Critics and How to Face Them: Part 2 – Outer

Have you ever let a critic stop you in your tracks? Have you held a criticism close to your heart? Have you soaked up that critique, ruminated, let it speak to you in ways you wish it hadn’t? Well, allow me to let you in on a secret… You are not alone.

In Part One of this exploration into handling criticism, we met our inner critics. A gang of misguided villains trying to keep us safely in line through critical messages. They lie waiting for a weak spot. Think Pinky and The Brain – two caged mice looking for an opportunity each night to gain power:

Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?

Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky – TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Pinky and The Brain, Animaniacs

Only the inner critics’ world is you. You are their world.

Having inner critics can make receiving criticism from the outer world all the more destructive. In the past, I’ve let criticism stop me in my tracks. I’ve abandoned projects. I’ve abandoned talents. I’ve even abandoned practising skills that brought me joy. And I did that because someone beyond my borders said something critical that I drew in close to my heart and let soak into my vital organs.

At times like this, it is worth remembering that whether you do a good thing, a bad thing, or an exceptionally great thing, critics still criticise.

The truth is, people have all kinds of complex reasons for criticising. Often their agenda is hidden from your view. I know this to be true because I have been unnecessarily critical. Over-spilling with inner criticism and frustrated with the world, I’ve criticised because it brought me some relief to project that pain outwards.

“The outer critic projects onto others the same processes of perfectionism and endangerment that the inner critic uses against the self.”

Peter Walker

When we listen to an inner perfectionist, whose standards are unrealistically high, we will measure the outside world and find it wanting. And that goes too for our own contributions.

During the first few years of improvising, I received my fair share of unsolicited criticism. Some of it was fair. Most of it was unnecessary. With this skill – improv – I was thankfully intent on continuing to learn regardless, but I would say next to none of that criticism really helped me improve. Some of it slowed me down. Lots of the criticism wasn’t even really about me, but a need to criticise. I watched some of my harshest critics, criticise others too, and often. Sometimes, seemingly indiscriminately. Other times, when someone else actually did an exceptionally great thing.

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.”

Zig Ziglar

Being an improv fledgling, I got through that criticism of my skill largely by reminding myself frequently I didn’t have to be good. I just had to be there. My belief in the value of being brave enough to step on that stage, kept me risking being seen and judged. In this way, I managed to develop a growth mindset about improv. I could make mistakes. I could learn. So I made the decision that I would celebrate that moment I stepped onto the stage. Instead of hanging everything on the feedback I received or whether it turned out to be a successful improv. The credit I bestowed upon myself would be for being there doing my thing.

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Aristotle

Daring to do anything in this life, exposes you to criticism. There’s no way to be brave with your efforts and avoid attracting the attention of critics. We might be in luck and fly under their radar for a while, but no one escapes them forever. And criticism of our creative projects can cut all the deeper because authentic creativity is about expressing ourselves. That criticism can cut to the bone.

“The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.”

Criss Jami

Because of the high stakes of creative expression, being in an improv group that decides to give feedback to each other can be dangerous. For me, if you’re inside the creative work, it’s very hard to be objective. It is often far more effective to get someone from outside, like an experienced coach, to provide ideas on how you could improve your act. Offering feedback is a skill in itself, and one best given by someone trained to bestow helpful notes.

In my improv duo with the wonderful Josh Hards, we have a process where after a scene run in rehearsals, we will recap what we did and what worked for us. We will talk about what we intended with certain moves as that helps us understand each other’s intentions, but we don’t give notes on each other’s contributions. For us, it’s about taking responsibility for our own improv while understanding one another. We developed this practice using the advice of Jules Munns. By putting connection and creativity at the heart of our practice, the need for perfectionism and criticism wanes.

Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead explores being clear about your core values as a way of diluting the sting of criticism. The two values you hold most highly in your life will probably be quite different from those of the next person. It means therefore that their criticism may not be as relevant to you, as you have other ideas about what makes life worth living and art worth making. If you are holding your values close, there’s also less room in your hands to hold onto criticism.

“The arena, paricularly during dark moments when we’re trying to be really brave, can be confusing and overwhelming: distractions, noise, a rapidly blinking Exit sign that promises immediate relief from the discomfort, and the cynics in the stands. In these tough matches, when the critics are being extra loud and rowdy, it’s easy to start hustling – to try to prove, perfect, perform, and please. God knows these are my four big p’s. We can either hustle to show the crowd that we deserve to be there, or we can let them scare us off. Either way, it’s easy to let them get in our heads and hijack our efforts.

