How to Keep Criticism from Crushing You

My skin is sensitive. So said my dermatologist, who—strangely, I thought—pointed out that she could sign her name on my back with just a light touch of her fingernail.

My emotions aren’t much different. If you’ve known for more than a week or two, you’ve probably seen me cry. And most of the times that my eyes are overflowing, I’m fighting it, embarrassed by my own transparent vulnerability. I’ve been rightly called “thin-skinned.”

The only parts of me, inside or out, that are not sensitive are my fingertips. I’ve been playing guitar my whole life— I don’t get have to have those white-tipped fingernails I enviously watch Beth Moore wave about so gracefully when she’s teaching. To me, however, it is a small sacrifice. Making music with stringed instruments has given me immeasurable pleasure. When I was a full-time performer, I could play guitar for 6 hours a day without feeling the strain. My secret? Industrial strength calluses. You get them the way oysters get pearls—by pressing through pain.

The Pain of Rejection

Writers are famous for having to learn how to handle rejection. Stories abound about authors like JK Rowlings persisting even after having been turned down by a dozen publishers. We must develop a thicker skin, we are told.

Now in the process of submitting my first manuscript to agents and publishers, I’m bracing myself for the onslaught of discouraging form rejection letters I’ve been warned to expect. Even if I get past that hurdle and live to see the happy day when my book is actually in print and offered for sale on Amazon, I cringe at the thought of receiving unfavorable reviews. Most creatives understand that not even a score of five star reviews are sufficient to erase the one unforgettable voice that gripes and snipes and stains you with a thumbs down.

The truth is, that even though I usually pretend to welcome it with open arms and a grateful heart, receiving even constructive criticism usually bothers me. But there really is no way around it—if you want to be a published writer, you have to figure out how to develop a thicker skin. Even now, the thought of hanging my heart out on a line and having it shot through with holes is enough to induce palpitations.

Getting Tougher and Staying True

I don’t recoil, however, at the thought of pressing my fingertips against the hard steel strings of my guitar. Years of practice have given me the calluses that enable me to do so without soreness as long as I keep on playing regularly. As I’ve persisted over the years in leaning into the source of pain, my fingers actually have developed thicker skin.

If you, like me, find joy in writing and creating, it is likely God is calling you to share your work with others. You’ve got to stay tender enough to write from your heart, but tough enough to send it out into an apathetic or critical world. As all guitarists know, you have to learn to press down even when it is painful. Like the six strings of the guitar, the following forms of criticism can cause pain to the thin-skinned, but unless you have the courage to develop calluses, the beauty can’t flow freely from your hands.

Six Kinds of Criticism: Six Kinds of Pain

  1. When It’s Right

    When I joined my first writer’s critique group and started regularly seeing “wordy” written across my submissions, I didn’t believe it at first. Then it dawned on me that as a high school teacher who communicated orally rather than in writing, I’d developed the habit of repeating myself verbally all day long to make sure my students got my message. I had to be alerted to the fact that I had this tendency and that it worked against the clarity and readability of my prose.

    But what really rankled me was this well-intentioned comment: “You are clearly a recovering academic.” What?? Now you are hurting my feelings! I’ve been working assiduously on developing this formal tone for years, and now you are asking me to abandon it? Am I not I supposed to make full use of my arsenal of arcane words?

    My critiquer patiently replied, “Actually no, not if you want anyone to read this and enjoy it.”

    She was right. I leaned in to her insights, and my word counts began to drop dramatically.

  2. When It’s Wrong

    Not everyone who wields a red pencil gets it right 100% of the time. Don’t get discouraged; get a second opinion before you delete a month’s worth of work. Maybe another equally qualified editor or writer will just love what you’ve done. Sometimes you have to trust your own ear.

  3. When It’s Gracious

    Usually we can recognize that tool of the tactful, the metaphorical Oreo Cookie, when it is heading toward us. We suspect that the real, awful truth about our inadequacy is embedded between the layers of sugar that are supposed to help the medicine go down. Force yourself to accept that the commendations bookending the criticism are just as accurate. Don’t highlight the negative and ignore the positive comments. Give yourself some credit!

  4. When It’s Mean-spirited

    Who knows why people feel they must spew venom when they get on the Internet, but the list of possibilities surely includes jealousy and insecurity. I say steer clear of reading all one star reviews on Amazon, no matter whose book is being skewered. Anyone who gets that worked up, who uses capital letters and multiple exclamation points to slam someone else’s heart-felt words has issues that go beyond the scope of what you need to concern yourself with. Just don’t go there.

  5. When It’s Personal Preference.

    There is a reason for Neapolitan ice cream. Not everyone understands that chocolate is the only flavor worth eating and that the slightest dab of strawberry will taint and mar your enjoyment of desert. There are those living among us who inexplicably actually prefer eating pink ice cream. If the person providing the worrisome evaluation hates memoir and that is what you’ve handed her, be prepared to take some of her comments with a grain of salt. Find someone who writes or likes your style. Cross-stitch this if you need to, and hang it on your wall: Not everyone is going to love you. Not everyone is going to get you. But somebody will, and they are worth persevering for.

  6. When It’s Self-Criticism.

    I find I have to repeatedly scrape off the barnacles of pride masquerading as perfectionism that keep attaching themselves to my hull. Being a people pleaser and a perfectionist will make you crazy even if you aren’t a writer seeking a public audience. This is a good one to lean into and overcome. Being your own worst critic can sometimes be a sign that you have the discernment and sensitivity you need to be a writer. But you have to know when to silence that carping voice and let yourself believe the positive and uplifting words of those God has surely put in your path to encourage you on this journey.

How do you, as a writer or artist, deal with various kinds of criticism? Which is the hardest for you?