Why Are We So Hard on Ourselves?

February 27th, 2018

By Tony Colangelo

A few days ago, I was on a photography-related FB group and one of the members posted a concern. Namely, he had a tough time liking his own work and he was asking for input in answering a couple of questions: “Why am I overly critical and harsh of my own work?” and “How does one overcome that?” As some of you may know, I was as a psychologist for many years in a previous career and I still hold a deep fascination with all-things-psychological. As such, his very pointed questions really resonated with me.

I would like to offer my thoughts on those questions but before I do, I have to offer some context. I will apologize in advance for the length of this post but I hope you’ll read through it. It may seem that I’ll be way out in left-field at times, but I’m hoping it’ll all come together by the end! So, here goes…

Over the past several years, there has been a fast-growing fascination in psychology circles on the negative impact of achieving and maintaining high self-esteem. Historically, high self-esteem has been one of the goals we all try to achieve as we move into adulthood. But here’s the rub: Self-esteem, by its very nature, requires a reference point–i.e., something (or someone) out there that I can compare myself TO, in order to validate that I am good at something. For instance, a self-esteem statement might sound something like: “I know I am a good photographer because my work is better than what I see being produced by most other shooters.” As these sorts of beliefs become more entrenched, it stands to reason that we’re more likely to become more critical with our own work due to increased expectations of ourselves. That is, as we get better in our craft and more knowledgeable in our processes, we start looking inward for that reference point. Unfortunately, when this happens, we usually don’t compare ourselves to the shooter we are right now, but the one we think we should be. As I used to say to my counseling clients many years ago (and as I continue to say to many of my photography coaching clients now), the word “should” is the most dangerous word in any language because when we use it, the best we can do is break-even. For someone who is self-critical (and has a belief about the type of work that they should be producing), if he captures a poor shot, he will chastise himself because he should do better; and if he captures a great image, he rarely sees it as such. He might even say things to himself like, “Why should I get so excited? After all, getting great results is what someone at my level should be doing in the first place.” As you can see, there is no way to win! The best he can do is simply to meet, not exceed, his own expectations!

Recent research is starting to examine the value of high self-compassion as a replacement for high self-esteem. In fact, a 2015 research study found some interesting results that might shed light on why we are so critical of our own work. The study compared people with low self-compassion against people with high self-compassion. Both groups believed that compassion was an important trait when exhibiting it to others and both groups were equally ambitious and interested in achieving excellence in their work… BUT… the research found that people in the low self-compassion group believed they should avoid self-compassion, as it would lead them to begin to get lazy/sloppy in their work and that it would negatively affect their personal ambition and drive. In short, they believed that showing self-compassion would make them soft and achieve poorer results in their work. Interestingly, they also believed in practicing the opposite of self-compassion–i.e., being really hard on themselves. They believed that being self-critical was actually useful to them in that it served to keep themselves sharp, focused, and on the ball. The New York Times recently reported the results of a similar study focused on teens and university-aged young-adults. It found that while self-criticism did provide the kick in the pants that was sometimes needed to achieve results, doing so over an extended period of time “elevates symptoms of anxiety and depression in the long run.”

Shifting to self-compassion is not particularly easy. It requires the discipline and perseverance to form new habits related to nurturing and maintaining a positive outlook on oneself, including lots of positive “self-talk.” I know that I probably sound like a stereotypical, warm-and-fuzzy counselor by saying that but, it’s the truth–and the research backs me up. In fact, the importance of self-compassion is so prevalent these days that many school boards across the US and Canada are trying to teach it to our kids and are achieving very positive academic results. Even the US Navy Seals have started to apply the concepts behind self-compassion to help soldiers process “friendly fire” accidents in which colleagues got killed by one of their own while on a mission. So, if this practice isn’t too warm-and-fuzzy for Navy Seals, then I think that we ought to consider it for ourselves, yes?!  🙂

So, how would self-compassion apply to us, as photographers? First, changing our mental focus from “hypercritical mode” to “solution-focused mode” can certainly contribute to breaking the negative spiral that we often get into when examining our own work. For example, when looking at a photo that you can’t stop criticizing, take a break–and when you come back to it, look at it from the perspective of, “If I had to shoot this room again tomorrow, what would I do differently?” and “Why would I do it differently?” Here’s the thing–even if the answer to those questions does not yield a stellar answer, it doesn’t matter. The simple act of getting into a solution-focused mindset is more important, as this is the mindset that, with practice, will allow one to establish less critical and more self-empowering habits. I can tell you that this really works! I’ve used this technique myself and I’ve encouraged my coaching clients to do the same. Not only is it a form of self-driven professional development, after a while, it starts building anticipation for our next photoshoot because we know that if we encounter a situation in a future space that had previously stumped us (leading to much self-criticism, of course!) we will likely be better equipped to tackle it. Moreover, this increased self-confidence creates a positive energy in our work because we’re more likely to be focused on the excitement of doing something new/better at our next shoot, rather than getting nervous about making the same mistake again. This type of anticipation makes the work more fun which, in turn, can ultimately extend a career!

