Being Creative and Self-critical

by Douglas Eby

Healthy criticism can help refine our talents and creative projects in the pursuit of excellence. But when it is based on a excessive perfectionism or an unrealistic self concept, criticism can be destructive and self-limiting, eroding our creative assurance and vitality.

Many creative people, even when they have achieved recognition for their talents, may experience self-critical thoughts and insecurity.

Irish writer John Banville, just before receiving The Booker Prize, considered the world's most prestigious award for new fiction, was sure he would not win; "I tend to think all my books are bad," he said.

Many talented film actors report they don't watch their own movies. When you can be seen in close-ups on twenty foot high theater screens, it may be especially hard not to criticize your appearance and performance.

Kate WinsletKate Winslet has admitted that before going off to a movie shoot, she sometimes thinks, "I'm a fraud, and they're going to fire me... I'm fat; I'm ugly."

Highly creative and talented people are, according to research on giftedness, often susceptible to perfectionism and unreasonably high standards and expectations that can lead to exaggerated criticism.

Lesley Sword, director of Gifted and Creative Services, in Australia, finds that gifted children are "highly self critical and over reactive to the criticism of others.

"They express dissatisfaction with themselves; they see what 'ought to be' in themselves... They have a vision of perfectionism that they measure themselves against and they can become despondent sometimes even depressed, at their perceived failure."

Children who have strong abilities may get praised for their creative projects, but miss out on learning that criticism may be helpful, or that perseverance and time are needed to develop talents fully.

Then as adults, when their painting or book or movie does not come together quickly or "perfectly" enough, they can be harshly critical of themselves.

And standards for what is "good" creative work have typically been developed by males, based on male values and male artists, rather than recognizing women as having equal, though perhaps different, creative sensibilities.

Impostor feelings can also accompany or lead to self-criticism.

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the novel Everything Is Illuminated, said, "I can be very hard on myself. I convince myself that I'm fooling people. Or, I convince myself that people like the book for the wrong reasons."

Ideas about identity and abilities can also be limiting.

Jane CampionDirector Jane Campion, praised for "The Piano" and other films, once commented, "I never have had the confidence to approach film making straight on.

"I just thought it was something done by geniuses, and I was very clear that I wasn't one of those."

Another example is Nobel Prize winner poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz, who once said, "From early on writing for me has been a way to overcome my real or imagined worthlessness."

These are not unusual cases, according to researchers.

Many people with exceptional abilities experience a mix of complex feelings including inadequacy and inferiority, and critical self-evaluation.

In her book The Gifted Adult, Mary-Elaine Jacobsen writes about common judgments people often hear from others - disparaging comments that over time can be taken on as self-criticism:

"Why don't you slow down?"
"You worry about everything!"
"Can't you just stick with one thing?"
"You're so sensitive and dramatic!"
"You have to do everything the hard way!"


One way to counter such criticism from others, and yourself, may be to use some humor. In the witty tv series "Bones," cocky FBI Agent Seeley Booth (played by David Boreanaz) often makes snide remarks about forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan (Emily Deschanel), such as "We call you people 'squints' because they're always squinting at things."

And she retorts, "You mean people with high IQs and basic reasoning skills?"

In another scene, he expresses impatience with her self-assurance: "You are such a smartass," and she comes right back with, "Yes, I am smart, but it has nothing to do with my ass."

This reminds me of the approach used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people overcome depression, anxiety and other challenges: becoming aware of self-critical and negative thoughts, examining them carefully and logically, then editing or rephrasing them.

These thoughts are often irrational beliefs about how life is or how we "should" be and they can become habitual responses to stressful situations, and often too broad to be accurate.

For example, you may think, "I'm too sensitive."

Well, what does that really mean? Too sensitive for what? Maybe it's just there are situations that cause you more discomfort than you want to put up with.

Amy Brenneman [star of "Judging Amy" and many other TV projects and movies] once said, "I'm too sensitive to watch most of the reality shows. It's so painful for me."

But that is a much more concrete and specific, and therefore real, statement than simply "I'm too sensitive."

And being sensitive, after all, can be a virtue for anyone.

Some people find carefully crafted affirmations placed where you can regularly read them can counteract unrealistic and self-limiting criticism and thinking.

One way to modulate self-critical statements is to ask, If you made this kind of comment to your friend or child, would it be helpful to them? Would it encourage and support them?

And some critical thinking can be positive, when it isn't extreme, compulsive or unreal. As actor Will Smith noted, "I keep going because I doubt myself. It drives me to be better... It makes me excel."

Geena Davis, who once portrayed the President of the United States (in the tv series "Commander in Chief") thinks "You could scratch the surface of most actors and find insecurity played a big part in their drive to become successful."

The Confidence Project

The-Confidence-ProjectIn 2001 Valerie Young, Ed.D. developed the program "How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are: Why Smart Women (and Men) Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and What to Do About It."

She says, "Simply giving people an alternative way of thinking about themselves and their competence has yielded some amazing results.

"Women reported asking for - and getting - raises. Corporate execs who had participated in a workshop as students told of being so transformed that years later they asked me to address their employees.

"Writers who had played small for years became prolific. People who had lacked the confidence to start or grow a business suddenly found the courage to go for it."

Quotes from her book: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

The image is from an online version of her program:

 The Confidence Project

~ ~ ~

Related posts on Self-criticism

Related articles :

The Impostor Syndrome - Finding a Name for the Feelings, by Dr. Valerie Young

Emotional intensity in gifted children - by Lesley Sword

The Inner Critic - by Sharon Good

Negative self-talk - by Douglas Eby

Psycho-social Needs: Understanding The Emotional, Intellectual and Social Uniqueness Of Growing Up Gifted - By Lesley Sword

Soothing Anxious Thoughts about Work - by Deanne Repich

~ ~

Related books :

Actualizing Talent: A Lifelong Challenge - by Joan Freeman

The Gifted Adult - by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential - by Marylou Kelly Streznewski

Growing Up Gifted - by Barbara Clark

The Highly Sensitive Person - by Elaine Aron

Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure - by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi et al.


The Theatrical Juggernaut: The Psyche of the Star
  - by Monroe Mann

~ ~

Some related sites / pages :

Main site: Talent Development Resources

High Ability

Highly Sensitive

books: anxiety relief

books: giftedness 

intensity / sensitivity

intensity / sensitivity resources 

self-coaching

self-criticism

self-esteem / self concept

self-esteem  / self concept resources 

~ ~ ~