I am an artist afraid to practice because each effort must be a masterpiece inspiration extinguished under the weight of violent, consistent self-criticism Repulsed by the bitter taste of trail and error searching for a sure formula for success unable to reconcile the necessity of an amateur's imperfect products I marvel at the innocence the way a child creates with an open heart with no concern for mastery or exceptionalism content with whatever comes Surprising their own curiosity the natural progression of true talent disguised in the simple joy of creation itself satisfied to make anything at all
For months now every time I sit down to write, I am overcome with a deep piercing pang of unworthiness. I heard someone say the other day that creating starts with believing that you have something worth sharing. This struck a chord within me. Maybe once I felt I had valuable input, interesting concepts to put forth into the world, but now? Now I feel empty. The longer I spend trying to come up with an idea, the worse I feel about myself as a writer, as a person.
Again and again this idea has been reinforced. I have nothing worth sharing. I’m embarrassed by the assumption that I might. I feel ashamed of the blank page in front of me, reminding me that I’m not enough. That blinking black line on an ocean of white is agonizing. What could be more painful than plumbing the depths of your soul and finding nothing?
This intense internal pressure never reaches a breaking point. There is no release from this ever tightening grip of anguish. Why does this vague desire to pour out my soul in colorful, living form not subside? When I try to pin down the essence of that longed for expression, there is nothing but smoke and shadow. There is nothing but a looming sense of emptiness, dusty bare walls of an empty room.
Rise to the Challenge
I have met tons of people that identify themselves as competitive. I’ve been told that is a natural part of human nature, and I suppose all living things must have a certain competitive drive in order to survive. I, myself, however, have never considered myself competitive. I’ve never been very interested in sports or even playing cards or board games. There is nothing inside of me that drives me to win. Winning a game or a sport means little to nothing to me. Yet losing still makes me feel badly about myself. Therefore there is really no benefit to me participating in competitive activities.
I’ve wondered about this aspect of myself since I became aware of it. I do think a lot of it stems from social anxiety, but there is another aspect I think might be relevant. Growing up as the youngest sibling, you learn pretty fast that the chances of you winning anything or outperforming your older sibling are slim to none. I got used to always losing every single game we would play growing up. One particular incident stands out where I was playing “Mouse Trap” with my sister and grandmother. When I lost I was so distraught and unwilling to surrender my cheese game piece that I cried and shut myself up in my room. From all of these experiences, I think I have internalized the idea that challenge and competition inevitably means failure and disappointment. This has become so ingrained in me that I feel no more likely to win games of chance than I do ones that involve skill.
To this day, I still don’t enjoy playing games at parties (drinking games are a bit more acceptable) and even the video games I play are much more about casual, steady progress and creativity than winning and losing or being challenged. Until recently this was all the further I really thought about this mindset of mine. So I don’t like games very much, that’s no big deal. I dug no deeper into the matter.
The other day, however, I realized just how much this aversion to challenge has skewed my entire worldview. After all, competition and challenge is something that we all encounter each and every day in our careers, in our relationships, and even within ourselves. How you choose to perceive and respond to these challenges has a huge impact on your self-perception and your overall quality of life. Only very recently did it occur to me that not only do I anticipate failure in games, but in the challenges I face in life as well. I’ve come to view any type of challenging situation as inherently negative, foreshadowing only failure and embarrassment, never as an opportunity for self discovery or personal growth.
I think one of the ways I can start to change this mindset, is by allowing myself space to fail. There was a wonderful example of this practice in the yoga class I did yesterday. Vrikshasana or tree pose, as well as all the other balancing poses in yoga, are a great place to start playing with this. Once a balancing posture becomes second nature and relatively easy to hold, it’s time to start pushing the limits of our balancing ability. Often a cue is given to try closing your eyes. If you’ve never tried this, it is exceptionally difficult to maintain your balance with the eyes closed. Normally, I ignore this option. I inevitably fall out of the pose and get upset with myself.
Yesterday the cue was given in a slightly different way though. Because of this, I was able to let go of the expectation or even the goal of maintaining my balance perfectly and staying in the pose for any length of time with my eyes shut. It wasn’t about how long I could manage to stay still, but simply what it would feel like to try. Once I released the pressure of perfecting the pose, I actually was able to do better at this challenge than I ever have been in the past. Not only that, but I didn’t feel any irritation or disappointment when I did fall out of the pose.
Whether you enjoy challenges or not, the fact is that you are going to be faced with them regularly. It’s not an option to avoid all challenge for the rest of you life. Rather than trying to avoid challenges, perhaps we can try to look at them in a different, healthier way. Sometimes it even helps me to imagine what it would feel like to be someone that is competitive or excited by the idea of being challenged. Despite my initial reaction, I do admit that there is a certain pleasure and even peace in being challenged. When I’m doing something new or difficult, I am usually more focused than usual. And the only thing I really have to fear is my own self criticism.
