Stop Obsessing Over Criticism: 3 Steps to Emotional Resilience for Writers

Stop Obsessing Over Criticism: 3 Steps to Emotional Resilience for Writers

It’s ironic.

Writing and freelancing are careers that require an enormous amount of resilience. But what I’ve found, through my interactions with writers and other creatives, is that we are some of the least emotionally resilient people out there. Many of us are sensitive and emotional — it comes with the gift of creativity.

We feel life on a deeper level, and we are moved to express ourselves because of this. We should accept our sensitive natures as something that makes us unique, but when it gets in the way of a successful writing career, we need to take notice.

As professional writers, it’s vitally important  we don’t crumble at the occurrence, or even just the thought of rejection. Our livelihoods depend on our ability to press on through adversity.

But how do we change our fundamental nature? While it’s unlikely  we’ll be able to change our inherent personality traits, we can learn to recognize them when they get in the way — and in some cases, even use them to our advantage.

Here are three steps to cultivating stronger emotional resilience.

1. Realize when you’re “hooked”

I’ll admit it: I have a stereotypical writer’s brain. Dreamy, anxious, slightly obsessive.

I recently received some constructive, but slightly discouraging feedback on a piece I wrote. It was one of those times I thought I’d done really well, but actually missed the mark. I was disappointed in myself, and that’s normal — but my brain took it to the next level.

It happens to me all the time — I hear a less than positive comment about my work, and I mark it as the inevitable end of my career — the final proof needed to affirm my belief I am not good enough to do this writing thing.

The initial, small negative thought usually snowballs into a huge one: Bad writing. Bad writer. Bad person. (Okay, I admit I may be more than slightly obsessive.)

At this point, I was what author and psychologist Susan David, PhD, would call, “hooked.”

In her book, Emotional Agility, David explains that we are often unaware of when we become “hooked” by a negative thought loop. Like a broken record, the same old story plays over and over:

I’m such a failure. I never do anything right.

My life is a mess. I always have bad luck.

These types of thoughts can become so habitual we hardly notice them — they’ve become part of our mental environment. But these thoughts all have common themes, and you can learn to recognize them when you make the effort.

For example, thinking in absolutes — using word like “always,” “never,” and “forever.”

If you recognize yourself using one of these words, it’s time to do what Susan David calls, “stepping out.”

Reframe each phrase:

Change “I’m a failure” to “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.”

This creates a space in between the thought, and our emotional reaction.

“I’m a failure,” is stated like fact — one we’re liable to start believing if we think it enough.

“I’m having the thought that I am a failure,” reveals the true nature of this phrase as nothing more than a thought — and one that isn’t necessarily true.

2. Ask, “Are these thoughts serving me?”

There is always one point during my negative ruminations that a small but firm, rational voice says, “Enough already.”

In my brooding about the criticism, I did have a moment of clarity. I thought,

Is obsessing over this helping me get where I want to be?

I thought about what I truly wanted — a healthy career in writing, doing what I love.

Obsessing over this negative feedback and believing all of my discouraging, insecure thoughts was actually causing me to back pedal. While my brain was hijacked by negativity, my creativity was blocked. I wasn’t able to write or be productive.

Not because of the criticism about my writing, because of the thoughts I was having about the criticism.

If your thoughts aren’t serving you, allow yourself to let them go. This is easier said than done, of course, but with practice, letting go of useless negative thoughts can keep you from sliding into fear-based habits like avoidance and procrastination.

3. Focus on your values, and forget everything else

Failing to accomplish a specific goal can be incredibly disappointing. But what if you forgot about your goals for a minute and focused on your values?

Values are more than just a moral code. They are what you want your life to be about, some examples being compassion, loyalty or balance. The difference between a goal and a value is that goals can be objectively attained or accomplished. Values cannot.

Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D, professor of psychology and author of the book, Get Out of Your Mind, and Into Your Life, explains it this way:

“Values are never possessed as objects, because they are qualities of unfolding actions, not of particular things.”

Here are three of my core values: Honesty, authenticity, creativity.

Looking back at my recent meltdown, it’s true that I did not meet my goal of getting my writing approved of by an editor. But in taking the time, energy and intention to write, was I not living out my core value of creativity? By taking the risk of exposing my personal art to the world, wasn’t I staying true to my values of honesty and authenticity?

The time and effort I used to write that piece, with all its imperfections, wasn’t wasted. It was used in the service of my deepest values.

Framing it this way, how could I possible feel like a failure?

