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Unhook from Praise and Criticism

4 April 2011

Barbara read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big and learned that praise can be just as harmful to creativity as mean spirited criticism. It is important to unhook from both.

Tags: barbara read, communication, women and leadership

Mohr is telling women how to speak up about their innovative ideas rather than sit silently on the sidelines. It is aimed at a female audience, but I think one chapter would be particularly helpful to all—the one on unhooking from praise and criticism.

Most people can remember a time when criticism was painful and maybe damaging to their creativity, but Mohr describes how praise was equally destructive to her.

She said, “I received a lot of praise about my writing when I was growing up. I was the kid whose paper or short story or poem was read aloud by the teacher to the class. I won writing awards and heard all kinds of superlative comments from my teachers and parents….I became so used to writing with the payoff of praise that when praise didn’t come, I felt like a failure….As I got older and entered more critical environments—advanced writing workshops, competitive submissions processes…tough feedback was the norm.”

She was devastated by the criticism and didn’t write for seven years—“a sabbatical provided by her inner critic.” Finally, she started to write again just for herself, for the joy of creating. She stopped thinking about praise or criticism from others.

She realized doing the work needed to give her the main pleasure—not the praise she received for the finished product. She said, “My own fulfillment, service to others and self-expression is the sundae and praise is a lovely cherry on top.”

Playing big means you speak up about your ideas at work, at home, in the community. You tell your truth and quit people pleasing. If you do that, you absolutely will receive criticism from someone. Don’t be surprised by it, count on it, and prepare for it. Mohr says to play big, make changes in the world, be creative, you must learn to get over your hurt feelings and figure out if there is some information in the criticism that can be useful to you.

Most of us know we cannot keep jobs if we do not respond to what bosses say and change behavior, so it is important to think about who is giving you feedback and whether or not you need to make adjustments for them. But if criticism is crushing to you, think about why. Decide if it is pointing out doubts you have about yourself or your work.

I received enough praise to suit me for my fulltime work-related writing. I had many years of articles received well in the Physician Executive Journal (now the Physician Leadership Journal). In this stage of my life, where I'm working part time and enjoying semi-retirement, I am trying to do a different kind of writing—memoir.

For the last four years I have intentionally put myself in a writing class where I receive criticism and praise. I can start to have a sinking feeling even before I read the piece I have brought to class—when the other people read their pieces that always seem so much better than mine. My teacher and classmates are never hurtful with their criticism and are always helpful so this dread of criticism is my own self-doubt. Since January I have been mentally prepping myself before each class by saying to myself—you are here to learn how to enhance what you have written. You are not allowed to have those negative thoughts. While in class, you can only say to yourself—How wonderful—no matter what is happening.

The trick is to enjoy praise when it comes but don’t become dependent on it and consider the merits of criticism but don’t be wiped out by it. Keep working on the projects you feel called to do or that your job demands.


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