criticism | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

I’m Back And Ready To Explore

I’ll start by thanking everyone who’s checked in with me during my month-long absence from blogging — that really brought home to me that I’ve made some genuine connections in the blogging world, and it’s not all just about “one hand washing the other” and “you scratching my back and me scratching yours” and collectively achieving A-List Social Media Superstardom.  :)

The explanation for my absence is that, for a long time, I just didn’t feel inspired to write.  The way I was writing simply wasn’t fully bringing out who I am.  There are aspects of me — particularly my wild, spontaneous part — that my structured, “prescriptive” style of writing wasn’t making use of, and that was frustrating to me.

I thought and agonized about this for a while, and finally came to a resolution.   I just needed to try a different kind of creative expression for a while, and find something that did bring out those parts that wanted to be seen.  I didn’t need to stop writing altogether, but I needed to take a little detour.

So, I’ve been exploring for a bit, and trying some new stuff.  I’ve been working on a computer game with a friend that focuses on what Stone Age spirituality might have been like.  :)  I’ve also done some videos I’d like to share with you.

At Least I Feel Alive

I’ve received all kinds of reactions to these videos so far — from “I had to lie down after watching these” to “I don’t get this at all.”  Wherever your reactions are on that spectrum, they’re welcome here (if you like them, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube).

One thing I’ve noticed is that people’s reactions to my creative work, no matter what they are, always help me feel alive.  It’s not always a blissful kind of aliveness — it may be a “fight or flight” kind of aliveness, for example, when someone talks to me in a way that seems critical and attacking.

But one thing is certain — when I’m getting feedback on projects I’m invested in, and feeling the emotions that come with it, it’s impossible for me to go through my day in a numb and robotic way, as I can from time to time.  I’m sure to feel a lot of rich sensation — and learning to embrace intense sensation, instead of turning away from it, is what my own growth and exploration, and the work I share with others, are about.

Without further ado, here are the videos.  I’ll be doing a lot more writing shortly, and I’m looking forward to catching up with those of you I haven’t connected with in a while.

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

New Blog: Development In Context

I’m excited to announce that I’ve launched a new blog I’ve been thinking about for some time.  It’s not a replacement for this blog — I’m going to keep writing for both of them, because each of them deals with a different aspect of my work.  The new blog is called Development In Context (or DevInContext for short).

As you may know, particularly if you’re a personal growth junkie like me, the personal development area has been the subject of some controversy of late, and many books and articles critical of the field have come out in recent years.

I think this is wonderful, because it gives us personal growth junkies an opportunity to get back to basics and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.  The goal of DevInContext is to do just that — to explore and explain some central ideas of personal development, and answer some criticisms made against them.  I think personal growth has a lot to offer, and that it would be a mistake to hastily dismiss it as just woo-woo navel-gazing.

If this is a topic that interests you, I look forward to welcoming you there, and you’ll be seeing another post here within the next few days.

Best, Chris

Don’t Wait To Do Your “Real Work”

Many of us are stuck in the habit of waiting for permission to do our “real work.”  By real work, I mean a career in keeping with our strongest desire or true calling.  Although we know what sort of work we’d find most fulfilling, we’re nagged by the feeling that we don’t have what it takes to do that work yet.  Perhaps we believe we need more courage, energy, education, money, or something else.  Whatever we think we need, we’re hoping that, at some point, it will come along and all our doubts and fears will disappear.

This observation hit home recently when I was talking to a woman at a party.  She was telling me she’d wanted, for some time, to train to be a psychologist, but she didn’t feel she was ready yet.  The reason, in her eyes, was that she needed to work on her own “issues” a little more before she could hope to help others with theirs.  Maybe she needed to read more self-help books, take more courses, see a therapist, or something else.  She wasn’t sure, but she’d know what she needed when it arrived.

