Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it may be yourself? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. Maybe not right away, but at some point I do get at myself for not having done my best. More often that I like to think.

When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel—which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting—when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration—I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently—and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself—at least not without playing it safe for the majority of the shots. It’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves a slap in the face. You say to yourself: Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough! Remember last week’s post about how destructive perfection can be?

Rather, we should say to ourselves: Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time—in all aspects of life. No big deal. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like—others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.

89 thoughts on “Stop Judging Yourself

  1. So much truth in this post Otto. I would be surprised if we didn’t all recognise something in your words that applies to us too! Love your last sentence…..puts it all into perspective.

  2. So true.
    Our creative edges can really bring out the “inner judge.”
    I find it helpful to move away from asking myself if I “like” or “dislike” something I’ve made. Instead, considering if it’s something that I can work with and is it worth the energy to try? It seems to free my mind up to possibilities. Where as if I make a judgement either positive or negative that seems to get me stuck.

    Always enjoy your posts!

  3. Wise words, but I’m sure that many of us are our own worst judges. I’m glad I don’t earn a living from photography, I’d be a nervous wreck if I did, although I was always known for my tenacity in my working life, but that was in accounts and, one plus one always equalled two.

    Creative pursuits are not so clearly defined.

  4. Yes, I can be very self critical. Sometimes that can push me to work through a problem and sometimes it’s just self abuse. It can be hard to know which it is when I’m living in the moment. I like the feelings this photo evokes.

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more. The trick is to be able to control that inner critic so it motivates our evolution as photographers and not hinder it. We need to adopt a mental attitude to push past our self imposed limitations. This works with all aspects in life, not just photography.

  6. Great points Otto. While I’m certainly not a professional, I can identify with being too harsh on my my own photos. It’s a wonderful hobby and a good thing I don’t depend on it for income. 😬

  7. There’s a difference between critiquing our own work, and criticizing ourselves. It takes discipline and detachment to look at our own work and say, “This doesn’t measure up” without taking the next step and saying, “Therefore, I am a bad (stupid, unskilled, boring) photographer.”

    Long ago, I watched a child spill an entire glass of milk at the table. Instead of berating the child, calling him clumsy or bad, his mother said, “It’s not good to spill your milk. Why do you think that happened? How can we keep it from happening again?” Instead of crying over spilled photographic milk, we might do well to ask the same sort of questions.

    I love that your post brought that memory back.

    1. The distinction you point to is very accurate, and something I didn’t explicitly made in this post. Of course, we need to critique our own work, but it’s when it turns into self critique it becomes destructible for our creativity. I think your story about the spilled milk is simply beautiful and spot on with respect to the topic we are discussing here.

  8. i’m typically disappointed in the result of the photo i went after and pleasantly surprised at something i captured along the journey by just haphazardly clicking the button

  9. I’m a poor judge of my own pictures I know. I get disappointed in the way you describe – getting the shoot done and pleased with myself, then come home and see the mistakes. Some of this I know is due to not getting what I want in the frame and sometimes not spot on with the camera settings. Some of that might be avoided if I kept checking the back screen with glasses on – the screen is blurred without them – but it is not easy juggling camera, glasses and camera bag all at the same time! In addition I am often surprised that others see ‘good’ in the images that I think are poor – but I think that in part that is because we all see the world through different eyes and images will have different levels of appeal. It’s complicated! However at the end of the day I am always comforted by the well-known quote that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

    1. It is complicated, but with the attitude of the quote in the end one cannot go completely wrong. As to checking the back screen, I usually recommend not checking it too often, because it takes the attention away from the situation you are shooting.

      1. Yes, I remember you commenting on how checking the back screen could disrupt being ‘in flow’. I think the lesson in your previous post on Perfection is very relevant.

  10. I particularly like your point about putting pictures aside for a few days or even weeks. A far more reliable assessment can be made when the initial emotional involvement has cooled a little

  11. Great post. The bit ‘some creations you will like, some you won’t’ stood out for me. I set my standards too high by assuming I will like all my stories / drafts etc. Maybe I need to accept your words

    1. We cannot produce high end result in everything we do. It’s part of the learning process. We start out not knowing much and by doing mistakes and correct ourselves, we learn and get better. It lays in the nature of things that not everything we create will be as good as we wanted it to be. And nothing wrong with that, if we only have the right perspective.

  12. Very wise words, Otto, and all so very true.
    There are times when I go out with something in mind and come back very disappointed, but I also find that in that outing, I usually make many “happy accidents.” 🙂

  13. I’m not just severely critical of myself, I’m unforgiving. I’ve also com to the realization that this idiosyncrasy is due to my fear that I have substandard learning in photography. I’m constantly chastising myself for not being at a stage in my development as a photographer as others, who work I greatly admire, are.

    Sure, there shall be no wine before it’s time but while I’m aware of that fact I’m still disappointed in myself for not being where I think I ought to be.

    1. I think it’s always dangerous to compared oneself with others, although we all do it, all the time. At least I try to see my development as a journey not related to other’s journey. 🙂

  14. The way I see it is that when my photographs just don’t turn out that great, it is a good excuse to go back and take some more the way I want.