Another thing we can do to counter our inclination for being so self-critical is to challenge ourselves to find at least one thing in each shot that we actually like (or even love) about the shot! Then, think about how we accomplished it and try to apply it at our next shoot!

Yes, practicing self-compassion will take some time getting used to–particularly if one has a lifetime’s experience at being overly critical of themselves. Remember, it’s one thing to look at our images critically; it’s another thing to have those critical statements affect our self-confidence and even our self-worth. Self-compassion is the key! Remember: Be gentle on yourself!

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21 Responses to “Why Are We So Hard on Ourselves?”

  • As a longtime filmmaker and director, I find my projects are never perfect. (far from it)

    A few sayings I alway love,
    “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.”

    and a famous Academy Award winning director once said, “The film is done when we run out of time and money.”

    And finally my favorite sign, that used to sit on a recording studio mixing console where I engineered music sessions said, “It’s fine. Don’t ask.”

    You do however, have to be a perfectionist in the creative biz. Otherwise, your stuff will suck. Ha!

  • And I forgot to mention, that when someone would come into the audio control room and say, “hey, isn’t that guitar a bit out of tune?”

    You could then just point to the sign, without saying a word:

    “It’s fine. Don’t ask.”

  • Thank you for this! Tony is a genius. I could read his words all day 🙂

  • What a great topic. Since photography is seldom like a mechanical production line since the problems to be solved are both creative and unique to each shoot and depend on individual skills and talent, we use our tools differently on each job. And if we want to do good work, not just “good enough for government work”, we have to be self critical of our work. Since our work is dependent on only ourselves, trying to assess the quality of our work is intimately connected with our own performance that only each of us is responsible for. So you can’t really disconnect the rational and the emotional from that assessment. And since no photograph is ever perfect, the lack of perfection reflects on us as a person.

    So I think anyone in the creative world whose work is a product of who they are has to be strong in order to deal with the innate weakness of imperfection and the insecurity of how to measure that imperfection. Something coming off a production line or even cabinetry can be measured and meet specific quality controls. Photography has a larger grey area that is very much in the mind of the beholder as well as the creator.

    If you are not self critical, I think it would be hard to improve and figure out what you are doing wrong when a photo does not live up to what it “should” be. “Should” may be an evil and destructive word, but every required specification for any product made is a should. Should a car have brakes that work? I think so. Some “shoulds” can contain a “should” like braking distance from a fixed speed, but photographs can seldom be measured in a nice black and white, unemotional way. So I have a feeling that a field like photography is appealing to those that like to work on their own, apply their own talents and vision, and can live with the insecurity of both their own self critism as well as the opinion of others.

    When I was shooting for advertising art and creative directors I almost never heard “hey guy, those shots are fantastic!” Rather they would get out their loop and examin every detail and point out the flaws. They took as a given that if they used you once, and then used you again over and over, you should take it that your work is excellent and meets their expectations. So each job was judged on the basis of how the finished product met the brief and the comps you were presented to shoot to. They were actually going over in their minds what they were now going to have to do on their end to massage the photos to the perfection they needed. Not all issues can be solved in the camera. Air brushing was always required; today it is computer retouching.

    So frankly with RE photography, I am dealing not with art director pro but regular people who do express their happiness with a photo shoot that I may have my own self critical issues with. They simply generally don’t see the problems I see. But to me, even after almost 40 years of shooting professionally, I am still learning from each shoot, each shot and I love that stimulation to always do better and use my skills and equipment more effectively. It is a self gratification that photography can bring to the practitioner. Unless you are a production line photographer, I have a feeling that it is that constant learning, learning that comes from not being perfect but wanting to get as close as possible, that appeals to those who choose to become a photographer just as others become graphic artists or architects or any other creative field. If you are not comfortable with failure to achieve perfection and take it as a personal challenge, as opposed to failure as a person, then you are in the wrong business.

