When Criticism Undermines Creativity: How Cognitive Restructuring Helps You Go On Creating!

“I will never, ever sing again!” my client practically wailed as she flung the Arts section of the local newspaper down on the sofa of my counseling room. “Just look at this: ‘She had a pleasant voice, was poised and communicated well with the audience but her voice was less steady than that of the other soloist’. I am absolutely ruined – no one will ever hire me to sing again! I’m just quitting.”

The review did certainly seem the type that ‘damns with faint praise’, I had to admit, and the client’s distress was quite apparent. Creative types are often quite sensitive to criticism, because so much of who we are as creative people is manifested in what we do; therefore a negative critique is often perceived as a personal attack. Criticism also evokes prior instances when our performances were not received well: this client, for example, could not forget a college choir rehearsal at which another member had loudly and pointedly requested that she “please stop bellowing!”

Most artistic types can recall times when their performances or works were not well received. When this sort of ego deflation happens, it causes a “snowball effect” of hyperbolic self-criticism. As a long-time semi-professional musician, it’s happened to me many times. Here’s where a good dose of cognitive restructuring can really help us put the criticism in perspective and get back to doing what we love to do, confident in our abilities once more.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy developed as an outgrowth of pure behaviorism, a theory that postulated that human behavior is a set of responses to environmental stimuli. In short, the idea was that if we change the circumstances and the stimuli in the individual’s surroundings, we can elicit a change in human response. Some of you may recall psychologist B.F. Skinner’s experiments to test that hypothesis back in the 1940’s with the so-called “Skinner Box”, using his own daughter as a subject. The cognitive piece was later added to behavioral therapy by Aaron Beck and his colleagues, who recognized that the environment is not the only source of stimulus for human behavior.

Beck believed that humans acted in response to thought processes – and that maladaptive behavior was often the result of cognitive distortion. There are several different types of so-called cognitive “schema” – or themes – that can cause us to react to our circumstances in negative ways, and a variety of ways that our thinking can become distorted based on our perception of happenings around us. Many of these are probably quite familiar to you:  minimizing, generalizing, “awful-izing”, excessive use of “shoulds”, “musts”, “always”, “never” and so on. Therapists use CBT to help clients recognize, confront and change negative belief systems that cause these cognitive distortions. Considering my client’s distress in the vignette that started this article, I decided that CBT was the right approach to use with her in the session. Here’s a synopsis:

T:   You must be very upset by that review to say that you’ll never sing again. That’s a pretty broad statement. Do you really mean that?
C:  I do mean it. Who will want me to sing for them once they see that review?
T.  It sounds as though you think that everyone in the world will see this review and be influenced by what this one person said. Do you think that’s really true?
C:  Well…I guess not. But you know that word does get around.
T:  It also seems as if you think everyone who reads this particular review will believe this writer over all the ones who have given you good reviews. I think you said you never get a break. I’m wondering whether you have gotten any good reviews.
C:  Oh…yes, there have been some.
T:  Can you tell me about what percentage of the reviews you’ve gotten are bad ones?
C:  Hmm…I guess it’s really not a majority.
T:  In fact, you’ve told me about some really wonderful comments that have been made about your singing. Do you remember what some of those were?
C:  Well, there was that one review recently in which the writer said my voice was “warm, mellow and vibrant”… and there was one that said my singing gave the writer “goosebumps“. (Thoughtfully) Those were good.
T:  Let me ask you this. You have some engagements coming up in the near future.  Now, has anyone called you to cancel – since this review came out?
C:  (Hesitating) No, not really.
T:  Not really?
C:  No, they haven’t.
T:  So, I’m wondering whether you really are ruined, as you said earlier.
C:  No, I’m just hurt. I worked so hard to get ready for that performance. And the audience really seemed to love me!
T:  So, is it safe to say that this performance was more appreciated and admired than you seemed to be thinking when you came in today?
C:  Yes, it is.
T:  Looking at the review, does it seem to you that the reviewer recognized this?
C:  Actually, yes. It says that I connected with the audience. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that before.
T:  Do you think you’ll sing again?
C:  Of course I will. That reviewer is just one person and isn’t going to ruin what I love to do.
T:  So, what can you take away from this session?
C:  To keep things in perspective and not let one person’s word be the final one – even if it is a critic!

I don’t think anyone enjoys seemingly negative criticism, and it’s normal to feel broadsided when it occurs, whether it‘s about your singing, your golf game, your typing, or the way you ironed your kids’ shirts. Challenging your cognitive distortions can help you put the criticism in perspective, restore your confidence and give you the energy you need to keep going with a positive approach. And, if you can’t seem to shake the negative feelings away after a reasonable time, consider seeking assistance from a mental health professional who can help get you back on track!

