How Cold Bucket Criticism Extinguishes Joy and Creativity

In her book, You Don’t Owe Anyone; Caroline Garnet-McGraw tells the story of a “Cold Bucket Experience” when she had just finished her first dance recital as a child. She felt delighted at how well it had gone and was riding the wave of excitement.

Did you ever have a moment when you thought you were OK—doing well, even—and then you felt a cold bucket of water thrown over the experience? Ever stood with other people and pretended to be “fine” when you were drenched in shame inside?

As her parents were capturing the moment with a photo after the dance recital, her mother commented on Caroline’s “melodramatic” impromptu flourish with the microphone stand at the end; “Well, I guess you had to do it your way, huh?”

Caroline writes how her face burned, and her stomach sank.

Cold Bucket Experiences (girl standing at doorway with yellow light inviting her forward)

The Cold Bucket of Shame

Maybe you know that feeling. I know I do. Shame from someone’s words are like a cold bucket of water being poured on the experience.

It’s not necessarily the words themselves. On another day, they might bounce right off. But they’re the wrong words at the right time to penetrate the skin and go deep.

Caroline talks about her response to this moment and how she never wanted to feel that shame again.

These experiences inspire the armour we build around us as we grow up. The things we won’t expose ourselves to for fear of that shame returning.

We try to protect that inner child part of ourselves that we don’t want to be subjected to the pain of those experiences. But when we do that, we cut part of ourselves off. Before long, we stop travelling with the playful, creative bubble of energy that once fuelled our sense of freedom.

A Universal Experience

I created a narrative soundscape inspired by Caroline’s cold bucket story.

I wonder if we all share this story at some level. Of course, we haven’t all had the same experiences, but I imagine most of us have heard the wrong words at the right time.

It might be a judgement that still haunts us. Words that repeat in our mind when we’re about to try something new, in the middle of something enjoyable, or we’ve accomplished something we’re proud of. The words that bring us back down to earth provide a reality check or stop us from getting too big for our boots.

They haunt us because those things were never a real danger.

In reality, we just needed to be free to enjoy the moment, express ourselves with child-like wonder and creative play, and celebrate that experience without being restricted.

Cold Bucket Experiences Catch You Off Guard

These words can come from anywhere and anyone. They open up self-doubt and shame and can lead to crippling self-consciousness and fear of judgement. They might cause perfectionism and an inability to truly express ourselves without filtering it through a lens of what people will think.

Cold bucket experiences can result in impostor syndrome and the feeling that we’re not good enough to belong where we are.

These stories go deep. The armour we build is resilient and heavy.

It’s difficult to think our way out of cold bucket experiences. But the story can change with awareness, patience, and time spent with encouraging people who get it. We can listen out for the cold bucket story.

Where are we protecting ourselves from hearing that message? What is the story preventing us from wholeheartedly giving ourselves?

Reintegrate Child-Like Wonder and Play

We can work with this area without forcing it. Opening ourselves up to the possibility that the part of us stuck beneath that cold water could become re-integrated and a big part of how we travel from here.

That’s what I aim to explore in the soundscape. So I wanted to create something that provides an experience of re-encountering and compassionately being with that part of ourselves. No judgement. No criticism.

We can also use this awareness to remember how our words can profoundly impact other people, both positively and negatively.

Most of the time, cold bucket dippers do it without realising what they’re doing and the lasting impact it might have. They might even think they’re being helpful.

I imagine most of us experience the temptation to rein in, be the voice of reason, or bring down a peg or two when people are bouncing with excitement. But is it essential? And if so, how can it be done in a way that doesn’t burst the balloon?

If this resonates with you, I hope you’ll find this soundscape helpful and inspiring. Then, I’d love you to join us in the forums to share our cold bucket experiences and encourage one another. Talking about them is another big part of inviting awareness and healing.

Join the conversation here