Inner Critic Incarnate: 6 Lessons From Negative Reviews (Hint: They Don’t Kill You!)

It was early 2009 and I felt like my book was being suffocated by fear. Scratch that — I was actively suffocating my book WITH my fears. They had the Microsoft Word file in a choke hold for almost six months and they weren’t letting up.

I remember going for one of my weekly walks with my dad and I told him I thought my book was crap. A pile of meaningless clichés. He swiftly corrected me, saying that even if I didn’t finish it — even if I published it that very day — it would help people. And that I would be crazy to give up on it. At the time, about five percent of me knew he was right. So I clung to that five percent like my life depended on it.

My fears around putting my ideas out to the world seemed insurmountable. Somehow they ballooned in my mind to an alternate reality universe where as soon as my book hit the shelves, people would start pointing and laughing at me, calling me a motivational hack who didn’t know anything and who had no right to write a book.

Inner Critic Incarnate

Much to my amazement and delight, when my book finally did come out in March of last year it was celebrated by friends, family and all of you, and strangers started to hear about it too. Glowing reviews poured in on Amazon, and the next year Target picked up 15,000 copies for their stores.

I’m also proud to report that I am now earning royalties, which many books never do. My first $10 check came in last month and I couldn’t be more proud. I had the honor of being the closing keynote at Find Your Passion conference at Pratt this past weekend, and was overjoyed to meet several readers who said the book really helped them through a tough time.

I’ve had a few throw-tomatoes-at-me reviews, but thankfully not many.

The other day another one-star review came in . . . and it bore an UNCANNY resemblance to the very same negative reviews I was giving myself during the great writer’s block of 2009.

Many people would probably advise me not to give it the time of day by airing it out on the blog — but this one taught me some important lessons that I would be remiss not to share.

First, for your (re)viewing pleasure:

If you’ve never thought about anything ever this book is for you
I got 300 pages of what seemed like listening to a complete moron talk about how stupid they are (my interpretation). Seriously, 90% of the advice this woman gives is completely laughable as I would expect anyone who’s made it through college to already know these things. Her advice on dating and relationships are embarrassingly naive; they sound like a self-important 14 year old girl talking to her 8 year old sister about love. Please. What’s more, it’s shocking someone with so many problems is a life coach. This woman is crazy, like the type of person you just try to have little to nothing to do with because of her stability issues (I wouldn’t be surprised if she lies crying on the ground for hours after reading this review).

The idea of a review like this TERRIFIED me back then.

But imagine — if I had walked away from my book just to avoid a review like this — nobody would have read it. No one would have benefitted. For every one review like this, there are 20+ emails or interactions that share what a positive impact the book did have in someone’s life. And you know what? This reviewer has EVERY right to hate my book! I will be the first to tell you that it’s not for everyone.

If I had shut myself down because of fear, I would have given away all of my power. I would have never finished (or even started) my book. I would have caved to cowardice.

I would have said that a future negative reviewer’s opinion of me is more important than my own. And I am better than that. We all are.

I’m not here to rip this reviewer apart. I appreciate him more than he probably realizes. Nor am I crying in a ball on the floor (though I will say it stung). I am actually celebrating.

Here’s why . . .

6 Things I’ve Learned From Negative Reviews:

  1. They show that you’ve DONE something. You’ve created something. You’ve pushed through your fear to ship something that matters to you.
  2. Your work has spread to a wide enough audience to get real, honest feedback from people who aren’t on your payroll (friends, family, people who love us no matter what).
  3. Negative reviews will come in, but guess what? THEY DON’T KILL YOU! Shocking, right? Our inner critics would have us believe the world will come crashing down, but it doesn’t. They might sting, but that’s it. It’s no gaping wound.
  4. It’s an opportunity to re-examine what you DO like about your work AND what you don’t. The review can’t hurt unless you agree with it on some level. Use that information to make your work better next time. Is there anything you would do differently?
  5. Negative reviews are a sign that you’ve done something different enough to piss someone off. Points for creativity!
  6. I am LUCKY to have the “champagne problem” of a few negative reviews. Of reviews at all! I am very grateful my work is out there, and that it has garnered as much interest and support as it has.

