What to do when you hate your work

We’ve all been there: slogging for hours (sometimes days or weeks) over a piece of work that is, surely, set to be your next masterpiece, only to be bitterly disappointed (and dreadfully ashamed of your failures) when it all goes a little bit ‘wrong’.

I was always taught to ‘admit and accept’ that failure is inevitable before even thinking about beginning a new piece of work, be it a painting, a poem or a squiggly diddly doodle. Of course, it is one thing to hear those words and obediently nod along in feigned agreement and understanding, but it is quite another to actually put this acceptance into action when the time comes – your back aches, your eyes hurt, you’re covered in paint and your working environment looks like the aftermath of some kind of earth-shattering explosion. You stand back to view and admire your accomplishments, smiling at first (‘it’s finally over!’), then frowning (‘is it supposed to look like that? What even IS that?’), then sinking to the floor with your head heavy in your lap, as you try and remind yourself there is a point to all of this, and you are actually good at it.

So, I’m probably exaggerating a bit. Ok, exaggerating a lot, but I wanted to get the point across. When you’ve invested effort, self-motivation and belief into something, taking a leap of faith that you can portray exactly what you’re feeling and thinking (even though you may not know what those thoughts and feelings are) into something that has an impact, aesthetically and profoundly, it can be a pretty big blow when, at the end of all that, the only words you can utter are ‘Ew. I hate it. I hate it so much.’

There are ways of dealing with it though, and actually, making work you hate can be a pretty big learning experience. If you continue to make work until your dying days, you are also likely to continue making mistakes resulting in (what you perceive to be) questionable pieces of work. Accepting that also allows you to accept that you have and will make work that you like, maybe even some that you love.

Below is the best advice I can give to anyone facing that very really struggle of wanting to make work, whilst hating everything you produce.

1. Don’t freak out
As outlined above, this kind of devastating blow happens to everyone. How do you know what you like if you don’t know what you hate? Before reaching for the lighter/hammer/other-destructive-tool-of-your-choice, take a deep breath and tell yourself to stay calm. As hard as it might be to squash the tears (or rage, in my case) that bubbles up inside you, squash it and squash it hard. It won’t do you any good this early into what I’m calling, ‘the hate analysis’.

2. Distance yourself
Remove yourself from the scene of the incident. Have you painted a canvas resembling the first piece of work your parents pinned to the fridge? No biggy, turn it around so it faces the other way. Maybe you spent hours creating a detailed drawing in your sketchbook? Easy, shut it. Perhaps you’ve been working on a chapter in your next novel? Shut the computer down, close your notebook and walk away. Only when you are in a different environment is it a good idea to start allowing yourself to be angry or upset. And do let those feelings surface – focus your emotions and thoughts, engage with them and really experience what’s happening. The more you can focus on what you are feeling, the better you will be able to apply the changes required to your next piece of work.

3. Get some perspective 
As you are going over everything in your head, dating back to that time your teacher asked you: ‘Are you SURE you want to study art? Wouldn’t it better to study something a bit more… academic?’ remember to take deep breaths and remind yourself of your accomplishments. Maybe you won a poetry competition, sold something you created or were complimented by a friend on your work? Remembering your successes in light of your recent ‘failure’ can really help you to get some perspective. Now is a good time to remind yourself that, whilst you hate your work and you’re convinced it’s a terrible, embarrassing creation, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Everyone has different tastes – chances are, someone else will probably love it.

4. Evaluate your processes 
Now that you are settled and reassured that your life is not a total failure, it is a good time to evaluate what happened. What do you think went wrong? What is it about the work that you don’t like? Maybe it’s the way you shaded something, or the colours you used. Ask yourself, how important is it that you like the work you make? Can you grow to like it, and appreciate these ‘mistakes’ as you evaluate them? Could you use the colours you don’t like as a chance to explore a new palette or technique? Perhaps your work was going well until a certain point. If so, could you practice the particular technique that caused the trouble before applying it to the next piece of work? Consider your work in relation to your other creations, and in the wider context. Apply constructive criticism to what you’ve created, and look for the positives.

5. Keep a record
As hard as it is to fight the temptation, do not destroy your work. If it helps, keep it in a box/book/cupboard out of sight, but make sure you keep it. Flicking through my sketchbook that contains ok, good, amazing and ghastly creations is the most cringe-worthy thing I think I’ve ever experienced, but I’m glad I’ve kept them all. Going from something I’m happy with to something I hate is like a reality check. It reminds me to keep practicing the things I’m not good at, and puts the good and bad into balance. It may well take a long time to get out of the habit of tearing out pages and immediately painting over canvasses, but every artwork kept is like a record of what you’ve done, thought, felt and experienced. Try to only destroy work when you’re sure you can’t gain any more from it.

6. Get back on the horse (or the easel, sewing machine, or computer…)
Try again. One, or a series of bad works shouldn’t deter you from your creative development. Sure, it will probably be off-putting for a while. Maybe you’ll lose your motivation or you’ll be so wound up in your lack of ability that you’ll begin to hate every piece you ever made. That’s fine, roll with it. In my experience, and from talking to other creatives, those feelings will (eventually) pass. Because actually, making stuff gives you happiness, and even when you hate the outcome, chances are you probably enjoyed the process. Get your mind active and get back in the saddle – you can overcome most challenges with the right attitude.

7. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Although a hard one to master, it’s vitally important that you don’t lay into yourself too much. You’re only human, and everyone makes mistakes. If you’d witnessed a peer slaving over a piece of work, full of passion and enthusiasm only to hate the outcome, how would you treat them? Probably a lot better than the way your treating yourself. Distance yourself, channel your emotions, learn how to overcome problems and start again.

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