Comparison Critic 34

When I was in school, I attended the Grace Hopper conference, which was subtitled “A Celebration of Women in Computing”. There were panels on work-life balance (which was more about work-family balance and didn’t discuss things like how to find time for yourself which I think is highly undervalued), dealing with sexism in the workplace, and how to get more women interested in computer science (which: see previous panel on sexism). There were also two dance parties, which is two more than you generally see at most academic/tech conferences, and really I wish you would see them more because they were awesome. Of course that might be because it was almost entirely women.

Anyway. I also learned about imposter syndrome (where you feel like you’re totally faking it and at any time someone is going to figure it out, which describes most of my existence as a programmer and  grad student.)  I also attended an interesting panel on internal critics. One of the critics was referred to as the comparison critic, and plays a big part in imposter syndrome but also, as I’m learning, absolutely sucks your creative energy.

The Comparison Critic is that internal voice that says things like “Wow, that person does X so much better than you do!” or “You will never be as good as that!” I’m not super fond of Comparison Critic, but she sure gets a lot of air time in my head.

I’ve felt really constrained lately in my creativity and quilting, and in doing some reflection, realized that I’ve let Comparison Critic talk me into a creative corner. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I make something new, and different, and don’t follow a pattern, and don’t do the thing that someone else is doing, or if I do, make sure it’s somehow unique, and gosh, why can’t you make it as good as so and so’s and maybe you should just not bother.

No wonder I don’t want to make anything! I spend a lot of time looking at flickr, instagram and pinterest, but instead of being inspired, I’m just overwhelmed. How will I ever be that good? How can I possibly make something cool and new and different when it’s all been done before?

I’m coming to realize that Comparison Critic can just shut her mouth, because all of that is total nonsense. There is room for all of us to make beautiful things, and there is no contest we’re all secretly taking part in. Everyone has their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses which is part of their own creative journey, tailored just for them. Instead of looking at everyone else’s journey, I should be focusing on my own!

So I sat down with my graph paper and thought, “If I didn’t care about what anyone else has made, what would I design?”

At first there was a long, scary silence. Punctuated by thoughts like: “Oh god, I can’t design without looking at other people’s stuff!”, and  “NOOoooooooooo!”, and  “I’m so screwed!” (My inner voices are a little on the dramatic side.)


But I kept sitting and suddenly out of nowhere a voice popped into my head and simply said “It would have circles.” So I started drawing circles. And at first I hated everything I drew, but I kept drawing and shushing my Comparison Critic. Instead, I tried to point out things I liked and how to improve what I didn’t. And in the end I had a couple ideas I’d be willing to work with. They need more development, and yah they look like stuff other people have done, but that’s okay. Will they ever be made into quilts? I don’t know. But it was just so freeing to sit and create with an encouraging voice in my head instead of a discouraging one.


This post brought to you by my sketch for the Dragon Quilt of Doom (which my dog kindly laid/drooled on) followed by a full evening spent reading Maureen Cracknell’s blog and swooning over her sketch stitching.

Sorry for the long, introspective post. I promise to post something more light-hearted soon!


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34 thoughts on “Comparison Critic

  • Leanne

    It sounds like a great conference. There is much to be learned by doing what others have done, learning from their path, and enjoying the journey. And it is not about the others anyway, it is about what makes you smile and relax. The quilting thing is, for most of us, a hobby, not the day job. I love your sketches and I love your work.

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Leanne. I think the part that I was letting myself get worked up over is that it’s part of my day job. But it’s supposed to be the fun part! 😀 And you’re right, of course, we learn a lot by doing what others have done. And often we start out on the same path but end up in a totally different destination. Thank you so much for the encouragement and kind words!

    • anne Post author

      Trust me, you’re plenty unusual! <3 Pretty much everyone I've talked to about imposter syndrome has felt it at some point. Almost all of my colleagues dealt with it on some level. So crazy! All of us going around feeling like we're not where we belong and hoping no one finds out. o.O

      • anne Post author

        I am trying to schedule regular sewing time so that things can actually get made. 🙂 Right now I have way more designs than time, which is both good and bad, I suppose!

  • Pat S

    Anne, you will never know how timely this is. I’ve lived with the imposter syndrome most of my life and the comparison critic is my daily companion.

    It is time to remember that one learns valuable lessons even by copying the work of someone else. I’ve been told that by art teachers and photography teachers but it is easy to forget.

    I’ve been struggling with these issues more than usual lately, so thank you for the reminder that it really isn’t a contest.

    • anne Post author

      In the talk, they discussed how to work with the critics and make them useful instead of detrimental, but I was so blown away by the first part where they talked about them, that my mind was too busy to listen. I think I need to hear the talk again, I’m ready for that part now.

      I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this, too. It’s not a terribly happy place to be. I recently discovered a graphic novel on how to be a creator. It’s not out yet, but the artist has some of the work on his website, and I feel like each thing he writes about was specifically written for an issue I’ve had or am facing. Given that you’re facing similar issues, I thought I’d send you the link to check out if you’d like.