  • Very well put, Tony, and imperative to recognize the difference between the rigidity associated with high self esteem with limited focus and the flexibility of self compassion, that while you still have goals, you also have a broader view. When you think about the two perspectives, it is not hard to see which is healthier. Tony and I come from similar backgrounds as I was a mental health counselor (MSW) for about 14 years spanning civilian and military life. One of unique, and clinically fascinating, advantages in the military was the ability to view concentrations of specific populations on a macro level and the impact of those traits individually as they came into the clinic individually. An example, a small base across town primary mission was computer programming – an occupation that is highly rule based and rigid. The healthy ones we typically didn’t see where those establishing (or more accurately – expanding) bounds with the broader vision and self compassion. Those entrenched in the rigid rule driven environment tied to their self esteem become limited with the obsessive/compulsivity that not only affected them personally, but also their expanded family life. That same dichotomy can exist in photography, and anywhere, when the vision becomes micro focused to “perfection” which technically, can never be achieved as the ‘perfection goal’ is not static.

    In Toastmasters, I would start a speech with a joke – When does one stop learning? And answer it – Perhaps when 6 feet under but even that could be a learning experience, but I am not willing to volunteer to find out. And slyly add the punch line where the audience would chuckle – If you find out before me, you don’t need to come back and tell me. The point is that you never stop learning and it is not limited to a single subject. Self compassion, viewing as a whole , enables that flexibility where goal driven dependent high self esteem puts blinders on. So the bigger question is – how are you growing and what percentage of each segment makes the whole. Using photography as an example, and hopefully not 100% of your life, what is the breadth of your growth within that segment. Continue to develop different techniques, setting different levels (and charging appropriately) for delivery to client groups reflecting and marginally exceeding their expectation – not absolute ‘best’ for all groups. Even a contest submission here is different, and arguably better, attention to technique and detail than the routine RE delivery – and as such, I do appreciate the feedback. Likewise with a local photo club where there is a multi-genre atmosphere – portrait, landscape, RE, wildlife, wedding, events, etc – that you learn so much. In fact, next Monday I am presenting panoramic photography (a year or so ago presented on RE photography). I volunteered to present after members saw a 250 degree pano of the downtown lake and signature skyline. While I will address 360/180, primary will be partial pano as well as hyper-focal capability. To a certain extent is is a learning process for me, as not wanting to limit to RE examples, never in my wildes dreams did I think I would go out to a wildlife wetlands with a 12mm lens. (I did have a telephoto in my bag in the event I saw a gator sunning on the banks but too early in the year – but the pano/tele combination would have been great showing no barriers as you walk along the dikes).

  • That’s my Coach! Very thoughtful and right on the money explanation. As artists, we should always be striving to do better with each new work we put out, but doing it in a positive way is absolutely the key to doing it successfully. I’m a firm believer that if you’re looking back on work you’ve done in the past and aren’t just a bit embarrassed by it, you’re in danger of becoming stale and complacent. You should always have confidence in the work you do in the present. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. However, if you’re not capable of being critical of it at some point, you’ll never progress.

  • As with all the posts on here, this was super helpful to me. Thank you for this…very grateful to be a part of this group. 🙂

  • Definitely agreeing with Lauren – the posts were very helpful indeed.

    We’re a deep bunch.

  • Great posting. Love it.

    I find the whole idea of accepting our work to be a fascinating one. Just the other day I was flipping through the web site of one of my clients who is a designer. I’ve shot most of their stuff over the past 6 years, but they also have shots on there that are from before I came along. As I was flipping through the site, I started to get a little insecure, thinking “Wow, I wish I’d done that shot, and that shot, and that one, too.” Then I realized – “Oh! Those ARE my shots.” Seeing my own work out of context (and long after the fact), I thought it was great because I thought someone else had done it. Oy.


  • Excellent topic for the day! Thanks!

  • Thanks for this, Tony! Got it bookmarked and will revisit frequently, I’m sure. Really…thank you!

  • My sincere thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to comment so far. I’m so very pleased that my article has prompted such rich discussion! It’s my hope to write a few more articles over the next few months! ?

    In terms of this particular topic, I want to remind everyone that the driver of the article was a colleague asking a photography community for input on a couple of very poignant questions – the first of which was, “Why am I OVERLY CRITICAL and HARSH of my own work?” I bring this up because I want to avoid confusion on the nature (and value) of self-criticism. The goal is NOT to avoid self-criticism; but, rather, to avoid self-criticism from morphing into something that crosses a line into very unhelpful (and unhealthy) territory – i.e., where it negatively impacts one’s self-confidence and even self-worth!