The bottom line: When you learn to view your thoughts as just thoughts, and focus on what matters most in your life, you can be free from the negative thought patterns that don’t serve you, and handle criticism with grace.

After all, criticism means you’ve used your words to create something, and isn’t that what the craft of writing is all about?

How do you “unhook” from negative thoughts? Share your ideas in the comments!

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19 comments

  • Manish Kumar says:

    Right content at a right time. I needed this piece. I am going through hard times in my career. Repeatedly getting negative feedbacks on every write-up. But, I know it’s temporary. Thanks, Ivy.

  • Colin says:

    Not everyone likes your story, article, poem. The initial bloom of achievement can fade when a chapter is dissected by a group. You do need to handle criticism with grace, as stated, but keep writing! Constructive criticism is helpful, and you tell yourself to stay positive. When you do get positive replies from readers, the earlier criticisms you then understand are often individual, lone viewpoints. Though It does not seem like that at the time.

  • Jasmine says:

    This really spoke to me as rejections from potential job opportunities have been flooding my inbox and I just want to throw in the towel even though I love writing and being creative. Thank you for your words of encouragement!

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      You are welcome Jasmine!

      I understand the rejections! When I applied back to full-time work after staying at home w/my kids and freelancing for 2 years, I had interviews with 3 big organizations–all jobs I wanted badly and had my hopes up about. The each interview process took weeks, and I ended up getting rejected from all of them! It can really be a blow to your confidence.

      You just have to trust that the right fit will come, and if they don’t recognize your potential, then you don’t want to work for them anyway! I finally got a great job (after a year of trying!) and am so glad it worked out this way.

      Good luck and thanks for reading!

  • Christine says:

    One struggle I sometimes have when receiving feedback on my writing is the difference between better and different. I appreciate feedback that makes my writing better, but I get triggered when people suggest changes that make it how they would say something. Does that make sense? How do you deal with feedback like that?

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Christine,
      That does make sense. I think it all depends on who you are getting the feedback from. If it’s a client or employer, I listen and ask as many questions as possible to clarify what they are looking for.

      But if you aren’t working for this person, and their just a critic, and if what they are saying won’t better your writing, I’d forget about it and continue living out your values by writing in your own authentic style.

      Just remember that not all “help” is helpful! 🙂

  • Petre says:

    I feel this way every time hunter writers center rejects my competition entries. I am a published author, well regarded, and my writing group is objective and supportive. However how does one deal with an apparently bland piece winning over yours? Judges and all the subjectivity puts me off competing altogether when hwc buddies and their academic ponces always get the marks 🙁

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Pete, I would ignore it and move on to other contests! There’s a big world out there, and plenty of opportunities for people to appreciate your talent. Don’t get stuck on one!

      Good luck! 🙂

  • Amy S Lemley says:

    In my work, I write legal briefs. Your comments really hit home. A lot of us female lawyers are so hard on ourselves, it is a wonder we can keep on working. I just wanted to thank you for your excellent common sense and the timeliness of your remarks. Thanks for sharing.

  • Liz says:

    Your article was excellent. As creative beings and especially as women, we have a difficult time fighting against internalizing external messages. We then repeat them in our “self talk”, but recognizing that we’re doing that, as you mentioned, is incredibly insightful. Few people recognize the thousands of messages we send ourselves every day. Even fewer people learn how to separate themselves from them. You’re ahead of the pack. It’s also important that we all realize it’s not a one-and-done deal. I’m 57 and I’m still finding “self talk” that I’ve carried for years and didn’t even know were there. Also, that was only one editor’s opinion. They are not perfect. Their opinion only matters for THAT publication.

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Great point Liz! I have anxiety and am very sensitive, so I’ve read tons of books on this subject…but I still struggle all the time with negative thought patterns! It is such an ingrained habit. Going back and reading these tools helps.

      I also find writing my thoughts down helps me be more rational about it.

      Thank you for reading!!

  • Margaret says:

    I can fully relate to what you say – I am 61 and nearly all my life I have had crippling negative thoughts. Over time I have realised that being a creative means being super sensitive at times and with that understanding came the ability to see things for what they are. You hit it one.

  • Nan McKernon says:

    A friend, who is a therapist, suggested I look at an old Newhart clip on YouTube called “stop it!” and it helps me immensely – sometimes, as writers, we feel tattered and torn apart by the rejections that are par for the course in our career choice.
    Check it out – YouTube Newhart “Stop it” and I hope it serves as a reminder to just let it goooo when those negative thoughts replay in a loop. STOP IT! ❤️

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