I am absolutely terrible at taking criticism. A bad trait in the best of people, a catastrophe if you, like me, are your own toughest critic.
Last weekend I fulfilled a secret dream of mine; I wrote a little sommin’ sommin’ for the Sunday Times Magazine (*yaaaaas*), one of my all time favourite publications. Being published in there has been a’top my bucket list for about ten years; for as long as I have I known that I wanted to write for a living, I have dreamed of seeing my name in that magazine.
I never told anyone this, but that’s not unusual, I never tell anyone about anything on my bucket list.
I have always worried that by doing so, by revealing my career-fantasies, I am not only putting an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to do whatever is on it RIGHT NOW but that I am setting myself up for disappointment, and I am terrified of disappointment. Honestly, the idea of disappointing someone paralyses me with fear.
I keep my lists to myself, my fantasies a secret, and I silently beast myself to go and beyond.
So the Sunday Times Mag has always been on the list and when I saw my piece in print I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride that I haven’t known in a very long time. I sat for a while in bed reading and then re-reading what I had written, proud.
Not twenty minutes later, I was obsessing over the smallest of details, frantically critiquing the work in front of me and panicking about what was going to happen next.
The work that I had been proud of, desperately, heart-achingly proud of was a waste of ink by the time my coffee had gone cold.
It happened when my book came out too (I wrote about the highs and the unexpected lows of book publication at the time), the highlight of my career, my biggest achievement, the thing I’d poured my heart and soul into was, by the day after it came out, nothing more impressive than the funny shaped dog poo Bua had produced that morning.
After I had written the book I found myself unable to shake off a constant sense of ‘what next???‘ and not just because that is a question that I am asked about six million times a day.
Whatever the achievement, within two minutes I am preparing for the next one, trying, desperately, to make each one more impressive than the last.
In order to do that effectively, in order to ensure that I am always getting better, I must critique whatever I have just done to within an inch of it’s life, hence I have been unable to pick up my book since it came out and I developed the weird obsession with this idea that my Sunday Times Magazine piece wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
So I act as a critic for what I have just done, totally rip it to shreds, undermine it, disregard it and then turn my attention to what’s coming next. The sad reality of course is that most the time, there is nothing next.
The blues I experienced after my book came out were quite unlike anything I had ever experienced, namely because they were so totally unexpected. After months, years, of anticipation, excitement and really hard work, to realise that my life was just going to be my life again was hard to deal with.
Coming home to my blog and my kitchen and my bank balance and my cellulite after sitting on cloud nine for however long I’d been there was hard, comparable I suspect, to the feeling of coming off the world’s fastest rollercoaster and put straight onto the teacups.
With a bleak expanse of mundane ordinary to follow the ride of your life, a drop in your mood is to be expected.
Aware of what was happening I dismounted the rollercoaster, settled into my teacup ad began formulating a plan that would see me playing with the big kids again before too long.
But as happens in life sometimes, I did’t find it. I found things, bits, bobs, this, that, but I didn’t find IT. I didn’t find the hit that I needed. I think I might have done now ~by the way~, but it’s on the very private fantasy list, so I won’t tell you what it is.
Living like this, working like this though, is exhausting.
By constantly comparing the me of right now to the me of a year ago, this achievement to that achievement, this piece with that piece, I am setting myself up, time and time again, for failure.
Rather than ride the high that the Sunday Times Magazine piece brought me into something great, exciting and inspirational, I allowed my inner-critic to turn the experience into a negative one, as has become the pattern.
This week just gone was a total disaster work-wise. My motivation levels were at an all time low, creatively I was utterly drained and I was shrouded, constantly, by an air of ‘what do you think you’re doing with your life?!’ This of course very quickly turns into: don’t bother, not today, try tomorrow, eat four million calories, don’t bother washing your face, no one loves you etc. etc.
I’d like to say this Martyrdom, this internal critic exists because I am a perfectionist, but I’m not sure that is true. Whilst I like creating things that I am proud of and that are good, I don’t think I really believe in perfect, least of all my ability to get there. I am happy, generally, with my best, with GOOD, with ‘brilliant’ and ‘okay’ and ‘funny’ and ‘interesting’. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I think there is a perfect way of writing.
So I’m not on the quest for perfect, but I am on a quest for something. For success, for wealth, for good, for GREAT. I want it all, and I know that my inner critic will be the thing that helps me get there. I don’t think I’d have achieved the things that I have if it wasn’t for the part of me that pushes me to be better.
But for all the good this built in quality-control part of my personality brings with it, for all the times it pushes me to deliver the best work I can and do more of what I thought I couldn’t, it comes with problems too, beyond the ones we’ve already discussed which are, even by my standards, a little doom and gloomy.
The fact is, I can blame the fact that I am my own toughest critic for the crippling procrastination that I am capable of. I told you already that this week just gone was a disaster, but I’m not sure I did it justice. It was a D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R. I couldn’t work. There was no point. Nothing I did was going to be good enough. I got next to nothing done. I wasted seven whole days.
Being critical is a part of human nature, to suddenly turn this part of the brain off would be impossible and ultimately, for many of us, detrimental to our careers. Our inner critic is the thing that pushes us to do more. It is also the thing that pushes us to do nothing.
A confusing beast, this little critic of mine.
A beast that I need to get to know, and that I need to make my peace with.
When a piece of work is finished, it needs to be put to bed. It’s over and it is done. Rather than assume that it is terrible, as has become the norm, I either need to assume that it was perfect or, as is most likely the case, accept that whatever it is, it’s done now and not worth dwelling over.
When this doesn’t work though, because knowing me it probably won’t, and the critical beast I have living somewhere in my body appears, I think acknowledging it is of paramount importance, even if it’s just to disregard it.
As if training a puppy you adopted a few weeks too late, this creature needs training and talking to and loving and feeding and occasionally a whack on the head with a rolled up newspaper.