      In particular, there’s a graphic essay on how to deal with that overwhelming feeling you get when looking at other people’s art:
      And dealing with “failure”:

      There is a list of the essays available on the left side, I’ve found them all really insightful. 🙂

  • Erin

    Sending you a great big hug through the internet.
    I think everyone thinks they’re an imposter. And I think we are almost trained to do that. Project the image you want to be and all that! But I really do think your amaze balls.
    I am glad you have been able to shush your inner critic. Your drawings look fab. And your dragon plan is definitely coming together.
    E xx

    • anne Post author

      Thank you, Erin! I think you’re awesome, too! 😀 I hadn’t really thought about how culture trains us towards impostor syndrome, but I think you’re on to something!
      I think I need to stop planning my dragon quilt and actually work on it. 🙂 When it comes to fight or flight response to fear, apparently my response is “design more.” 😉

  • Jayne

    This hit home! I have been so mesmerized by seeing others work, intimidated by what I see on a daily basis and smacked down thinking I cannot ever compare to that!

    I know I feel the best when I’m doing my thing, but always in the back of my mind I try to ease the turmoil. Feeling like I don’t measure up!

    I feel both the imposter syndrome and the comparison critic! I’m a mess! This would explain the constant creative struggles I’ve had lately!

    I think its normal…for everyone! I love your creativity and your blog is both informative and fun to follow!

    • anne Post author

      Yes, exactly, all this! That’s how I feel quite frequently. And I feel okay once I start, but getting started is sometimes pretty difficult. I linked this to someone else, but there’s a book coming out about how to be a creator, and he covers a lot of these things that we go through. In particular, I found this one really hit home for me right now:

      Also, I would like to point out that you’re not a mess. 🙂 Figuring out your creative side might feel messy, but it takes some real self-awareness to tackle it. Which is kind of the opposite of being a mess, as far as I’m concerned!

      Thanks for your sweet words, and for following. I always enjoy your comments. 🙂

  • Deb@asimplelife Quilts

    Imposter Syndrome. I have never heard of this term but it pretty much sums how I felt for much of my career.

    Your post also explains why quilting and other creative interests are my best therapy – thanks!! When quilting starts to feel like work for me it’s time to step back. I hope you can tame your comparison critic.

    • anne Post author

      I had never heard of it before then, and it was like being hit with a bold of self-awareness lightning. “Wait, this thing I feel every day? That’s a THING? Other people feel it? I can stop hiding?!?” Okay, not that I’ve completely stopped hiding, but I am working on it!

      I find I go a little insane without some sort of creative outlet. As you say, definitely the best therapy!

  • Jenny

    Yep, been there. In fact, I have outright quit multiple hobbies because of it. It’s a real danger for me and, since I have now acquired mass quantities of fabric, I must always find a way to quell the CC. I don’t know about you, but I’m very competitive if the expectations are low, but as the expectations rise, I withdraw (another way of saying “crumble under the pressure”). That’s why I do no work for money. Everything I do is for giving away, because people really shouldn’t critique a gift, right?

    You keep telling that CC to F off.

    • anne Post author

      Holy crap, we don’t just share a Sullivan in our name, we also apparently share a lot of traits, too. I have also gone through my fair share of hobbies and have the masses of fabrics so can’t just bail when it gets a little tough. AND the competitive thing, too! And not asking for money. So basically everything you said, totally me.

      I keep linking this, but I found it really helpful to read today. There is an artist making a book on how to be a creator, and he talks about all these creative struggles. In particular, I found this one really helpful:

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Christa! It’s definitely an interesting journey, and one I wish I’d taken on ages ago, but I suppose better now than ages later. 🙂 I know I’m definitely my own worst critic (well, maybe not. The internet is full of jerks, but fortunately or community is not!) It’s just sometimes difficult to find the fine line for my inner critic between constructive criticism and just plain negativity.

  • Katy(LethargicLass)

    that is interesting… I do fall into that category of inner thoughts a lot… I love everything you make, and would even if you only made one pattern of quilt over and over and over again 🙂 (ooooh… that might be interesting… same pattern, different fabrics… maybe minis… hmmm…)

    • anne Post author

      Well stop it, girl! You are talented and creative (YES YOU ARE) and you should tell your inner critics to hush up. 🙂 <3
      I actually think it would be really interesting to do the same pattern different fabrics thing, and kind of want to do that with a book about designing with color. Same design, just vary the color so you can really see the effects it has.

  • Adrianne

    Yes. Totally understand this and have been there before (and will be there again). I find I just need to get things out on paper on mocked up on the computer and then I come back after a while and I think “I designed that??”.

    • anne Post author

      Oh my gosh, I have totally had moments like that! I love those. 🙂 I have a couple of drawings I’ve done where I have gone back and am kinda unbelieving that I made them. Of course, I also have the opposite side, where I think something is awesome, come back in a year or so and think “oh man. Wow. I can’t believe I thought that was great.” lol I guess that’s all part of the evolving creative journey. 🙂

  • prsd4tim2

    Thanks for this post. Sometimes I think it’s good to realize that other people have doubts too. Why is it that our creativity is never “good enough”, “creative enough”, “unique enough”, for CC? After reading this, I’m going to shove her back where she belongs and get on with my life.