In order to let go of the outcome and my expectations for myself, I find it helpful to start off by viewing failure as a likely and acceptable option. It’s almost more pleasurable if I assume I am going to fail from the beginning. Success or failure was never the point most of the time anyway. The point of life isn’t to do everything perfectly all of the time or even most of the time. Life is about trying new things, being curious, and growing through adversity. Failure is a natural part of these things and what’s most likely holding us back from them. Once we realize that we have the choice to live happily with our mistakes and failures we can finally be free to explore and blossom as we were meant to.
Talent & Creativity
The older I get the more saddened I am by how few people seem to have their own artistic or creative hobbies. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard people admitting with downcast eyes that they “can’t sing.” Even I struggle with the idea of dancing in front of anyone else, and until recently even when I’m alone. I don’t remember where I heard this, but I’ll never forget it because it made such an impression on me. A reporter went to a tribal community for a documentary. The tribe was having a festival of sorts and wanted the reporter to join them as they sang. When he told the leader that he couldn’t sing, they stared at him perplexed. This was such a strange concept to them that at first they assumed me meant he was physically incapable of singing. It hadn’t occurred to them that what he really meant was, I’m not a good enough singer.
As children we didn’t stop ourselves from doing things because we weren’t as good as celebrities or others in our lives. Kids sing and dance and draw and create endlessly. It’s one of the most special parts of human nature. Somewhere along the line, we became ashamed though. We’ve gotten it into our heads that we don’t deserve to spend time and energy on these things unless we are “talented.” (Whatever that means.) So often when I show other people my drawings they respond with, “wow, I wish I could draw.” Sometimes they’ll even recount to me how much they loved to draw as a child. This is so heartbreaking to me, partially because I understand the feeling.
My sister is a wonderful artist. At the height of her painting career, I had already moved away from drawing, but certainly wouldn’t have felt it worthwhile anymore comparing myself to her artwork. Eventually she stopped painting all together though for another reason entirely. Her reason wasn’t that she wasn’t good enough, it was because she couldn’t make a living painting. This is the other side of the same problem. We either think we aren’t good enough, or that it isn’t worth it if we aren’t able to monetize our work. I have to suspect that our capitalistic culture is to blame for these absurd notions we all seem to share.
Even though I’ve been making a point to write and draw every single day for over a year now, I am still constantly battling my own self-doubt. There are definitely far more days where I create something I deem mediocre than days where I impress myself, but it’s important to remember that each of those days holds the same value. Art and creativity aren’t about being superior to others or making money. These endeavors are not limited to an exalted few. They are an essential aspect of human nature. We were made to create. There is no such thing as “talented” or “untalented.” It’s all a matter of perspective. The more you practice, the better you will inevitably become, but even that isn’t my point. My point is that it doesn’t matter.
Whether you believe what you create is “good” or not, keep creating! Art isn’t about comparison and metrics and measurements. We all contain a deep well of creative energy that we allow to stagnate from disuse. And if you find yourself still shaking your head thinking “I’m just not creative” imagine a crayon drawing given to you by a child. I feel most of us have had this experience or at least can imagine it. When I got a bit older, I thought adults must have just pretended to like my pathetic scribbles and misshapen forms. However, now as an adult myself, who is often the proud recipient of such art, I understand that my parents and teachers really did love what I created all those years ago. Art has the power to make people happy, to make you happy, if you let it. And it has nothing to do with how professional or perfect it is. Art is about who made it, not the final product.
I always think back to a little character my friend drew a few years ago while we were playing a game. She never does anything creative anymore, although she used to draw just as much as I did when we were kids. She was embarrassed to reveal this little doodle to me, but even all these years later, I think back on it and smile. It was so incredibly adorable (yet so far away from what she was “supposed” to draw for the game.) It brought me so much joy. It wasn’t just the drawing itself either. It was the fact that this wonderfully unique little creature had come out of the mind of my dear friend. Anything creative is a glimpse into the private mind of the creator, and that is where its value truly lies.
The saddest part of this whole cultural predicament is that our deeply ingrained beliefs about productivity, creativity, and talent leave a lot of us disillusioned with art all together. I want to say, if you like doing something, do it, whether you’re “good” at it or not. But that isn’t enough. The joy of creating has been tainted by these critical thoughts, so much so that I lot of us don’t enjoy creative pursuits. After all why would you enjoy something that makes you feel inferior and “untalented”? For this reason, I would encourage everyone to make an effort to integrate more creative hobbies into their daily routine, whether you think you’ll enjoy it or not. Just do it as an experiment. You may surprise yourself. At the very least, you’ll be giving your right brain some much needed exercise.
