightening, deeply encouraging, and inspiring. What great life-lessons you’ve learned and shared—I’m motivated!! Keep kicking that hornet’s nest…Thank you!

    • I love this! Fear not the hornet’s nest!
      I’ve feared my closest people’s responses to my art, and changed my direction on a piece because I wanted the praise. I also thought they knew more than I about my own…much to reflect on and unlearn. Thank you!

  • AHHHHH…. as a fellow writer whose work has been both praised and scorned (how could they?! ;), I am grateful for your wisdom, insight, and equanimity. “You have your audience. It isn’t everyone.” The kicker is that is true for writers and everyone else who endeavors and dares to use their gifts and talents. Thank you, and brava! –Frances Schultz, The Bee Cottage Story

  • So good! Jess Lively is another blogger/podcaster that talks a lot about work & worth (she just launched a new offering today based on that topic too! Good timing :) and I find it such a fascinating discussion. So many in this online space are incredible creative individuals and seeing people use their talents to the fullest is so inspiring!

  • I really appreciate the one, “what does a person’s feedback say about them?”. It’s reframing the concept in an interesting way (i.e., not just all about me!) and the question is fascinating in itself.

  • Tara has brought huge wisdom and an enlarged capacity for joy into my life, so happy to see her here on Design*Sponge!

  • Tara Mohr is my hero! Very happy to see her on Design Sponge. When I was starting my business, I took her telecourse, Playing Big, and found it full of useful insights and great support.

  • Coming across this phrase while reading the book was one of those eye-opening moments for me. “Unhooking,” says it all. We’re tied down, confined, held captive when we base our self-worth and dreams on the opinions of others.

    Feedback can be invaluable for growth and direction. Love these ideas and practical steps to making sure we look at it the right way. It all sounds so . . . peaceful!

  • I think this is particularly hard when you have achieved some success in another area. You are afraid of risking the good things people think about you from one area when you embark on a new area that’s scary because you haven’t tried it before. If you fail, it could backfire.

  • One of the things I say to myself is “it’s all just data.” Somehow it helps me unhook and just be with the feedback, good or bad. Then I get to take a breath and reengage from a place of choice and freedom. Thanks for a lovely post!

  • Amazing article! Exactly what I needed to read. Your wonderful insights resonated because as women we share a common thread and similar challenges. Thank you Tara!

  • This is so timely for me and actually helped me just this morning out of a stupor relating to these exact feelings….being tied to feedback as self-worth. Whether it’s art, writing, food, etc I have always been tied to others feelings / feedback about what I do and create, and at times it’s been both crushing and exhilarating. I hate the roller coaster of it all. Your words have really waken me up so to speak. Thank you for your insights, they are really well taken and so helpful !

  • I am re reading Tara’s book, “Playing Big”
    , as it is excellent. As I evolve in my business, I hit up against new ways I stop myself by my fear of criticism. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion, continually shedding energetic belief patterns I have held for a long long time.

    I remember being on a conference call with Tara asking about my fear of criticism and she gave me such wise advice.

    She said, “Even the most successful women may never fully release their fear of criticism. We may never get rid of it, but we can work with it and diminish it’s hold on us so we can show up bold and do our life work.” I love her insights and wisdom to help us live life with more joy and passion.

  • This is a great article with information that can be applied immediately. The perspective of looking at the audience instead of the defensive gives a whole spin for me. Thank you very much. This is one of the first Bloglovin’ blogs that I have really enjoyed and will continue to check it out. Have a great day.

  • Wonderful piece by Tara Mohr and wonderful host site: Design Sponge (my first introduction.) I will be sharing both with the lawyers I coach and reflecting on the wisdom and inspiration with my most troublesome client–myself! Thank you!

  • This so wonderful. I just finished your book and LOVED it, especially the inner mentor exercise and unhooking from praise and criticism. Life-changing. Thank you Tara.

  • Tara really just cuts to the heart of it and for that I am so thankful!

    This fear of criticism or not having a place to hide (if you like) has really effected my own self confidence with starting my own business but through Tara’s book, podcasts and posts like this it really lets you put things in perspective.

    one incredibly inspirational woman!

  • Excellent article. I needed to read this today. I’m an artist and I’m struggling with that at this moment. I’m in between what people like and what I really want to do…. I didn’t know Tara wrote a book. I need to read it! Thank you for sharing this!

  • Tara’s work is incredibly inspiring and liberating. I love the insight as to why so many women have this fear about causing controversy. After reading her book I asked my girl friends and even my daughter about their inner critic and got immediate responses. Asking my male friends and my husband only brought me blank stares. They had no concept of what I was talking about! Fascinating stuff!

  • Thank you! Fear of criticism has played such a big role in why I haven’t gone after the things I want! Great article Tara, you’ve got a new follower!
    -vgNYC

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