When I was eight years old, I decided to decorate my mom's favorite bookshelf as a surprise. I had it all planned out: a beautiful, intricate drawing all over the light wood would make it look interesting and unique, and I planned to incorporate several personal elements so that it would be one of a kind. I grabbed a Sharpie marker and got to work. My art skills were not quite at the level I had envisioned, but I persevered. I got as far as drawing her name in loopy, elementary cursive before she caught me. After an intense scolding and a lot of tears, I handed over the marker and went to my room upstairs.
I don't remember what I did after that, but I can tell you that I never tried to draw on anyone's furniture ever again. My mother wasn't wrong to scold me - I ruined her favorite bookshelf, and I needed to learn which surfaces in our home were Sharpie-appropriate. But my experience that day had an unintended lesson, one that it took me many years to un-learn: it taught me that I needed to ask permission to be creative.
So often in our adult lives, we encounter criticism. Whether it's a single, devastating comment from your partner or simply a co-worker that has a lot of "helpful suggestions," these criticisms ultimately become a part of your internal dialogue. Sometimes this criticism is intended to help you improve (what I call a critique), but other times it is petty and meant to hurt you. In either case, it's a slippery slope: If you don't process these external criticisms in a healthy way, you may start to criticize yourself.
The internal voices we hear are loud and compelling. When they speak messages of love and acceptance, we are comforted and confident. But more frequently, we engage in negative self-talk that breaks down our will to succeed. Suddenly, the best choice is the safe one, the one that won't result in embarrassment. We avoid situations that open us up to criticism because we are afraid, and we stifle our creativity so that we can fit into the mold of normality more easily.
The bad news is that you will always hear that scary, loud voice in your head. Even if you receive overwhelmingly positive feedback on a project or idea, the one criticism you receive will always stick out more, no matter how trivial it may be. The voice will pick up on that criticism and blow it way, way up, and it is always going to make you want to quit.
But the good news is that just like that annoying co-worker, you can start to diminish the power of that voice. You can turn the volume down and focus on your work instead. But you must take back that power for yourself. Acknowledge the voice, wish it a good morning, and then ignore it.
By all means, if you can find a nugget of truth in the criticism you hear about your life or your work, use it to make yourself better. But remember that you don't need to ask that voice if it's okay for you to do the things you want to do, or to live the kind of life you want. Those are your decisions, and I hope you feel empowered to make them.
And above all, remember to feel at least a little bit grateful for those hurtful words. You wouldn't be hearing them if you weren't taking risks and trying new things. As difficult as it is to hear someone tear down your project or idea, remember how awesome it is that you finished a project or thought about something in a new way. When you're shaking things up, criticism comes with the territory.
Criticism can be an opportunity to learn, but it is also an indication that you are on the right track. Feeling or thinking negatively is natural, but you can't let it stop you. What you have to offer the world is both unique and valuable, so let your light shine, and don't let fear or doubt diminish it.
Have you ever been criticized? What was that experience like, and how did you overcome it?