How to Not Get Hurt By Criticism

“You have to take the good with the bad, and I’m a songwriter so I stay sensitive. I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve so that means I can’t harden my heart and I get hurt a lot but I’ve learned to take all that.” – Dolly Parton, on Good Morning America

When I was a little tyke, I started my career in sales by making bookmarks and forcing folks at church to buy ‘em. Then I became a makeup artist. Then I sold cosmetics. Somewhere in between, I did a stint as a medical assistant. I fainted and got fired. Now, I’m a photographer, blogger, church leader, charity runner. I’m in the perfect position to get punched in the face every single day. I’ve never, never been in as hard a business as photography.

Or blogging. Or ministry. Or charity.

All these things bring me the greatest joys and the greatest heartaches of my life. Basically, I’m in four different businesses that all invite criticism. A glutton for punishment? Maybe. A rebel with a cause? Absolutely.

Today, though, I’m just talking photography/business but these things can really apply to anyone, no matter why you’re receiving criticism. I agree with Dolly. You have to stay sensitive if you’re going to continue creating. Especially being in the business of beloved photography, I have to stay soft, wear my heart on my sleeve and be ready to make deep connections with people I’ve never met before. I can’t possibly do this if I have walls up. So I’ve been punched over and over and over and I just keep popping back up like one of those punching bags.

The title of this post is, “How to not get hurt by criticism.” It’s impossible, by the way. It hurts. Below, I’m going to lay out the different things I’ve found helpful in dealing with hurtful criticism. But let me give you a little hope: I used to feel like I was getting punched in the face every time I was handed a cold plate of criticism. Now, it’s more like a scratch most of the time and I got there without hardening my heart.

And you know what? Listening to people’s criticism can make you a better person. Here are some things to keep in mind:

They Might Be Right

So, you’ve been told your prices are too high. Are they right? Are you trying to be a luxury brand but netting a lower demographic of client? You’re getting criticized for promising 300 wedding images and giving them 50? Getting raked over the coals for having poor business practices? You really need to listen to people and suss out the issue at hand. They may be right. In the beginning, I’ve been told flat out “I hate these wedding photos.” Why is that? Because I fancied myself an artist but presented myself like a budget option – a hired camera. They didn’t want my “art,” they simply wanted pictures and I failed to communicate. It hurt, but I had to take it and say, “You’re right. What can I do to make you happy?” and then change so it wouldn’t happen again.

Consider the Source

Who’s the criticism coming from? It may be other photographers, clients or even your spouse. I’ve learned to consider the source. Other photographers are usually jealous (if you’re good) or mean (if you’re not.) Did you know there are entire websites, Facebook groups and pages dedicated solely to posting photos and then tearing them apart? It’s utterly disgusting. It’s the worst part of humanity – people shooting each other down to feel bigger.

The criticism may be coming from your clients, and these are the most important people to listen to. But again, consider whether you’ve had a hand in causing the problem. I receive far less criticism now that I’ve nailed down strategies to maintain consistency, manage expectations and communicate efficiently.

My friend Maddy Rogers once said to me, “I don’t care what other photographers think. My clients are happy.” So many photographers are creating their work to “one-up” others. Separate the two. Focus on the ones paying you.

It may be coming from your spouse. I really love my husband; I’m only where I am because of him. But he really doesn’t get my photography. He likes to walk into the room in the middle of the edit and say “eew” or “not sharp” or whatever. He’s not my ideal viewing audience. He’s not my target market, not my ideal client. So it’s annoying, yes, but considering the source, I have to just say, “Yeah, well, after the parents cry tonight at their viewing session and hand me a check, tell me what you think.” I’m not one bit interested in criticism on my style or technique. My clients love me and I really don’t give a flying fart what people who aren’t part of that think.

