On creative shame: The agony of knowing when something sucks (+ 3 strategies for getting over it)

Sometimes it makes you feel like this monkey. (Via Gratisography)

“Done is better than perfect” is the hottest mantra in creativity and marketing right now. But what happens when your “done”… kinda sucks?

First, let me say: I agree with this “just get it out there” strategy wholeheartedly. Dedicating yourself to producing new content consistently is the absolute best way to attract new peeps to your universe, learn what your passions are, and find your voice. It also helps you climb out of the “IF IT’S NOT FLAWLESS IT’S NOT WORTH IT” wormhole.

But every great strategy comes with some less-great drawbacks attached.

Because when you’re creating, sharing, and working through new ideas constantly… you’re bound to produce a few duds.

Hey, it happens. It happens to me, it happens to your favorite authors, bloggers, and comedians, it happens to your next door neighbor who totally finished NaNoWriMo this year.

That’s just the reality of being a maker building up your portfolio.

When “good enough” is your standard, you are inevitably going to create something you’re not totally happy with (if you haven’t already). It might be something you hate a little bit, or a concept that’s full of holes when you read it over, or something that sparks an outright negative reaction from your audience.

And then, the feeling kicks in. The dreaded, unpleasant, sticks-to-your-gut-like-glue feeling of… creative shame.

The worst part about creative shame around something you’ve already put into the world?

Other people can see it. Ahh!

That alone might scare you enough to kill your momentum, and make you wonder:

Man, I suck. How do I hate this even more after re-reading it?!

Dang, that was a mean comment. Should I just get rid of the post?

You know what, I think I’ll dele — Fuck. How did someone already retweet it? It’s been up for like 30 seconds!

Still, intellectually, you know failure happens.

You’ve probably read a “famous flops” article or 20 in your day. I know I have.

However, while those stories always end in some inspiring act of redemption, they don’t generally offer a strategy for dealing with that uncomfortable, tight feeling in your chest when you think about your latest flop. They don’t absolve you of the guilt that you dared to put something into the world that wasn’t quite good enough.

Those posts can’t promise you that you’ll get your own redemption, either.

So let’s talk about what happens in that gap — while the embarrassment is fresh, sharp, and grimy, and you’re trying to figure out what to do next.

Story time!

My first encounter with creative shame happened at 16.

I “started” my writing career by penning and editing fanfiction — a.k.a. fics — in my teens. (Go ahead and crack your jokes. I’ll wait.)

I’d had some solid success with a previous fic, so I decided to switch it up and capitalize on the third wave of Star Wars fandom by writing a short romance (you’re allowed to roll your eyes here).

You see where this is going, right?

16 year old writing a romance? Terrible.

16 year old writing a romance in the Star Wars universe? God help us all.

About 48 hours after posting I received a string of comment notifications. Excited, I clicked.

The first comment read:

You know your fic is bad when it gets posted to godawfulfanfiction.net, but this was truly terrible. Maybe one of the worst I’ve read ever…

The rest of the comments agreed with the poster, and largely focused on making fun me, telling me I should leave the site forever, or linking to where my fic had been re-posted on godawfulfanfiction.

My heart sank. My cheeks flushed. My palms began to sweat.

Was it really that bad?

I read it again, through my new, critic-beaten lens.

Oh god. Yep. They have a point.

Still, I wish this was the part where I stood up for myself (why are people expecting the pinnacle of literary prose on a fanfiction site anyway?!), or found a way to re-write the piece, or that all of those mean commenters came back and apologized.

But none of that happened. Instead, red-faced and teary-eyed with shame alone in my bedroom, I deleted the story as quickly as I could.

For years, I told no one.

Eventually, however, this became my go-to tale for any creative afraid of bad feedback.

The fortunate thing about being brutalized by faceless internet critics? After it’s happened, you find a way to wear it proudly.

(Of course, this wasn’t the last time my work would receive harsh feedback. But you never forget your first.)