The most interesting part of the conversation came when I asked what she thought would happen if she started before she felt ready.  What would be the consequences, in other words, if she didn’t fully “work through her issues” before learning how to work through someone else’s?  She thought for a bit, and eventually said she was worried that people would ask her “who are you to be doing this?”  Other people, to her mind, would say she wasn’t qualified to be a therapist, and she’d feel hurt or scared as a result.

Importantly, the woman wasn’t holding back from pursuing her calling because she was afraid of hurting people or doing her job badly.  In other words, she wasn’t afraid of somehow damaging her therapy clients by working with them before she’d done enough work on herself.  Instead, she was afraid other people in her life would judge her harshly, saying she was being arrogant or presumptuous by becoming a therapist before her own “issues” were resolved.

In my experience, many people who find themselves waiting for the right event to happen before they can do their “real work” are coming up against the same fear.  To them, if they pursued their passion in their careers, someone would criticize them and suggest they don’t deserve to do what they want.  They aren’t afraid of performing poorly in their ideal careers, or harming someone with the work they do—instead, their anxieties focus on other people’s possible opinions.

Of course, this mindset puts severe limits on what we can achieve and how much fulfillment we can get out of our careers.  We can never truly anticipate what others are going to say about our choices in life, and it’s always possible—no matter how much talent and education we have—that someone will put us down for going after what we want.  Thus, if we take it seriously, this fear can indefinitely keep us from pursuing the work we truly desire.

In Zen And The Art Of Making A Living, Laurence G. Boldt has an inspiring passage on the futility of waiting to be perfect before pursuing the career you want:

You’ll never have all the pieces. You’ll never have all the parts. Don’t wait to be perfect before you start. Walt Whitman said to himself, “Walt, you contain enough. Why don’t you let it out then?” You are a dynamic life force filled with mystery and wonder, not a machine to which all the parts can be added and properly arranged. Building your skills and resources is helpful to the extent that it is moving you forward; don’t let it become a trap.

How do we develop the comfort we need to stop settling for second-best in our careers and begin our “real work”?  How do we stop making such a big deal out of others’ possible criticism of our choices? 

I’ll say first off that I won’t simply tell you not to be concerned about others’ opinions.  There are legitimate reasons why you may have decided it’s important to avoid criticism.  Some event or series of events in your life taught you it hurts when others condemn your choices in life, and anyone else who went through those events would probably have developed the same concerns.

However, if you’re holding back from pursuing your ideal career to avoid being criticized, I will suggest you take a look at what may have caused you to develop that anxiety.  Put differently, what happened in your life that’s having you design your career situation to make sure no one puts you down?  When I ask people this question, they often recall the incidents that had them develop this kind of fear very quickly.  Perhaps, for example, they had critical parents, judgmental siblings or friends, a failure in some project they did, or something else.

Just understanding what started you worrying about being judged immediately gives you some perspective on, and some freedom from, that worry.  When we understand what event caused us to limit ourselves the way we do today, we also begin to grasp that we’re responding to circumstances that no longer exist in the present.  The people who may have attacked, criticized, or otherwise hurt us in the past have no power over us in this moment.  As we’re intelligent, capable, self-loving adults, it’s safe for us to go for what we want even if it doesn’t please everyone in our lives.

I’ll also suggest that, when you go for what you really want in your career and other areas of your life, the fulfillment you create for yourself becomes a gift to others as well.  When you walk through the world more satisfied with what you do, your passion and joy rub off on everyone you interact with.  If you stop waiting to do your real work, you’ll bring more peace and happiness into the world just by making that choice.

Are You Living To Avoid Criticism?

I have a simple question for you.  Are you involved in your current career, relationship, and other activities because you actually find them fulfilling?  Or is it because you think they’re the best way to avoid others’ disapproval?

Unfortunately, for many people, the answer seems to be the latter.  Many of us picked our career paths because they looked safe and thus unlikely to frighten or displease our loved ones and friends.  Many of us are in relationships with people largely because we think those people are likely to appeal to our families.  And so on.  The possibility of others disliking our choices is too unbearable to accept, and thus we’ve selected whatever activities we think others are least likely to criticize.