One of the hardest things about perfectionism is determining whether or not you struggle with it. There are certainly people who describe themselves as perfectionists, but I think a vast majority don’t recognize themselves as such. I definitely identify with a lot of the characteristics of perfectionists, but have an extremely hard time describing myself as one. Only recently did I learn that this is quite common.
Even if everyone around you recognizes you as a perfectionist, you might not see it in yourself. For me, it doesn’t feel like an accurate description because I am so imperfect. It feels foolish to say I’m a perfectionist when I am so highly critical of myself and everything that I do. Yet that is simultaneously one of the aspects of perfectionism. I suppose the main issue, in my mind, is that a perfectionist is someone who is nearly perfect in all that they do. But I don’t think I would ever consider anything I’ve done or anything about me to be “perfect.” I wouldn’t even say that I strive for perfection, because I genuinely don’t believe myself to be capable of it. To me it feels like I am just trying to be adequate. My standards are just higher than what a lot of other people’s might be, or so I’m told.
A few of the qualities of perfectionists are: all-or-nothing thinking, being highly critical, fear motivated, having unrealistic standards, being hyper focused on results, sensitive to criticism, tendency towards procrastination, and low self-esteem. I identify with every single one of these characteristics and see how they would apply to a perfectionist, but still I feel too flawed to be one myself. And that’s part of the problem. I don’t believe myself to be a high-achiever or acknowledge in a practical sense that my standards and expectations for myself may be unrealistic. It is extremely hard for me to relax and let go.
From the outside, I would agree that perfectionists need to be less rigid and try to be more easy going, accepting that they are already doing more than enough, I don’t feel that same advice applies to myself. “Well I can’t relax,” I think, “If I stop pushing myself, I’ll devolve into an even worse person than I am right now!” This is where that sense of being pushed by fear rather than pulled by aspirations comes in. When I make a goal for myself, my mind focuses more on the anxiety of not achieving my goal instead of the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing it.
In fact, no matter what I accomplish, I never feel much satisfaction from it. If I finish 9 out of 10 things on my to-do list, I don’t pat myself on the back for the majority being finished. I fixate on the one that I wasn’t able to get to. And I feel like I could have done a better job on the other 9. I notice this a lot when I’m cleaning my house. Vacuuming and sweeping the floors feels pointless (even though I still do it every other week) because all I think about as I’m going through my house is all of the other things I don’t have time to clean and organize. I feel overwhelmed by the mountain of things I can’t find time to address rather than giving myself credit for what I am doing well.
It is this very desperation for perfection and control that led me down the road of disordered eating. My body is one of my main areas of distress. Despite all of the wonderful, attractive qualities I have, they mean nothing to me in the face of my perceived flaws. It feels impossible to change them or accept them. Instead I try to avoid and disassociate from my own body most of the time.
I don’t know where this toxic mindset began. Often it stems from having high expectations placed on you by family when you are young. Some children grow up believing that if they are not perfect then they will not be given the love and support that they need. Deep down, I do feel unworthy of the love and consideration I receive, but I don’t recall anyone besides myself ever making me feel that way. My parents were always very supportive and did not pressure my sister or I to perform at any particular level. I am harder on and more critical of myself by far than any other person I’ve encountered in life has been. It seems like everyone in my life has always been very impressed by me and what I’m capable of, except me, that is.
I’m still learning how to obtain that one most illusive love, my own. I hope I am finally able to find it in 2022. I feel closer than I ever have before at least. I just have to keep reminding myself that flaws and mistakes do not disqualify you from happiness and love. I don’t need to wait until I prove myself in order to give myself those things. I deserve them just as I am now. We all do.
Giving Yourself Credit
As I was driving to work the other day, I couldn’t stop beating myself up for all the things I wanted to improve, but was still struggling with. Then I realized something, I’ve come so far in the last few months. Not very long ago, I would have been smoking two cigarettes on that half-hour drive to work. Now, I hardly even have any interest in smoking my vape. Some days I completely forget about it until late in the evening.
I started thinking about how rarely I give myself credit for the things I do accomplish. Once I reach a goal, there is never a moment of celebration. I go straight on to the next goal. I switch automatically from criticizing myself over one thing to criticizing myself over something else. In the back of my mind, I always think I’ll be happy, I’ll be able to congratulate myself once everything is perfect, once I’m perfect. It’s hard to acknowledge that that “perfect” moment, that “perfect” me, will never exist. There will always be things I want to work on and aspects of myself that I want to improve. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be proud of where I am right now.