I recently relayed this story to a friend working anxiously on her first-draft manuscript. Once she’d finished shrieking with laughter, she made a sympathetic noise, and asked:

“But how did you keep writing after that!? Those comments would make me curl up into a ball and never write a word again.”

Looking back, I think it came down to this:

I was embarrassed to my core. Sure, those people were unnecessarily mean, but I’d been caught red-handed submitting sub-par work. I knew I’d cringe every time I thought about it for years to come.

But, with a gulp, I realized the bad feelings and shame would all pass with enough time.

I loved to write. And it was either stop because the internet made me feel bad, or keep going and hopefully create enough good work that I could put this humiliation behind me.

So, a little more nervous, and a little more self-critical, I bowed my humbled head, and I quietly continued on.

Since then, I’m proud to say I have created some good stuff, right alongside numerous other cringe-worthy, meaningless, self-congratulatory works, both shared and hidden away.

After all, over a decade of writing publicly is plenty of time to produce some seriously crappy stuff.

Because that’s the reality: When you’re habitually creating and sharing your work, you can’t hit a home run with every swing.

Someday, you’re going to write something, or create something, and it’s going to suck. And you’ll try to pretend it doesn’t, but you can’t avoid it forever. Then, you’re going to feel bad. And you’re going to question everything.

And you know what? That’s alright.

Creative shame, in all its cringe-y, uncomfortable glory, is OK, because it’s part of the process.

Just like failure, just like rejection, creative shame is a tool. It taps you back into where you really are with your creative work; where your bad habits are, where you’ve gotten lazy, or where you hit ‘Publish’ because you just wanted to put something out there.

So: what should you do when it happens to you?

How should you recover when the creative shame monster starts to whisper in your ear that you’re not good enough, you’re a fraud who’s been found out, and you should just give up already?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Take stock of what went wrong.

In the immortal words of my dad, “If you make mistakes, you’re learning. If you repeat them, well then you’re just doing a bad job.”

Chances are, you already know exactly where and why you veered off course. The thing that went wrong in a piece you’re embarrassed about probably isn’t a new symptom. It’s probably a quirk or habit you know about, but have been ignoring, or not devoting enough time to working on.

So face it. Revisit it. And put more energy into the solution.

2. Remember that this will pass in time.

Creative shame feels like absolute shit.

It makes you sad, it makes you angry with yourself, and it’s one of those memories that might jerk you awake riiiight before you fall asleep at night.

But that’s just part of being alive. That’s part of making stuff for the world. And eventually, as your consistently solid body of work grows, you’ll forget that puff piece, the attempts at insight that came out wrong, the clumsiness, the rushed concepts, and the screw ups.

Sure, you can freeze up, let the shame take you over, and give up completely.

But is that really the way you want to go out?

3. Tell yourself as many times as you need to: “This happens to everyone — even people I respect most.”

Show me a creative who’s made it through their entire career without having to swallow some bitter criticism pills, or squirmed over a piece they hated, and I’ll show you someone who’s never taken risks, who’s never tried to grow, and who’s so caught up in not being embarrassed or wrong, they’ve paralyzed themselves.

They’re also probably pretty boring.

The opposite of creative shame is creative courage. And you can’t have one without the other.

You can’t heal the shame without courage.

And you can’t find prove your courage without shame to test you.

So as you go along, as you create and produce, just know that every day, millions of people around the world are on the same journey you are.

Shame will stop some of them. It will make them give up. It will cause them to melt away.

But that doesn’t have to be your story.

Because if you want to build yourself up for success? You have to build yourself up to absorb blows too.

When a critique resonates, use it.

When you’re frustrated, listen closely to yourself (but not so closely that you freeze up — remember you’re your own worst critic, not your best, or even most knowledgeable).

And when someone’s judging you for the sake of it like a asshole, feel free to tell them where they can shove it.

So keep moving. Keep your gloves up. And when creative shame comes to find you, let it in, then let it pass.

It’s all part of the process and the purpose.

Stay tough, and stay focused. I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines.