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!