What’s Stopping You?

I was the kid whose stories and poems were read aloud by teachers and whose artwork was put on display and slapped with five gold stars.  Back then I’d write novellas for my friends and teachers and family members alike would describe my work in superlatives.   But as I got older that changed, because when the praise stopped so did the writing – and the drawing.  There were a series of comments made by teachers and family members – none of them constructive – about both my writing and my art that led to increasing self-doubt about my abilities as an artist but it was one particular comment delivered in a flippant manner just before I graduated high school, that sealed the deal for me and, here is the striking thing, the person who delivered said nasty comment wasn’t even a teacher or someone I cared for – yet, the criticism stung and the comment stuck like tar.

What followed was a long, dark fallow period.  Over a decade of ‘having nothing to say’, ‘nothing to write about’, ‘nothing to draw’.  Then one day, about eight years ago, on a trip to a bookstore with a casual acquaintance of mine I was telling her how I had always dreamed of being ‘a writer’ when she turned to me and asked ‘So what’s stopping you?’ and that’s when *lightbulb moment* I realized I had to let go of what people think and write for myself.

What’s stopping you from doing what you love?

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I also realized that criticism only hurts when it mirrors what I think of myself.  The kinds of criticism that stayed with me: the time a group of teenage boys called me ‘thunder thighs’ when I played field hockey, the time the art teacher said my drawings were ‘mediocre at best’.

These comments helped me realize I had serious doubts about my physical appeal and artistic abilities.

What criticism are you holding onto because of a negative belief you hold about yourself? 

I’m not going to pretend I don’t care what people think.  I do – but to a degree.  I am someone who has always valued constructive criticism so that is always appreciated, but I have also learned that receiving feedback tells me more about the person giving the praise or criticism than it does about my abilities.   We are quick to forget that we are all different and that we are blessed with a unique set of abilities and taste.  What appeals to you may not appeal to another. Consider for example a work of art.  Do you prefer a Picasso to a Rembrandt?  or Comedy to Horror? Feedback gives us the facts about the preferences of the person giving the feedback.  It can’t speak to your worthiness or talent.

Yet feedback is critical not only to artists and writers but to everyone.  If you’re tinkering with a new invention or drafting a work proposal or preparing to give a TED talk you need feedback.  You need to know if what you are doing is understood, appreciated or if you need to improve in some or most areas.

Are you seeking feedback from the right people? People you hope to influence or engage with?


27 thoughts on “What’s Stopping You?

  1. Good thoughts, Yolanda.

    Whether or not something I write resonates with a given reader depends on the reader. If I write honestly, my intended audience will appear while those who are not intended to be in my pool of readers will drift away.

    When we are enjoying the journey, we stop worrying about finding our intended audience ~ we trust that our intended audience will find us.

    No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

  2. Most of the time when people offer unconstructive criticism of art, they’re unwittingly saying, “That’s not how I would have done it.” Their opinions don’t really matter.

  3. My heart hurts thinking about dream squashing, yours and mine and all the aspiring artists and writers whose dreams were sunk (hopefully temporarily).

    I had a similar experience in college with a writing professor. He was so intimidating, an Iowa MFA graduate with a chip on his shoulder (which I realized in retrospect). He actually tried to be somewhat gentle with me, I think, but his words still stung. I was frozen for a while until I pushed past it.

    But I agree healthy criticism is key, and it’s crucial to make sure the people reading your work are the right ones.

    • Sorry to hear of your experience Dana 😦 I think everyone has encountered a ‘dream squasher’ but sadly not everyone has the tools or capacity to ‘rise above’ the negativity and my heart really goes out to those people. Finding ‘your tribe’ of supporters, well-wishers is vital I think to success and fulfillment.

  4. Wow! This is great, Yolanda. Yesterday I received some good and some bad criticism from a contest entry. All day today, I thought about a blog post on criticism. I’m still digesting my critique, so the post might be in the near future. With that said, when all is said and done, I don’t write expecting to make millions or even a little chump change…I write for me because I love it. xo

    • I couldn’t agree more Jill 🙂 that should be the only reason we create something – anything – because we enjoy the process. I hope the criticism was mostly constructive and that you can apply it. Personally I prefer a few pointers from editors and agents alike rather than a sweeping statement like ‘great writing/story but not for me’.