So, I’d like to say thank you to the people who have taken the time to give me a review at all. To read my work and care about it enough to talk about it to others; out of 108 reviews, 4 one-stars ‘aint bad.

If we spend our lives just avoiding criticism, then we’re not living much at all.

As one of my former Google colleagues David Kim often reminded me, “Don’t let compliments go to your head, or let criticism get to your heart.”

I’d love to hear from you in the comments: how do you handle negative reviews?
Anything I missed in terms of what we can learn from them?

  • Aziz

    You’re former colleague nailed it when he said “Don’t let compliments go to your head, or let criticism get to your heart.” I would add that we talk to ourselves more than 40,000 times a day so we might as well make it positive talk rather than negative.

    Super kudos on following through despite your inner critic!

    • Thanks so much Aziz! Yes, that David Kim is a wise one 🙂

  • Veronica

    It’s unfortunate this person couldn’t write a constructive review. I’m not sure I understand what he or she is dissatisfied with exactly. Just a lot of personal insults.

    I enjoyed your book immensely and I love what you do. Clearly, I’m not the only one! 😉 Keep up the positivity and let your light shine bright!

    • Veronica — yes, I agree — even if I were going to give a work one star I don’t think I would personally attack the author, but of course he has every right not to like the book. I do think it must have triggered something in him — if he hated it AND it did nothing, he wouldn’t have gotten this riled up…which I think is often the case with all of us when we get upset at things. It’s a good flag to turn around and ask what the trigger is in our own lives.

      Thank you so much for the comment and kind words!!

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  • Great blog post Jen ! This post has a lot of wisdom for ALL creators whether in the field of writing, acting, painting, politicking – anything. It is SO easy to criticize and many people can’t resist going public with their vitriol (myself included ! See Facebook rants from time to time re: national politicians). Toxic reviews like the one you share often say so much more about the troubled, negative condition of the speaker than the work being criticized. The PROBLEM with this sort of criticism is that it is often aimed at people with no mental weapons with which to defend. How many fourth graders stopped painting or drawing due to some off-hand remark from a teacher or classmate. How many budding musicians put down their instrument after a catty remark from a fellow band member. As my songwriting instructor Andre’ once said: “It takes rhino-hide to be in the songwriting business” or any pursuit. Negative remarks can hurt at ANY level of the game – whether a beginner or a National Book Award winner. There are also problems in NOT listening to criticism and avoiding the self-examination that would stimulate a new vision or simply improvement. Looking back on three and one half years of intense architecture criticism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design where negative criticism was the rule, I can say that my meanest, nastiest critic was also my most valuable teacher. Hate to give the bastard credit – but he deserves credit. Sometimes nice, constructive criticism just goes in one ear and out the other where a good hard kick in the privates makes one listen up. No matter what anyone creates ever – it is always vulnerable to negativity. It has been said that all great ideas are always disturbing and the GREAT ones rattle the hell out of everyone! The excellent point of your blog is that ALL feedback is constructive on some level.

    • Daddy-O!! Thanks again for this great comment!! I always love hearing your thoughts on these things — you’ve been at the creative game since you were a kid and I’m sure have developed quite a thick skin in the process. It’s unfortunate how negative remarks can create huge blocks for someone if they come at a young age, or when they are in a vulnerable place, but perhaps pushing past that is what gives people the internal strength and “badge of honor” to continue pursuing their work without apology.

      I also love your point about not just blocking out all criticism — love the Harvard examples!

  • Guest

    Jen what a wonderful post!! Imagine if we let fear control us and never took the risk. How dull our lives would be. Each and every one of us go through the same feelings as you did. I myself have been there too. We will never please each and every person but they way I look at it is; Even if it is a negative review, they are still talking about me. Great job and CONGRATULATIONS!!

