How to not get hurt by criticism

“You have to take the good with the bad and I’m a songwriter so I stay sensitive. I have to live with my feelings on my sleeve so that means I can’t harden my heart and I get hurt a lot but I’ve learned to take all that.” -Dolly Parton on Good Morning America

When I was a little tyke, I started my career in sales by making bookmarks and forcing folks at church to buy ’em. Then I became a makeup artist. Then I sold cosmetics. Somewhere in between, I did a stint as a medical assistant. I fainted and got fired. Now, I’m a photographer, blogger, church leader, charity runner. I’m in the perfect position to get punched in the face every single day. I’ve never never been in as hard a business as photography. Or blogging. Or ministry. Or charity. All these things bring me the greatest joys and the greatest heartaches of my life. Basically, I’m in 4 different businesses that all invite criticism. A glutton for punishment? Maybe. A rebel with a cause? Absolutely.

Today, though, I’m just talking photography/business but these things can really apply to anyone, no matter why you’re receiving criticism. I agree with Dolly. You have to stay sensitive if you’re going to continue creating. Especially being in the business of Beloved photography, I have to stay soft, wear my heart on my sleeve and be ready to make deep connections with people I’ve never met before. I can’t possibly do this if I have walls up. So I’ve been punched over and over and over and I just keep popping back up like one of those punching bags.

The title of this post is “how to not get hurt by criticism”. It’s impossible, by the way. It hurts. Below, I’m going to lay out the different things I’ve found helpful in dealing with hurtful criticism. But let me give you a little hope – I used to feel like I was getting punched in the face every time I was handed a cold plate of criticism. Now, it’s more like a scratch most of the time and I got there without hardening my heart.

And you know what? Listening to people’s criticism can make you a better person.

1.} Are they right?

So. You’ve been told your prices are too high. Are they right? Are you trying to be a luxury brand but netting a lower demographic of client? You’re getting criticised for promising 300 wedding images and giving them 50? Getting raked over the coals for having poor business practices? You really need to listen to people and suss out the issue at hand. They may be right. In the beginning, I’ve been told flat out “I hate these wedding photos”. Why is that? Because I fancied myself an artist but presented myself like a budget option – a hired camera. They didn’t want my ‘art’, they simply wanted pictures and I failed to communicate. It hurt, but I had to take it and say “you’re right. What can I do to make you happy?” and then change so it wouldn’t happen again.

2.} Consider the source.

Who’s the criticism coming from? It may be other photographers, clients or even your spouse. I’ve learned to consider the source. Other photographers are usually jealous {if you’re good} or mean {if you’re not}. Did you know there are entire websites, Facebook groups and pages dedicated solely to posting photos and then tearing them apart? It’s utterly disgusting. It’s the worst part of humanity – people shooting eachother down to feel bigger.

The criticism may be coming from your clients and these are the most important people to listen to. But again, consider whether you’ve had a hand in causing the problem. I receive far less criticism now that I’ve nailed down strategies to maintain consistency, manage expectations and communicate efficiently.

My friend Maddy Rogers once said to me, “I don’t care what other photographers think. My clients are happy”. So many photographers are creating their work to ‘one-up’ others. Separate the two. Focus on the ones paying you.

It may be coming from your spouse. I really love my husband – I’m only where I am because of him. But he really doesn’t get my photography. He likes to walk into the room in the middle of the edit and say “eew” or “not sharp” or whatever. He’s not my ideal viewing audience. He’s not my target market, not my ideal client. So it’s annoying, yes, but considering the source, I have to just say “yeah well after the parents cry tonight at their viewing session and hand me a cheque, tell me what you think.” I’m not one bit interested in criticism on my style or technique. My clients love me and I really don’t give a flying fart what people who aren’t part of that think.

It’s hilarious to me that people even think they are positioned to give criticism on certain things. Like when I post a photo and people say “too bright” or “washed out” or whatever. I was extremely young when I was taught about this thing called opinionsYou know the things…they’re like asses – everyone has one. Somehow, it seems that -oh- 65% of the world’s population missed that lesson? There’s no such thing as “too bright” or “too washed out”. Nonsense! My images are exactly as I intended them to be. Heck, maybe they have a crappy monitor. Ever considered that? I feel that the sources of this sort of criticism completely disqualify themselves just by the fact that they’re even saying such things. So although it makes me want to scream, I find it really easy to ignore any and all criticism of this nature.


It’s really important to align yourself with someone who can give you valuable constructive criticism. Because I don’t want you walking around with what I call American Idol Syndrome {which I explain here}. A great way to receive this is Chic Critique where you can locate a photographer you admire and sign up to have them critique your work for a month. I’ve done it a couple times and heard that it was totally game changing for my students. Do it – you won’t regret it!

3.} Have compassion

Hurt people hurt people. That’s my mantra. I have to say this to myself every day. All of humanity are walking through life with hurt. Disappointment, rejection, failure. We carry baggage laden with bricks of pain and when it gets too heavy, we find the nearest person and say “hey, carry this with me”. This can come in the form of bullying, inappropriate communication, accusation. If someone has done something to hurt me, I try to look at the cause. If someone rejects me, there’s a good chance that they’ve suffered some pretty bad rejection in their life. Rejected people like to try to control the rejection in their life by rejecting others first. People who have historically been disappointed look for disappointment and often find it in places where it simply isn’t.

Disclaimer: I’m don’t think I’m really talking about photography anymore. Just life.

The first step to being able to look at people who hurt you and really feel for them is to address your own issues. And not in that pathetic way that people try to make others feel small by saying “I feel sorry for you”. The people I feel the most sorry for in my life, I can’t possibly say that to them. They’re already hurt – why would I add to it? There are people I can actually think about right now and my heart twinges with hurt for them. But that’s because I’ve identified my own rejection and disappointment and I know how they feel. When someone strikes out at me, I know how they feel because I used to punch people in the face, too.

What does this have to do with business? Because business is about people. And you will come in contact with hurt people every day and some -a few- will take their hurt out on you. This doesn’t happen often. This is why Beloved was an absolute godsend for me. By inviting people into an open space to better  know themselves and eachother, I’m becoming part of the answer.

Have compassion. This makes criticism and accusation hurt a lot less. But first, get your own issues dealt with.

4.} You don’t have to respond

Nothing shuts a bully up like silence.

5.} Manage your stress

If you’re doing too much and your business is killing your happiness, you need to find way to manage your stress. Because when you receive criticism, you’ll respond inappropriately.

6.} Sleep on it

SLEEP. ON. IT. Seriously – things always look different in the morning. The most bullying emails or Facebook posts I’ve ever seen were written around midnight. Perfect scenario of people not sleeping on it. Get some space between yourself and the situation. It may take serious SERIOUS self control {I still fail at times} but you’ll thank yourself in the morning!

7.} Lastly…

  1. Try to remember that criticism only reprsents one person’s point of view.
  2. Look at the most influential people. They receive gargantuous heapings of criticism. Some bring it on themselves. For others, it simply comes with the territory.
  3. If you’re trying to make everyone happy, you’ll make no one happy.

Further reading //

How to deal with criticism well – 25 reasons to embrace it “Because I was desperately afraid of being judged, I took everything, from everyone as condemnation.”

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  • Aga

    Thank you!

  • amy taylor imaging photography

    Just did a big ol’ chortle at the paragraph about your husband – he’d never read this I hope, but I could have written those lines myself as that’s exactly how it is in our house! He knows the rules about not wandering into my edit and peering over my shoulder, ha ha!…thanks elizabeth :)

  • Rosalind

    Preach it sister!

  • Great stuff, as always!

  • Julie De La Cruz

    I loved it!