Related Articles:
Art Making is Not Enough
Jung & Poetry: Full, Embodied Living
Shadow Work: Transforming Emotional Suffering into Freedom

© Copyright 2011 by Suellen Fagin-Allen, JD, LMHC, PA, therapist in Orlando, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Zane

    Zane

    November 4th, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    It must be difficult as a serious artist to listen to criticism and not take it personally, but instead be able to filter it and take something good from it.
    Criticism hurts all of us to some effect, but there are some whom it harms more and I would think that a sensitive artist type would be pretty susceptible to this kind of hurt.
    I try to always be mindful of this when offering tips for people and their work, but what you say does not always come out sounding exactly like you think that it will.
    Try to listen to the words in the mindset of those who are having to hear them and think strongly about how you would feel if someone was making that kind of judgement on your own work. Would you be able to take it?

  • Beattie

    Beattie

    November 4th, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    pleh- If they don’t sign my paycheck then I really could not care less about what they have to say!

  • Ashley.M

    Ashley.M

    November 6th, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    It can be back-breaking for someone who puts in all their efforts,is happy with their performance and then hears a negative review.I used to sing while in high school and I took it up quite seriously.And on the rare occasion that someone said anything negative I would feel low for at least a couple of days.Not a good feeling and you feel like you are in a pit.Need to try and get out of it quick,phew!

  • heath

    heath

    November 6th, 2011 at 11:29 PM

    There is only so much that I will let others’ opinions affect me.If I consider others’ opinion to be the ultimate judgement of my talents that is not doing justice to myself.

    Yes,we perform a lot of times for others and it feels great to hear positive comments about your performance or work but there will definitely be the occasional negative comment that comes your way.It happens even to the best and really,I would never let something like that affect me.

  • janice everett

    janice everett

    November 7th, 2011 at 8:53 PM

    If anyone in the audience ever criticizes my performance in our amateur productions, I just say “Haters gonna hate.” If they persist, I just say it a lot louder and snappily to show that I honestly don’t care what they think.

    If they have a problem with my work, why don’t they just keep their mouths shut and not be rude about it?

  • Brenda Adams

    Brenda Adams

    November 7th, 2011 at 10:50 PM

    @janice everett: I think your take on that feedback is very immature. Are you aware of the concept of constructive criticism? When enough people make the same statement, even if you disagree with it, it’s time to consider whether they may indeed have a point. Blowing off what could be valuable help in improving your performance because your ego can’t handle it is childish.

  • Lynn Knox

    Lynn Knox

    November 7th, 2011 at 11:53 PM

    @Brenda Adams -I agree. All the acting greats never stopped learning, janice. They became superstars because they could take criticism and use it to their advantage by honing their performance, not sulking and pouting over it. They listened and paid attention to what was behind the criticism and figured out how to tackle it if it was valid and disregard what was said if it was not.

    The marks of a great actor are flexibility, grace and versatility. Rigidity doesn’t come into it.

  • Victor W.

    Victor W.

    November 8th, 2011 at 12:02 AM

    Creatives are very sensitive creatures. They wouldn’t be able to do what they do without having that trait. Most creatives hear any criticism at a much higher volume than they do the praise. They can read ten reviews, nine out of ten of which can be glowing, yet they will focus upon the negative one. It’s so important to remember as you said Suellen that it’s one person’s opinion. For all you know they were simply having a crappy day and took it out on you. Unfair, but a comfort nonetheless.

  • Lisa Oliver

    Lisa Oliver

    November 8th, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    That makes me get why some celebrities say they never read about themselves or their reviews in newspapers or online. Something like that could really dent your ego and if you’re a newcomer to performing in public especially.

    It takes time to build your confidence and you have to have that inner confidence to shine on stage, not one that depends on what a few lines of print say.

    Remember, today’s review is tomorrow’s birdcage liner and soon forgotten by everyone-except you.

  • Amy Kemp

    Amy Kemp

    November 8th, 2011 at 9:10 PM

    To be a performer you must develop a thick skin. If you don’t have the hide of a rhino, you’re going to get hurt repeatedly. Enjoy what you do and be content with that! And remind yourself that most critics wouldn’t have the guts to even try. Jealousy also plays a role sometimes. I don’t believe that every critic can be 100% impartial every time. Critics are human too! Well, almost. ;)

  • d.x.n.

    d.x.n.

    November 8th, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    Writers, especially fanfiction writers, are the most immature, self-absorbed creatives I’ve ever came across. I’ve read some junk-and some gems-in my life as a reviewer of self-published books. As such I get ARC’s (advance reading copies) prior to full publication.

    A glaring plotline inconsistency being pointed out isn’t seen as helpful, no sir. It’s seen as an attack and nothing more. Once I noted that the main character’s surname changed halfway through the ARC and the author went berserk at me instead of being eternally grateful that I brought it to their attention before a big print run. Go figure.

  • Thomas Ross

    Thomas Ross

    November 8th, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    That singer sounds very high maintenance. If she thinks her entire career is ruined because she sung an E when she should have sung an F, maybe she should get out of the business now. One so touchy won’t be able to handle it.

    With fame comes criticism and people picking on her singing is going to be the least of her problems if she was ever to reach those heights. There are brutal, horrid insults aimed at celebrities via the comments sections of websites and blogs on everything from their weight to their shoes to their choice of boyfriend or lunch.

    She needs to learn to either chill out or tune it out.

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