The Trouble with Self-Criticism

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”Salvador Dali

Today, folks, I present to you: An Unfinished Painting. Perhaps it’s “unprofessional” of me to reveal a painting that’s not done, but hey, artists are real people, too.


Why is it unfinished? I’m so glad you asked. The reason is because two years ago, I decided that this painting wasn’t going anywhere and that if I kept working on it, I’d mess up the good stuff that was already there and then it all would have been a royal waste of time. It’s bugged me ever since. I want to keep working on it and see where it goes, but there’s this voice in my head that says “Nah, you’ll just mess it up. Why don’t you leave it be…then at least it can die as a painting that ‘had potential’ rather than as a painting that you screwed up.” So I keep the painting in the corner, behind my easel, face to the wall so I can’t see it. But I still know it’s there.

I think someone once told me that artists tend to be their own worst critics. I don’t know if that’s true for all artists — and I certainly don’t think it is a requirement in order to be a great artist. But I do know this:

I am incredibly, torturously, and ruthlessly judgmental of myself. Not just in regards to my artwork, but in every way you could imagine. Like to the point that sometimes I judge myself as a moral scourge upon the earth because I spent too much time slicing my banana at lunch. I know, I know, that doesn’t make sense, right? But it’s just so natural for my thoughts to trend that way.

Don’t misunderstand me — I am NOT saying that I pride myself in being this way. I feel like it’s a mental habit that I’ve had all my life, and well, it stinks. But somewhere along the way I decided I’m not going to torture myself anymore. After enough decades of self-hatred, I realized it just wasn’t working for me anymore. So I undertook an adventure: to stop judging myself so much. And lordy lordy, it’s been a real trip.

Take, for instance, the place where I started out: I used to think that my self-critiques were absolute truths. They were the real facts about me, and if no one else around me was aware of them, then that was only because I sure had them fooled. “Eventually they’ll realize how terrible I am,” I thought. I was convinced that my negative judgements were true and that I HAD to keep thinking them because it was important that I remembered how bad of a person I was. Even if I had wanted to stop hating on myself so much, I had no choice. I couldn’t stop my thoughts.

Then someone introduced me to an interesting idea: that thoughts aren’t always TRUE. They’re just words rattling around in your head, and they can take all sorts of tones. Well that was fine and dandy, but I still didn’t believe that it was a good idea for me to stop believing my judgements about myself. I feared that if I didn’t take all my criticism seriously, I’d have no drive to try to act like a good person or to accomplish anything. So you know, I carried on, and nothing really changed.

But over time, I grew increasingly frustrated that my fear of failure was stopping me from doing things. I entered my twenties feeling like an idiot with a too-long list of things that I hadn’t done because of self-doubt. I guess the frustration must have gotten to a point that I decided to reconsider my friends’ words of wisdom. It dawned on me that maybe I CAN’T stop myself from having such self-defeating thoughts (goodness knows I tried, for years, to just stop), but I bet I CAN decide not to take them so seriously.  After all, there are other things my brain does that I KNOW are just nonsense, like when I uncontrollably think of word combinations that make me laugh out loud(“Crabman’s Deli”, for example).

And that’s where I’m at now. (No, not at Crabman’s Deli). Living my life as a human and an artist, trying to pick and choose which judgmental thoughts I decide are worth my attention or not. If self-judgements hold me back from trying something I want to try, they’re a waste of my time. I’ve decided that not taking action on something that I think is worthwhile is ALWAYS more unpleasant than taking a risk and trying (EVEN if I “fail” in the end, [though “failure” isn’t real]). Fear of messing up isn’t going to stop me from doing what I value. It’s just not helpful to talk myself down so much.

You know what? I want to finish this gosh darned painting, so I’m going to finish it. Even if it gets “ruined”, and even if it takes me thirty million years.

And that’s why I’m showing it to you today– so that you know that there’s an artist out there who has doubts about herself, but who, despite them, keeps on keeping on because she wants to share her vision with people. So you know that, hey!, we all have doubts, but that they’re pretty useless, so don’t let them stop you from pursuing your dreams.

…AND to make myself accountable. Because now that I’ve revealed this painting to you all, I’m going to have to finish it.


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  1. says

    I so often choose paralytic indecision over risk-taking. I admire you for revisiting your painting and choosing to ignore your self-criticisms. I hope you continue to share your vision and pursue your dreams.

  2. says

    Thanks. Your ongoing support always encourages me to keep working, as do the thoughtful insights you share on your own blog. Please keep sharing your vision, too 🙂

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