@TessaW I don't compare the experience of the live critiques with other contests, but I know that this is much more public than they usually are. If a jury chooses, it is private, and there is no commentary most of the time about why some make it and why some don't.
What I compare it to is the classroom critiques I had when I was in design school 20 years ago. Those were brutal. Critiques in classrooms can be a public assessment of your skills and not healthy for building the kind of confidence some need. Some people thrive on this, but I needed more privacy. It was not a contest, but it always clear who the 'winner' was, yet each piece got attention and ideas for improvement. There was also the important component of talking about your piece, explaining what you were trying to achieve. I know very well how that environment affected me; I was not ready for it, and I was not mature about it.
I participated in all the live critiques except today's this year, and December's (iirc) was exactly when it had changed to voting. If you look at some of the old critiques on SVS, they have full draw-overs and none of it feels like a competition. Or, if it does, the competition is the one the artist has within their own work. So to me, the format now is something between a classroom critique and a competition by votes, and I will be entering each contest as I am able, and then specifically NOT attending the live critiques. I think the contests are great; I think my tendency to compare myself with others means I can't handle the live sessions yet.
So the contest, as it is now, improves my work each month. Looking at what everyone submits is one of the most amazing parts of it, and we wouldn't be able to see those if it were a more typical contest. I study the entries as much as I can. But I am not ready to attend a contest that is determined by voting because I need to work on understanding what I think of my own work BEFORE I start comparing it to other artist's work.
So @dafoota I would suggest that you make sure you are clear on your own expectations of your work when you create an entry. Yours was beautiful, btw. What do you want to explore that has nothing to do with winning a contest? Your portfolio can be ANYTHING you want! This is such an exciting idea I have sometimes forgotten when I'm desperate for feedback or a particular path. In a traditional class you would have assignments that would need to be done in a certain way with more restrictions, but here, you get the prompt while you're free to pursue anything you might need in your portfolio. You also might want to consider not attending the live critique if it helps you keep going with producing work. Because wondering what the judges want is honestly not going to get you anywhere. I do relate so well to your post here. I have been surprised at how unnerving it can be. If it's a throwback to all the painful critiques I experienced in design school, I guess this is my chance to work through that and get better at it. (seriously the good classes were the ones that had the reputation for making students cry in front of everyone, just the worst!) Right now for me it means setting myself up to do my best work and until i'm more mature about where I see my work going outside of anyone else's expectation, I won't attend the live critique sessions. I can't seem to sit still in a zoom session these days anyway! I also just want to assure you that you're not alone in your frustration, it's hard! But it's a good contest, so I hope you continue entering along with us.