    • anne Post author

      It seems like the more people I talk to, the more I find that the majority of people are filled with these doubts, and their success has more to do with how little they gave into them, rather than how confident they were from the get go. 🙂 You do beautiful, creative work, so please don’t let your CC convince you otherwise. 🙂

  • PennyDog

    I suffer a lot from the impostor voice at work, so next year I will be doing a professional qualification so that I feel more confident in what I know, plug the gaps that I know I’ve been faking for a while and come out feeling much better. Maybe a Craftsy class or a workshop would be the quilting equivalent?

    • anne Post author

      Getting professional qualifications is a great idea! Congratulations on working towards yours. 😀 We need quilting qualifications. 😉 Little badges you can put on your blog. Look guys, I just mastered putting in a zipper! *badge*
      Maybe I will go make some. 🙂

  • Laura C

    Oh, Anne. That was exactly what I need to read right now. Even when I do work I would be proud of that *I* think is beautiful, I undercut myself: “It’s not as special as HER quilt that she just finished” or “I think actually I saw someone else making this block so I probably just copied it and it isn’t original at all” or “I just used a fabric line so I didn’t really push myself creatively.” Our inner self-talk can be so damaging. I have to remind myself to be kind, all the time–I’d never speak to a friend or my daughter that way, why is it OK to speak to myself that way? It totally helps to hear that this is a “thing” that people smarter than me talk about being a problem.

    When Victoria Findlay Wolfe came and spoke to my guild last month, she emphasized that quilting is just supposed to be JOY. Making a quilt should be joyful! I’m working to get that back, too.

    I can’t wait to see that Dragon Quilt of Doom. It needs to be a quilt.

    • anne Post author

      If making a quilt is supposed to be pure joy, does she hire someone else to do the basting? 😀

      In all seriousness, though, I am beginning to suspect that a lot of us do the undercut thing, and talk down our creations. I wonder if part of it is a fear of looking conceited? I love your comment about how you shouldn’t talk to yourself in a way that you wouldn’t talk to a friend. There is so much truth to that!

      Also, I just have to note that I find it really hard to design using a single line of fabric, and am so impressed with what people can do with that! So you should never think that you’re not pushing yourself creatively when you have that particular constraint!

      If I can manage to finish my bee blocks in time, I’ll be able to get a start on the Dragon Quilt of Doom this weekend! 🙂

  • Lorna McMahon

    Hey, everyone has that personal critic. But you got it right when you said, “Comparison Critic can just shut her mouth.” When it comes to criticism and air time, I say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” I really appreciated this post, Anne. Turns out we all look up to someone and think the work of others are amazing and inspiring. If only we could see ourselves as others do!

    • anne Post author

      I think it would be incredibly enlightening for everyone if we could see how others see us. I think we’d not only find out that we’re way too harsh on ourselves, but I’m guessing we’d learn a few areas of improvement we were unaware of as well. 😉 Have you seen that dove commercial where people describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist (who can’t see them) and then someone else describes them, and you can see the pictures side by side? While that’s about physical beauty, I’m sure the results would be the same for our internal beauty as well.
      Here’s a link to the video:

  • Jessica

    Thank you so much for sharing the link to those graphic essays, I really enjoyed the fear of failure one. I’m a research-everything-to-death type who spends more time trying to read every blog to find the best way to do this or that, thinking that if I want to do something then I want to do it well. When done in moderation that can help a bit but ultimately how will you know until you try it yourself.

    • anne Post author

      I do the same thing about researching everything to death! I figure if I can make something in my head, then it will all go perfectly smoothly, so everything must be decided up front. Which of course doesn’t leave room for playful experimentation or in-the-moment creativity. I’m working on a quilt now that I’ve spent more time thinking about than working on. I finally came up with the “perfect” plan, and once I started it, I realized I wanted to do things differently. But I spent so much time thinking that I don’t have time to change it now!
      So yes. This is a lesson I need to be more comfortable with as well.
      I’m glad you found inspiration in the graphic essays! I apparently need to re-read them. 🙂

  • Kelsey @ Everyday Fray

    Yup, pretty sure I have read and reread this post about 6 times over the past week but it just keeps resonating with me. I relly appreciate you putting it all out there and I know I’m not alone is saying that we all struggle with that same comparison critic. I think this quilt is going to be brilliant and not because you’ve forced yourself to be different or more than you are, but because this just FEELS exactly like how I know you… and honestly regardless of the pattern or design, the moe authentic thing anyone can do is make something that is a piece of themself. Can’t wait to see how this progresses 😀

    • anne Post author

      While I’m glad the post was helpful, I am not glad that you’re struggling with the same things. I did see in your latest post that you’ve been working on battling this particular demon though, and that makes me super happy! 😀
      I really appreciate your encouragement, I really like the idea that the quilt design feels like my style, and that I should be respectful of that. When I first started learning to draw, I was always frustrated that my drawing didn’t look like someone else’s. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to appreciate my own style. I need to extend that appreciation to my quilts, it seems. 🙂

      Thanks again, Kelsey. 🙂