What is Your Relationship with Praise and Criticism?


How do you respond when someone criticizes you? What will you do to earn someone’s praise? What about when the praise you were hoping for isn’t there?

Criticism hurts and I sometimes struggle to keep it from stopping me. I can be too dependent on praise, looking for others to assure me I’m good enough. Other times I shy away from positive attention, afraid people might resent me.

I don’t want to live according to the whims of other people’s opinions. That keeps me constantly second-guessing what I do and who I am. But I also don’t want to totally shut myself off from helpful feedback. I want to be able to enjoy praise I receive and learn from criticism without letting them dictate my direction.

Last summer, I reread Playing Big by Tara Mohr (highly recommend). At the end of each chapter, Tara offers exercises and journaling questions to apply what we’ve learned to our own lives. One exercise I particularly enjoyed came at the end of the chapter on unhooking from praise and criticism.

Tara suggests looking up reviews for a favorite author. Read several of the one-star reviews and a number of the five-star reviews. Write down some of your favorite contrasting statements.

I chose to look up reviews about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Favorite books are impossible to choose, but Gilead would pretty consistently make it onto a list of my top five. I read it twice before returning it to the library and now have a copy of my own. (I do hesitate a little to tell you that because what if you read it and hate it and decide I have terrible taste. ;)

Gilead also won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, so I can’t be the only one with strong feelings about this book.

I scrolled through reviews, starting with those who had awarded it one star:

  • very slow read…boring!
  • depressing
  • rambling
  • long and tedious
  • little merit
  • devoid of interesting ideas
  • unbelievably mundane
  • complete waste of time
  • total snore
  • too much talking and thinking
  • uninventive
  • most disappointing book I’ve ever encountered
  • no chapters
  • philosophical religiousity
  • mindnumbingly boring

I obviously disagree with everything on this list. (I guess it’s true that there are no chapters, but the only way in which that was a problem for me was that it was harder to choose a stopping point to close the book and go to sleep.) But I can see why this book might not be for everyone. After reading the above criticisms, I have a sense of the type of books these reviewers do enjoy.

Then I looked through the five star reviews:

  • beautiful, vulnerable yet sublime
  • deeply satisfying
  • profoundly rewarding
  • wonderful
  • very well written
  • a book to read again and again
  • sublimely written
  • elevates the most common events to a degree of astounding beauty
  • the prose is peaceful and vivid, simple yet extraordinary
  • brilliantly constructed
  • soul searching at it’s finest

It’s a little hard to believe both these lists are describing the same book, isn’t it?

Now, of course, the point isn’t whether or not Robinson’s book is amazing or terrible, but, rather, what looking at praise and criticism for someone else can show us about our own relationship to people’s opinions. It can be a little easier for me to look objectively at feedback about another person’s work than about my own.

Tara asks a couple of followup questions. What did you learn? What looks or feels different around criticism in your own life or work?

I was reminded that people are different and have different opinions. Not everyone is looking for the same thing and that is ok. We can’t please everyone and we don’t have to. There will be other people offering what we don’t provide.

In order to connect with some people more deeply, we have to risk others not resonating with what we do. If Robinson had tried to play it safe and write a book that would please everyone, she likely would have ended up with a bunch of middle of the road reviews and wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer. I probably wouldn’t have felt strongly enough about her book to place it among my favorites.

I so often try to make sure that everyone will like everything I do. This holds me back, keeping me doing what feels safe instead of what really matters. Remembering the wide range of feedback for one of my favorite books helps me be a little braver, knowing that no piece of praise or criticism is the ultimate authority on me or what I do.

This exercise is one small part of Tara’s chapter on praise and criticism. She summed it up nicely when she wrote:

While I call this work unhooking from praise and criticism, it’s not about your becoming impervious to others’ reactions. It is about your becoming less hindered by those reactions. It’s about how you can learn to savor praise but not depend on it or be driven by it. It’s about how you can learn to incorporate criticism when it is useful, but not be immobilized by it.

Now, I want more of that.

I’d love to know…where does your relationship with praise or criticism hold you back? What has helped you become less dependent on other people’s reactions? Did you try this exercise? What book (or movie, etc) did you use? What did you learn?