  • becky

    I love this post, it hurts to put myself out there and while I haven’t been told by any clients that they did not like their pictures, I have had 2 clients recently that just didn’t respond back after I delivered them their digital files. It eats at me daily and that is just really dumb because I have no idea how they truly feel about the pictures. I tell myself they didn’t like them. Anyhoo I know you would say that I need to be doing in-home viewing ;) but I’m not quite to the point of selling prints. So… I am hoping you do the Chic Critique thing again because I really want to take part in it with you as a mentor. I checked and you weren’t on their schedule… ??? ;)

  • shelle

    Fabulous post! My spouse is not into the arty thing and when she is unimpressed about a photograph I’m working on (that I’m in love with at the moment) I first want to reject her opinion but then I ALWAYS take a second look and sometimes I change things. Criticism is tough but can be valuable. We just have to figure out what to listen to and what to shrug off. As for Becky, who hasn’t heard from her clients…call them. Your killing yourself with self doubt. If they don’t like the photos then ask them how to make it right for them. They may love them but have been too busy to contact you.

  • Great Post, thank you!

  • I think my own fear is holding me back. This article gives me a lot to consider to make the plunge and make 2013 my year. A genuine Thank You!

  • Melanie Matthews

    Thank you Elizabeth. Criticism is something I struggle with immensely. I appreciate this post so much.

  • Cyndi

    These are great tips. I am SUPER sensitive and I realize I’m opening up myself to getting punched and knocked over every single day. Your ideas here are going to help me the day I am crying into my pillow and freaking out, lol. Thanks!

  • Good post Elizabeth. I suspect I know what prompted it. My single worst critic is me. When people ask me what I do I say I do photography. “Are you a pro?” they ask. For two reasons “No” is always the answer. First off I’m full up on business endeavors. Did a lot. Made al lot. Had enough. But the second point is more telling. Having spent most of my life in sales and marketing I’m well acquainted with rejection and I’m full up on that too. I understand intellectually that it’s always about them and not about me but emotionally I don’t care to deal with it or them anymore. I do photography because it’s fun and personally rewarding. I like sharing it on my FB page and my blog and the other usual sites – Flickr and 500px, etc. It goes out under Creative Commons Attribution rights and what feedback I get is predictably positive. I have to chuckle at that sometimes but I know it’s sincere and I take it in that vein. I also know that their reasons aside that in most cases they’re right: it is good. But I have to agree with you and Ms Parton both. It’s very difficult if not impossible to engage in a creative business (as opposed to a creative pastime) lacking a willingness and ability to just put it out there. I know I’m blessed that I can approach things the way I do. I really admire people – like yourself – who can successfully combine this art with a business plan and feel good about it and themselves on (mostly) a daily basis.

  • June

    Such a great post Elizabeth. Now…if I can put it into action I know I could handle any negative comment I get and maybe have more understanding for how to improve myself and my skills. Rejection is so hard not to take personal, but sometimes it’s a growing experience.

  • Sarah

    Fabulous post! I laughed…everyone can relate to this!

  • ajmills

    Photography is often something very personal to us, so any criticism of the work we produce can sting us harder than it otherwise would.

    “Criticism” over the internet that’s not helpful (you know, the sort that says little more than “It’s s***!”, or worse) should be ignored, end of story. Although it’s hard to not bite back.

    Some people just don’t know how to critique.

    And more people should read “How to win friends and influence people”. There’s at least the one section in there that deals with how to give people negative feedback in a positive way.

  • shipra

    You are wonderful, and you have a way of cutting through the crap and getting real but doing it with grace and compassion. Love this post!

  • cwagnerphotography

    Very true! thank you.

  • Thank you for the inspiring reporting and beautiful photos! I have a question: how do the
    mothers arrange their clothing to breastfeed so discreetly? I ask because here in the UK
    some immigrant mothers find it hard to wear their traditional clothes and also feed the
    baby – especially if they wear the shalwar kameez. I’m amazed because they must have been
    designed for breastfeeding – but it seems the latest fashions are for a tight fitting,
    long tunic. The shawl part of the sari looks very practical – but what do they wear
    underneath and what options are there? Many thanks for any light you can shine on this!

  • Madeleine

    My husband does NOT get my style whatsoever and is my biggest critic. It really hurts my feelings, but Im trying to let it roll off of me. My clients love what I do and thats what counts. My husband really stepped on my toes today when he said: Ugghh. Dont be surprised if the client asks for a re-shoot! WTH?? I read this post a long time ago and I always come back to it whenever I get negative criticism (mainly from the hubby).