Destructive criticism is not really an issue about the content of the artwork, it’s about deciding what you won’t tolerate from others. This occurs in all kinds of ways, not just art criticism. It comes up anytime someone is being rude or mean, or crossing a boundary. I’m happy to say I figured out a way to curtail this behavior in others and it was a breakthrough moment in my life. Here’s what happened.
Confronting the Person Who’s Giving Criticism
I used to get made fun of often because I would allow it — I’d just laugh along, letting myself be the brunt of jokes because I didn’t know how to stop it. I had become friendly with a new colleague and before long she started making fun of me. They were small ‘harmless’ comments implying I wasn’t very bright or that I was funny looking, but it was degrading and hurtful. Especially humiliated in front of others one day, I decided I didn’t want to laugh it off anymore.
I took a deep breath and decided to confront it. I waited until I could catch her alone. (It’s not always possible, but I’ve found people are more receptive if you can talk to them privately.) In the sweetest nicest way, I said: “You know, I’m sure that you don’t mean anything by it and that I’m just taking it in the wrong way, but some of the comments you’ve made lately seem rude and hurtful. I just wanted to check and see if you have an issue with me that we need to talk about, or am I just misinterpreting those comments?”
She was surprised and flustered and quickly acknowledged I was taking it the wrong way, that she didn’t mean anything by it. Then she rushed on to say that she really liked me as a person and apologized profusely that I had gotten the wrong message. To which I could smile sincerely and say: “Oh good, I thought so. I’m relieved to know that you didn’t mean them to be hurtful. Thank you for talking with me, I feel much better.” We parted on a good note, and you know, she never ever again made a disparaging comment. In fact, she went out of her way to be kind and respectful to me from then on!
Four Steps For Setting Boundaries to Criticism
I’ve since read a book by Talane Miedaner, a respected life coach, called Coach Yourself to Success. In it she outlines a more direct, four-step method for setting boundaries and stopping unwanted behavior, which can be effective even with strangers.
Talane gives an example of first trying it out on a bank customer yelling at the tellers and then yelling at her. Note: You must use a non-confrontational, neutral tone of voice for this to work, and you implement it as soon as the offense occurs. Start at the first step; don’t skip steps. You may get the result you want with the first step; you only go to the next step if they persist.
Step 1: Inform. For example, “Do you realize that your comment is hurtful?” “That comment was rude.” “I didn’t ask for your feedback.”
Step 2: Request. For example: “I ask that you keep your opinions to yourself.” “I only want constructive feedback.”
Step 3: Insist. For examples: “I insist that you only give constructive feedback.” “I insist that you keep your judgments to yourself.”
Step 4: Leave. “I won’t continue this conversation while you’re criticizing me.” Say nothing confrontational.
There’s the fear that if you insist on firm boundaries, you’ll appear hard to get along with and people won’t like you, but actually the opposite is true — people will respect you. So don’t put up with destructive criticism of your art, or of yourself. Set your boundaries and take the steps necessary to get people to respect them.