  5. This is excellent Yolanda! I think we should be taught these things from a young age, I learned a lot some time ago when reading Don Miguel Ruiz’ work ‘The Four Agreements’ It is quite a powerful work and can be life changing if you really work at his points – I’m still working on them, but I learnt this: Criticism is always subjective, It is about me and what I like and how I do things. If I am really unconscious and am suffering envy or some other ego driven negative feeling I may try to make you feel as worthless as I do. I won’t realise what I’m doing because I choose not to be conscious about my actions, nor take responsibility for my words. All criticism, positive and negative is all about the giver and has nothing to do with the receiver. It’s such an interesting thought isn’t it.

    • Oh yes! I read ‘The Four Agreements’ years ago (in my early thirties) and I’m afraid I wasn’t ready for it – spiritually. I thought I had ‘absorbed’ all that wisdom but the ego was still very much in the driving seat back then 😀 excellent book though.

    • Don Miguel Ruiz is awesome. I’ve only listened to his teachings on podcasts and webinars etc. so I don’t know about this book. Thanks for bringing that up. Some interesting thoughts to ponder upon. I believe we all deal with these things and some people find a way to get over it by the process of self-realization, while others get stuck forever which is really a sad thing. I like the Roosevelt quotes. So glad to see that you found the way to your own inner voice again Yolanda. You’re a talented writer and I enjoy reading your blog very much.

      • Thank you so much Karin ❤ At the same time I was reading him I was also reading Pema Chodron (have you heard of her) and Thich Nhat Hanh. I miss my massive collection of self-help books 😀 I gave most of them away when we moved to Canada.

  6. I’m so sorry that those comments led you to turn away from what you enjoyed and were good at. I think those unconstructive comments say something about the person making the criticism rather than you. Unfortunately those negatives tend to wipe away the positives. Now when criticism stings I try to work out why it matters to me – which is similar to what you say about it hurting when it mirrors something you feel about yourself. I’m also less worried about what people think – particularly about my creative work which I have confidence in.

    • Yes I think it can be very helpful to ‘deconstruct’ the criticism Andrea. I appreciate criticism when it is constructive and practically leap with joy when I receive a paragraph (or two) long critique from an editor (I have received a few of these from agents – which really helped with my novel-that-now-lies-in-a-bottom-drawer). I am glad you have built your confidence muscle with regards to your creative work – you are a brilliant writer! ❤

  7. Oh, Yolanda, we could probably form a club of those who learned early writing acceptance and rejection in school. Author Anne Lamott once wrote that in a school picture she could be picked out among her classmates as either the one who would become a writer…or a serial killer. 😉
    Sometimes the early praise we got was well intentioned and meant to be encouraging, but it gave us a false sense of value.
    Excellent post.

    • So glad you enjoyed this post Marylin 🙂 I believe you hit the nail on the head here – early praise is intentioned to be well-meaning – but of course as we grow and the people around us grow too (hopefully) tastes change so it is unrealistic to think people will like ‘everything’ you write. My subject matter (and my writing) has changed and evolved over the years and many people who were my earliest supporters have since ‘faded’ into the background. No worries though I have met wonderful people like yourself Marylin who keep me inspired and keep me going.