    Thanks again … I hope the discussion continues!

  • As a photographer who is frequently self-critical, this post makes a lot of sense to me, while also seeming like a mountain to climb. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve set a lofty goal for my work that I may never attain if I keep going down my own self-criticism spiral. It’s difficult to see this sometimes. In the end, we try to reconcile improving our work with self-criticism. That’s a bad road. I’m still working on this, because badly-given criticism can be damaging. But good criticism, while telling us to improve, also tells us that we are on the right track. That track has no room for criticizing ourselves into oblivion, because no improvement can ever be big enough, no photo ever good enough, no matter what praise we may receive in conjunction with criticism. We are just treading water if we don’t allow ourselves to think that while we can improve, that doesn’t mean we should be kicking ourselves for things we didn’t do. In fact, if we didn’t have this blog as a resource along with hundreds or thousands of other real estate photographers to show us what we could’ve done to stop us kicking ourselves, we’d never know, and who beats themselves up over an opportunity like that?

  • It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery… You can’t be good at this unless you have an ego about it, but you also can’t be good at this unless you are brutally honest about where your skill level lies. But it is a question of balancing those two so that it’s constructive. I’ve seen my work on people’s walls a decade after I shot it, or revisited what I did for magazines years ago, or stumbled onto something I shot that is still the major strength to a company’s website… and I say to myself “damn… holy crap, I was good!” but even when I do that, I know that it was that way because of the high expectations I created for myself, and knowing and being honest about the times I failed miserably.

  • I really appreciate this well-written article, Tony! Made me stop and really think about my own traits. I have returned and read your post three times today. I look forward to you writing more articles in the future.

  • This is a really great post. I’m going to play the devils advocate to mention that it seems like there’s a lot of photographers really like their own work. Nuf said.

  • Great article Tony! Lots of important ideas to consider. Thanks!

  • Great article Tony. I’ve read it about 5 times now, and will probably revisit many more times.

  • Great idea bringing this topic into the light, Tony — it’s something that I’ve been fascinated with for many years.

    For anyone that wishes to investigate further, may I recommend some further reading (in order):

    1) The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris
    2) Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
    3) Mindset by Carol Dweck
    4) Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz

  • Once again, my thanks to each of you for adding your comments to this post and to those who’ve taken the time to email me directly to offer feedback. I’m *so pleased* that this article has resonated with people and has provoked such interesting back-and-forth. It’s so important to remember that self-compassion and striving for excellence (which includes constructive self-critique) are NOT mutually exclusive!

    A few additional thoughts on your comments ….

    @ Lee – thanks for adding some levity to the topic … some great stories from your director-days!

    @ Peter – thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I think it’s so cool that you’re still stoked about learning, after FORTY years in the business!! My goodness, that is certainly something to which we all can aspire!

    @ Larry – so great to hear from a fellow counsellor! Loved your Toastmaster’s joke … I think I might steal it for my next public speaking gig! 😉 I really valued your statement that “Self-compassion enables that flexibility where goal driven dependent high self-esteem puts blinders on.” A great sentiment!

    @Ron – thanks for highlighting the importance of finding the right balance of critiquing enough to prompt one to strive to do better. That was at the core of my main suggestion in the article of how to apply self-compassion.

    @Ryan – really like how you highlighted the importance of *positively* framed criticism. Indeed, the value of constructive critique cannot be over-stated! I’m always so pleased to see that all the jurors in the PFRE monthly contests believe in the value of constructive critique and they use it to guide their comments each month. For me, it’s one of the most important learning opportunities that we have in this great community!

    @Kelvin – thanks for sharing your thought about find that balance between striving to be better and honest self-assessment!

    @ Lauren / @ Franz / @ Jesse / @ Aaron / @ Julie / @ Kerry / @Tod / @ Caleb / @Dave … my thanks to you all, as well. I’m so pleased you all found value in the post!

    @Barry … thanks for your comment, Barry … I was very grateful for your sharing such terrific resources! Each one of the authors you listed is amazing but I have to say that I have a soft-spot for Martin Seligman — one of the giants of modern psychology! When I first became a psychologist, many years ago, all I wanted to do was work with depressed people and Seligman’s work on “Learned Helplessness” was a big influence in my development as a counsellor! He went on to become the father of the field of ‘Positive Psychology’ (Learned Optimism) and has gone on to help even more people! Thanks again, Barry … a great add!

  • Ooops, for got to add my thanks to @Sergio! Thanks so much for your comments and an extra vote of thanks for your very gracious compliment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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