What’s most insidious about living to avoid criticism is that it seems perfectly natural because, in various ways, we’ve been doing it all our lives.  As children, we cleaned our rooms, went to bed, went to school, and so forth because, if we didn’t, our parents would disapprove and punish us.  We certainly didn’t do those things because they brought us satisfaction.  Today, as adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply continuing on the same path, and letting the fear of others’ disapproval drive every choice we make.

This approach to life causes us much suffering.  Even though we aren’t always conscious that we’re living to avoid criticism, being out of alignment with our callings and desires gives life a bland, uninspiring quality.  We wake up early in the morning, suddenly wondering why in the world we chose this job, relationship, or some other aspect of our lives.  We drag ourselves through our days, suppressing our dissatisfaction with caffeine, alcohol and perhaps stronger drugs, wondering why our bodies seem to be fighting us every step of the way.  We feel resentful toward our colleagues and partners, assuming that their failings, rather than our own decisions, must be the reason for our malaise.

Ironically, living to avoid others’ displeasure also makes others worse off.  Each of us, I believe, has unique, natural gifts we can bestow upon the world in our vocations, in our relationships and in our other pursuits.  By ignoring our true callings and desires, we deprive the world of the full benefit of those gifts.  And when we design our lives to avoid criticism, we bring a flat, lifeless quality to our interactions with others.  When others ask what’s going on with us, we respond “nothing much”—and our answer is an accurate expression of our feeling of emptiness.  Needless to say, this doesn’t make us pleasant or uplifting to be around.

If you feel persistently dissatisfied with what you’re doing in any area of your life, it may be because you chose the activity out of a desire to avoid others’ disapproval.  If you did, however, you won’t necessarily be conscious of that fact, because—as I said earlier—you may have become so accustomed to living to deflect criticism that it seems like the only possible approach to life.  If you ask yourself a few simple, targeted questions, however, you may become aware of the truth.

First, ask yourself who is likely to criticize you if you stop doing the activity you’re doing—if you leave the job, relationship or other aspect of your life that you’re dissatisfied with.  Is it a person you love, trust and respect?  If they didn’t like your decision, would you be able to live with their disapproval?  If you can’t accept the possibility of displeasing this person, you are probably staying in your present situation to avoid their disapproval rather than to fulfill your own needs.

Second, if you determined that you are remaining in your current job, relationship or other activity to stave off someone else’s disapproval, ask yourself what would happen if that person did disapprove of you.  Would they say nasty things to you?  Would they abandon you?  Or perhaps unrealistic or exaggerated consequences come to mind—for instance, maybe the first answer that comes up is that you would die if this person didn’t like your choice.

Understanding what you’re afraid would happen if you earned someone else’s disapproval is critical to managing that fear.  If you don’t know what specifically you’re afraid of, you can’t make an informed decision about whether to make the transition you want in your life.  But if you do know, you can consciously weigh the happiness you’d gain by making a change against the pain you’d feel if someone else were unhappy with you.  And often, when you have some idea of the effect another person’s disapproval would have on you, it doesn’t seem so frightening.  After all, if someone else—even a close friend or family member—were displeased with one of your decisions, life would still go on.

To be clear, I’m not saying you should never be concerned with the impact your actions have on others.  But surely there are at least some areas of your life where it’s okay for you to make a choice that someone else may dislike.  Examples, at least to my mind, would include your choices regarding your career, the number of children you have (if any), your sexual preference, and the hobbies you enjoy.  I think you’d agree that you aren’t somehow obligated to make decisions about those areas of your life in constant fear that someone else—even if it’s your parents—might disapprove.

The question I posed at the beginning of this article is a sobering one to consider, and it’s one that many of us would rather avoid.  But if you want genuine, lasting fulfillment in your career, your intimate relationships, and other areas of your life, it’s an important question to ask yourself.  If we can get past living to avoid displeasing others, we can finally come to understand what we truly want, and maybe even what we’re here to do, in our lives.