  15. I’ve experienced that so many times – being in the moment, feeling the flow, taking “wonderful” photos, then the crashing disappointment when first viewing them in the ordinary space of my computer screen at home. As you described so well, a bit of time brings the necessary separation from the experience to be able to more realistically evaluate the photographs. I usually do end up with something that pleases me, as well as ideas for trying in the future. But then I’m not a working photographer, so I have the luxury of time…and of shooting what I want, when I want. I might disappoint myself, but I don’t have to worry about anyone else. Thanks for sharing your experience and wise perspective, Otto.

    1. And thank you for sharing how it works for you. Being a professional photographer does put extra pressure on you when you are on assignments. On the other hand there are always some tricks that you know will work no matter what, which of course is never satisfactory to resort to. But does get the work done.

  16. 😀 😀 😀
    Your post is a pure ‘déjà vu’… So recognizable… Still, we just cannot keep our hands off the camera, can we? 😉

  17. Why are we our worst critics sometimes? Ugh! But just like you find your flow in photography, I find it in painting AND both are an art. Thankfully we are fueled by our passions and can ‘escape’ the mundane, so many people do not experience this. Just create what you feel without judgement. It was your last line that really put it into perspective Otto – “you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.” Perfect, thank you!

  18. Dear Otto
    I really like your Charly Brown attitude “shit happens”. Well, without mistakes we wouldn’t learn.
    But are we allowed playing advocatus diabolil? We find self-critique per se positive but, of course, it’s a matter of how much. Without self-critique we wouldn’t get better, but there are different ways how you can criticize yourself: a serious way like being a strict teacher or a rather playful way. But either way we need judgement, it is orientation.
    On the other hand we absolutely agree, the best killer of creativity is a strict judgment of yourself. How about this: when you actually take a picture – no judgement, in post-production you need judgement. And the judging has to be playful in the way: I tried this but I try now something different that may work out better. It’s like a game with many possibilities and mistakes are part of the game on the way to satisfying yourself.
    Have a cosy pre-Christmas time. I am sitting in front f the open fire, the Christmas tree in the back and the wind is going strong, Siri and Selma try to find out what is in the boxes under the tree …
    With warm greeting from
    and the rest of the gang

    1. Shit does happen – all the time. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is much disagreement between us. I think self -critique is important, too. As you say, it’s a way to keep yourself developing. What I am addressing here is this beating and self-mutilation that often happens because we can’t handle disappointments with our creative results. Your dual approach to first shooting without judgment and then be critical in the post-processing, is pretty much what I already do. It’s kind of what Cartier-Bresson said that thinking should be done before and after photography not in the moment of actually shooting. Of course, that quote could leads us directly over to the other discussion we have had lately, whether a photo needs to be planned or not. However, I’ll let it be for now. I wish the gang of four a very happy pre-Christmas time as well.

      1. Good morning, dear Otto
        I always have the feeling that we two are thinking in a similar direction and that makes our exchange so interesting. Thanks for all your impulses! 🙂
        I like Cartier-Bresson’s idea, thinking before and after photographing. A generation earlier Wassily Kandinsky had a similar idea saying that an artist has to know a lot but during the process of painting it’s important that he has forgotten all his knowledge. It works from his or her subconsciousness.
        Today Hanne, Siri and Selma and me will start with baking our Christmas cookies. We love it when the whole house smells of these goodies.
        Wishing you a wonderful weekend
        The Fab Four of Cley

  19. as a matter of fact i pretty much DID stop meeting people because of the ones i didn’t like 🙂 nice writing, and i agree with you, but find it extremely difficult to stop judging myself!

  20. No truer words spoken. I especially was drawn to how you expressed that when something goes wrong, that’s when you find a completely new way of seeing things. Exactly, Otto! I can totally relate to your point of view. When something doesn’t go right, I tend to dissect the steps that took me to this unexpected or disappointing place. It’s mind opening! Thank you for your thoughts.

  21. Dear Otto,
    I also come to the same conclusion. I used to judge my self a lot and was actually so hard on my self, which made me be so deeply depressed before. Now I’m trying to learn from my experiences. I believe that we can learn from every experience even the heart broken ones.

    PS: I have posted my first article yesterday and it will be nice to have your opinion about it.

    Wishing you a wonderful weekend,
    Best regards,
    Kaouther Tgaourti,

  22. I think it is much easier to expand and experiment in the digital age than it was during the film years when so much money went into each image. The aspect of being able to delete what doesn’t work gives me more space to push myself. Although, I do suffer just as you describe when I come home and look at what I accomplished. I see things at home that I didn’t see on site. It is all too easy to beat ourselves up.

  23. Hello Otto,
    A very timely and welcome reminder post, thank you so much.
    I find now that if I tell myself that one capture out of an expedition is ‘wall worthy’….I’m happy.
    But it’s not always easy, as you articulated and we can oft’ fall into our old habits. Constant reminders are the way to go.
    Thank you for another beautiful piece of inspiration 💐🙋🏻

      1. Hello Otto,
        What a lovely surprise to see your kind reply.
        Thank you for this encouragement. I’m glad I’m on the right track.
        Warmest wishes from me 🙋🏻💐

  24. So true, Otto. I am always beating myself up for my “mistakes”. Others are much kinder to me than I am to myself. It’s a hard habit to break. Perhaps one I should work on in the New Year.

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