    • Thank you so much! I agree — if we spend our time numbing ourselves or our work down just to avoid pain, we’re missing out on all of the good stuff, the learning, and the courage-building. Thank you for commenting, and for the kind words!

  • Jen Gresham

    One of the best pieces of advice I got from Jon Morrow on blogging (which applies to nearly any endeavor): if you’re not getting hate mail, you’re not stretching enough. I got TONS of horrible, horrible comments on my blog post about firing my father. It was so freeing! Now when those bad comments come in, I just shrug them off. I’ve made peace with my past. And in the process, I’m making peace with my future.

    • I love that advice!! And what a great perspective that all of those negative comments were actually freeing for you — I can completely see that. Posting this was freeing for me — it helped me see the imperfection in my work AND all that I am proud of too. Thanks for commenting, Jen!

  • Alexandra

    Reviews like that one the Internet are meant to be scathing and hurtful to the recipient. I love that instead of letting the negative review break you or ignoring it, you used it instead as an opportunity for growth. And THEN, as if that wasn’t enough, you used your growth as a learning opportunity for us all. Bravo!

    • I agree — there is a certain tone that’s unnecessary when critiquing a person’s work. I don’t get it myself (could have done without the personal jabs!) but they did give me the push to turn the whole thing around. thank you for taking the time to read and comment! you are one of the most fearless creatives I know 🙂

  • Wow, what an asshole reviewer. Good for you for taking the reviews in stride Jenny! I’m still waiting for my negative review on How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye on Financial Samurai, but nothing yet. Maybe they are too afraid to say something.

    I welcome negative reviews if they can give me advice on how to IMPROVE! Good luck!


  • Great post Jenny! I love that you used this negative feedback to remind yourself that you actually DID something. Such a healthy and inspiring way to look at it. Now if we could all have the attitude you carried in this post, a lot more people’s projects and creative ideas would get off the ground. Mine included!

    • Thank you so much Kristi! It definitely takes time and practice not to let this stuff in….primarily from our OWN voices! If you’ve got a project or idea brewing, I *know* you can do it — very excited to hear more sometime soon 🙂 xoxo!

  • Ellie N.

    The thing I loved best about your book was your stories, especially the parts where things got hard for you. I’m glad you included them, because to me it made you much more relateable. Besides, the point of life is not to have no problems (Cause thats impossible!), but to love living your life regardless :).

    • Thanks so much Ellie! I really appreciate that perspective, and am grateful for readers like you who spent the time to sit down with my book and take from it what was helpful for you. Thanks so much for reading, and for taking the time to comment today 🙂

  • LOVE this post. Your bravery is inspiring. If ONE person is impacted then your work is worth it. And that one person could be you 🙂 #DoneDeal There will always be negative people, its incredible that someone can take something positive and put their own strange twist on it. ALL that matters is that YOU are inspired, others are inspired, and we are all moving towards love, happiness and fulfillment. xo

    • Thanks love!! Always so great to see your name pop up on the blog or on Facebook 🙂 And I always love your wisdom, energy and positivity — you are spot on that there will be negative people, but it’s really about remembering that even changing or helping one person makes it all worth it. Thank YOU for being such a bright, shining light in the world – I’m so glad to still be in touch. Have an amazing weekend, my dear!! And let me know if you end up in NYC at all this coming year — will do the same for any trips I take to LA. To love, happiness and fulfillment! xoxo

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  • Umar Soaries

    I’ve never read your book nor took your course (to be honest college was so long again I wasn’t sure if was for me) but I heard you on Rise after I discovered the podcast and listened to a group of shows while writing my first book. Just listening to you inspired me to keep moving forward, and when I can I will actually take your course. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thanks so much for listening and taking the time to comment, Umar! That means a lot to me — very happy to help 🙂 Even though the MSH course is already under way, you may be interested in my free 2-week course, The Acorn Project:

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