In these moments when we start putting other voices in front of our own, we forget what made us go into the arena in the first place, the reason we’re there. We forget our values. Or, frequently, we don’t even know what they are of how to name them. If we do not have clarity of values, if we don’t have anywhere else to look or focus, if we don’t have that light up above to remind us why we’re there, the cynics and the critics can bring us to our knees.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

The concept of the arena is integral in Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong. Brown reminds us the arena is any moment or place where we have shown up and dared to be seen. Risking being awkward in a new improv team is an arena, directing a new show is an arena, starting an improv school is an arena. Handling a tough leadership inclusion moment without getting defensive puts us in the arena. Working hard to grow the community you care for, making mistakes, learning from them, is definitely an arena.

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their own lives, but will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those of us trying to dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in your feedback.

We have to avoid the cheap-seats feedback and stay armour-free. The research participants who do both of those well have one hack in common: Get clear on whose opinions of you matter.

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Brené Brown suggests writing the people whose opinions of you matter on a one-inch by one-inch piece of paper. It must be small enough to only capture the very core. She calls these people ‘The Square Squad’ and the suggestion she makes is that the credentials for these people are those that love you not despite your vulnerabilities and imperfections but because of them. They shouldn’t just be a ‘yes’ gang but people who pull you up when you need an integrity checking.

My Square Squad is now made up exclusively of people who have dared greatly; who have made mistakes, owned them, and stood back up to try again. They know what it feels like first-hand to be in the arena and they help me to deal with the feedback that does need listening to, in order for me to live within my values.

“We need to seek feedback from those people [the Square Squad]. And even if it’s really hard to hear, we must bring it in and hold it until we learn from it. This is what research taught me:

Don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them. Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback. And whatever you do, don’t pull hatefulness close to your heart.

Let what’s unproductive and hurtful drop at the feet of your unarmored self. And no matter how much your self-doubt wants to scoop up the criticism and snuggle with negativity so it can confirm it’s worst fears, or how eager the shame gremlins are to use the hurt to fortify your armour, take a deep breathe and find the strength to leave what’s mean-spirited on the ground. You don’t even need to stomp it or kick it away. Cruelty is cheap, easy, and chickenshit. It doesn’t deserve your energy or engagement. Just step over the comments and keep daring, always remembering that armour is too heavy a price to pay to engage with cheap-seat feedback.

If we shield ourselves from all feedback, we stop growing. If we engage with all feedback, regardless of the quality and intention, it hurts too much, and we ultimately armour up by pretending it doesn’t hurt or, worse yet, we’ll disconnect from vulnerability and emotion so fully that we stop feeling hurt.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

To avoid becoming overwhelmed and abandoning our efforts entirely, we must learn which voices to listen to and when. This is all the more important when tackling territory where power structures exist. If we take any opinion, particularly the loudest, we risk listening to those who do not have a stake in the discussion. Marginalised and oppressed voices can go unheard and are sometimes silenced altogether. It’s a common defence tactic to criticise in order to project shame and blame outward. This distraction can keep a critic safe behind a ‘better than’ mask.

“Criticism often arises from fear or feelings of unworthiness. Criticism shifts the spotlight off us and unto someone or something else. Suddenly we feel safer. And better than.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Arguably, no place is as tempting to engage with noisy cheap-seat feedback as on social media. Defensive comments, criticism, and the re-centering of narratives are rampant. Reactive statements are in no short supply. And reactive words encourage more reactive words. Numerous times, I’ve typed a draft rant, only to later delete it once I’ve given myself time to move out of a reactive state. I call up Inner Gandalf again who stands on that bridge in the face of the cheap-seat criticism shouting, “This Shalt Not Pass!”

If you want to help your Inner Gandalf (or equivalent), ‘unfollow’ the more persistent of cheap-seat critics on social media. Even consider blocking them. You take away their power if you don’t fuel their fires by accepting their invitation to react.

Your life doesn’t need cheap-seat associate critics. It needs contributors and connections.

Remember, you decide who to listen to, how to do your thing and what values you hold close while doing it. For some people, whatever you do, it will never be enough so let that criticism from the cheap seats fall at your feet. Only pick up what is valuable, constructive, and encourages you to grow and develop better practices. Chat it over with your Square Squad. Get your Caring Committee of Inner Nurturers on the case. Try out different ways of speaking to your inner critics and don’t let them convince you all your outer ones are right. Let your values be your guide.

Celebrate that moment you step into the arena. Hear that inner crowd roar. You’re there doing it! Congratulate you.

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