  8. Such a great post Yolanda, and you have helped me greatly in what you share here in reminding me that it is only when it mirrors what I think of my myself that it criticism hurts. But when, as you share here, we have been hurt and flattened by discouraging criticism, it is hard to dissociated ourselves from that sometimes isn’t it?
    When I started writing fiction for a writing course a year ago, I admit my heart wasn’t in it fully as I was concentrating on blogging and writing my memoir. But I gave it my best shot with a few short stories…and fully expected a less than stellar critique.
    However, what I got from my tutor devastated me. What I read on first glance was that my work was flat, boring, and all tell and no show. But what really got me was that he basically told me that I had obviously discovered what ‘most’ writers do when they start out, that writing isn’t for me. That shocked me and I actually started to think maybe he was right…
    When I re-read his comments again, after I had cooled down, I picked out a few encouraging things this time and then I fought back.
    So I called him on it and fired off an email asking him to clarlfy where I had gone wrong, to be more specific and so more helpful and I challenged him in that I had only just started writing fiction and this was my first ever try!! He backed-right down, apologised. This time, he gave me a much more rounded critique, and I felt more hopeful, but for a long time I gave up with fiction.
    Then I started writing flash fiction on my blog, even though I was really scared that I’d be laughed out of blog-land but by then I thought, what the heck?
    You were/are one of my most encouraging readers when I started writing about ‘Bill’ and I can’t tell you enough how much you helped restore my confidence in writing fiction, albeit flash to start with. So I want to thank you Yolanda and encourage you in turn.
    I am so, so sorry for the bruising you got all those years ago, but what a wonderful ‘light-bulb’ moment you had…and I’m so glad, because now I, like all here, get to read your wonderful writing of which I am a huge fan. You helped me to keep writing…and now I urge you to do the very same. And not let anything stop you 🙂

    • Sweetest Sherri thank you again 🙂 Yikes! what a terrible critique ;-( I too have had someone tell me I am ‘all tell and no show’ and I am still working hard on that. The problem is I despise being ‘effusive’ and don’t like reading overly descriptive books. So it’s finding that balance isn’t it? that’s hard work. I am very glad you did not stop writing; you are immensely talented and wise and a beacon in the ‘interverse’ 🙂

      • Ahh…you are so kind dear Yolanda, I certainly do not take for granted the faith you have in me and my writing…as I do in you, and I thank you so much for it 🙂 And yes, I too am still working on that ‘show don’t tell’ and getting the balance right…easier said than done 🙄

  9. I welcome feedback on my work and obviously am chuffed when people like it – but it’s of more value I think if someone whose opinion I value lets me know where I’ve gone wrong, or why something doesn’t work. I have a great friend who, bless her, reads all my stuff. She is very thorough and will let me know in no uncertain terms why it hasn’t worked for her. (I’m glad to say that it often does). As we like reading the same books etc, I take her criticism as wholly constructive – and as a result, have altered creative fiction for the better. But to be slammed by someone for whom I’ve no respect – that would be harsh – but I think we need to grow thick skins if we are to succeed in this world. To be honest, I enjoy the writing process, so I guess I do it mostly for me anyway. To have something published is the icing on the cake, but I’m not actively pursuing it any more: life’s too short!
    Great thought provoking post though, Yolanda – thank you 🙂

    • Your comment raises some excellent points Jenny 🙂 And I love your attitude, life IS too short so let’s keep doing what we love to do! You are lucky you have a great friend who not only reads all your stuff but reads the same books you do. That is a definite bonus! My friends don’t share my particular taste in fiction. I will read a book solely for its lyrical and beautiful writing while they wouldn’t dream of picking something up that isn’t plot-driven 😀

  10. The nice things you started with are your foundation and the ‘core’ of who you were as a child. I take the attention and accolades of my youth and use it as my source of strength. When times of trouble or doubt come around be glad you were given such a special privilege, Yolanda! I am often asked when I lost my home, my profession and my husband, “How do you keep on going?” I believe it is due to that secure and loved feeling I had when teachers and family believed in me!
    I am so happy you also wrote this as an encouragement not to take ourselves too seriously, not to listen too carefully to the negatives and don’t let anything stop you from expressing yourself. You are a talented writer, so keep on going!

  11. Yolanda, this is a brilliant post. My heart literally aches for the child in you that suffered the criticism. A wonderful poet whose book I love was once told he should never write anything — ever — again. What is the matter with people? Especially those who are supposed to encourage and inspire. I suffered a long time too, but not because my work was criticized, it was the idea of it being a career that was shunned. So, I did the responsible thing and studied business in college, taking every creative writing class I could as electives and waited until I turned forty-something to start releasing the novels I had never ceased writing. The things we do to ourselves….

    Keep writing!!

    • Thank you Renee, you are an inspiration so thank you for your encouragement 🙂 Yikes!! being told to never write anything again would have once upon a time split my heart 😦 I am glad he persevered – as must all who love writing.

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