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Douglas Eby : Being Creative and Self-critical

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 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. Joaquin Phoenix has said he doesn't like how his teeth look, or his lips. Kate 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 can also be limiting. Director 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 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 is a form 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"] was 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, playing the lead 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." •

© 2005 Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher about psychological aspects of creative expression and achievement. More »