It’s hilarious to me that people even think they are positioned to give criticism on certain things. Like when I post a photo and people say “too bright” or “washed out” or whatever. There’s no such thing as “too bright” or “too washed out.” Nonsense! My images are exactly as I intended them to be. Heck, maybe they have a crappy monitor. Ever considered that? I feel that the sources of this sort of criticism completely disqualify themselves just by the fact that they’re even saying such things. So although it makes me want to scream, I find it really easy to ignore any and all criticism of this nature.

That said, it’s really important to align yourself with someone who can give you valuable constructive criticism. Because I don’t want you walking around with what I call American Idol Syndrome. A great way to receive this is Chic Critique, where you can locate a photographer you admire and sign up to have them critique your work for a month. I’ve done it a couple times and heard that it was totally game changing for my students. Do it – you won’t regret it!

Have Compassion

This one isn’t really just about photography. It’s about life. Hurt people hurt people. That’s my mantra. I have to say this to myself every day. All of humanity are walking through life with hurt – disappointment, rejection, failure. We carry baggage laden with bricks of pain and when it gets too heavy, we find the nearest person and say, “Hey, carry this with me.” This can come in the form of bullying, inappropriate communication or accusations. If someone has done something to hurt me, I try to look at the cause. If someone rejects me, there’s a good chance that they’ve suffered some pretty bad rejection in their life. Rejected people like to try to control the rejection in their life by rejecting others first. People who have historically been disappointed look for disappointment and often find it in places where it simply isn’t.

What does this have to do with business? Because business is about people. And you will come in contact with hurt people every day and some – a few – will take their hurt out on you. This doesn’t happen often. Have compassion. This makes criticism and accusation hurt a lot less.

You Don’t Have to Respond

Simple: Nothing shuts a bully up like silence.

Manage Your Stress

If you’re doing too much and your business is killing your happiness, you need to find a way to manage your stress. Because when you receive criticism, you’ll respond inappropriately.

Sleep On It

SLEEP. ON. IT. Seriously, things always look different in the morning. The most bullying emails or Facebook posts I’ve ever seen were written around midnight. Get some space between yourself and the situation. It may take serious, SERIOUS self-control – I still fail at times – but you’ll thank yourself in the morning!

Remember: It’s Just One Person

Try to remember that criticism represents only one person’s point of view.

Look at the most influential people. They receive gargantuan heaps of criticism. Some bring it on themselves. For others, it simply comes with the territory.

If you’re trying to make everyone happy, you’ll make no one happy.

2 Responses to “How to Not Get Hurt By Criticism”

  1. Dear Ms. Halford,
    Simply, you're right. Turning fifty this year I've reflected on my life with the crtical eye we're taught to use and use the voice we often hear. Hurt people do hurt people and since we seldom encounter that rare encouraging soul we simply pass the baton often without knowing it. I crave praise but let my own whining about the criticism I receive get in the way of giving constructive critique. I recently picked up the camera again and let my creative eye direct my shutter. Guess what? Everyone hates my work except one, my neice who has a wonderful award winning talent. She is honest about what she sees. Someone encouraged her, she inspired me to return to my loved and missed camera, and I've changed the way I look at and critique other's photos. Maybe I'll be the one who kick starts a beautiful career in a person of great talent, or at least make someone enjoy their weekend hobby just a little bit more.

    Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Interesting that you mention the monitors. It's partially true. While there are a lot of basic monitors out there that perform ok, even well, note that there are a lot of people who will buy based on rock bottom price, and that's that. For novice photographers, I tell them to just head on over to the Apple store and put up their photos or website on a Mac if they don't have one. It's not that I'm an Apple fangirl, but I've never net a monitor of theirs I didn't like. If you r images are "as expected" or as desired, I tell them to then go to the public library computers and view stuff there. A world of difference.

    On answering the question of "Do you suck?" - if criticisms are overly frequent, you really need to have your stuff evaluated by someone with experience - a good editor or a good experienced shooter will be able to tell the difference between sucking and style/substance. Mom down the street with a camera, or the low rent wedding client can't do that. Get someone you do not know to evaluate and pay a fee (to a vetted reviewer) if you have to.

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