This time last year, I was a heavy smoker, I was deep in the grips of an eating disorder, I was more depressed and anxious than perhaps any other time in my life. I have made so much progress since then. More than I ever thought I would be able to. I had nearly lost all hope of redemption. Now it’s been months since I’ve bought a pack of cigarettes. Not only have I been recovering from my eating disorder, I’ve been practicing mindful eating. My mental health overall has improved so much that I’ve even started taking a lower dose of my anxiety medication. Soon I am going to be dropping it down again, and hopefully will be able to wean myself off of it completely in the next few months. I’ve also taken my art to the next level by buying myself an electronic drawing tablet so I can more easily edit my drawings. Despite my initial fear of failure, I’ve gotten surprisingly good at using it.
All of these things are incredible achievements that I deserve to acknowledge and take pride in. I may not always meet my goals as quickly as I plan to, but I keep trying anyway. I am always working to improve myself and my life. My commitment to the effort alone is worth being proud of.
I don’t think I’m alone in this hesitancy and difficulty regarding giving myself credit for the good things I do. From a young age, many of us are taught to be humble. And while that may be a virtue, it’s also important to be able to acknowledge your talents and accomplishments. Not only will that make a significant difference for your mental health, but it will also make it easier for you to keep pursing your goals. If you never allow yourself a moment of rest to appreciate all you’ve done, how can you expect yourself to maintain motivation to continue moving forward?
Today, give yourself the gift of self-reflection. Particularly, try to reflect on all of the positive changes you have been able to make in your life. Just for today, try to focus on the things you’ve done or are currently doing well. Remember that it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress. The things you still want to work toward will be there waiting for you tomorrow. Today you deserve to rest and enjoy how far you’ve come.
What are some of the lies that you tell yourself? Maybe they don’t even seem like lies to you. We all have a personal narrative. It is probably unknown by those around us and maybe we ourselves have a hard time recognizing what that narrative is. After all it never feels like a story we are creating. Most of the time that inner voice talking to us seems like an honest assessment and observation of reality, no matter how cruel or warped it may actually be. But this story only has as much power as we give to it. All stories have the potential to be interpreted in a completely different way if we only allow our minds to open to the possibilities.
One of the lies my inner voice loves to use is: I can’t be nice to myself, not while I’m such a train wreck at least. I have to be mean and critical of myself in order to motivate myself to do better. Otherwise I would never do anything or make any progress in my life. Up until yesterday, I never even questioned that narrative. Even when I tried to rationalize or reason with it, it was more about how to prioritize self love and self compassion over personal progress towards my other goals. I was still working within the lines of the false narrative I’d been feeding myself.
Then I heard someone talking about that very narrative from a different perspective. I was initially just relieved to realize that other people told themselves similar stories. The best part was that moment of clarity when this person explained why this story is laughable on its face. So if you are someone who tells yourself the same type of story, take a moment to really think about it with me. Remember when you were a child? If not, do you see how children in your adult life behave? Do those children seem unmotivated? Were you unmotivated? Of course not! Children are full of energy and curiosity and motivation and enthusiasm. Do you think they need a harsh, demanding inner voice to be that way? Did your harsh inner voice even exist within you when you were a child? I know mine didn’t and I was much happier and quite frankly, more productive, back then.
All along I was buying into the false dichotomy my inner voice was offering me. Be mean to yourself or surrender your goals and aspirations for yourself. Even in that scenario, it wouldn’t be worth continuing to not love myself in exchange for being successful. I was having a hard time convincing myself of that though. It is such a relief to know that I don’t even have to choose one over the other. Being kind to myself isn’t going to turn me into a lazy blob with no aspirations or motivation. It will probably even do the exact opposite. Just imagine how much more energy I’d have to work toward what I want to be working toward if I wasn’t using it all up being anxious and/or angry with myself all the time.
I feel so much freer after realizing the absurdity of just that one lie my inner voice was preaching. I’m sure there are many more false narratives in my head to unravel. The next time my inner voice is telling me something that makes me feel badly about myself, instead of just accepting it as fact, I want to challenge it. If it’s too hard to disengage from in the moment, it might also be a good idea to simply write down what your inner voice is telling you in that moment. Then once you’ve gotten some space from the situation, you can come back and take a look at what you wrote down. I hope we can all learn to listen to our own inner voice in a neutral, passive way so that we may learn something new about ourselves and hopefully discover new ways to improve our lives and our relationship with ourself.
The Fear of Mediocrity
I like creating because it fills an emptiness that used to be there. It’s so simple, and so lovely, that humans are like this. That we want to build with our hands. That we want to assemble and construct. That we derive joy from stacking pieces together, and stringing words together, and assembling colors on a page, and moving, and singing, and baking and knitting. Humans love to build little worlds around them.Unknown
This quote is just a segment of a long post I read on Tumblr this morning about the fear of mediocrity. It was so cathartic to realize that other people struggle with their creativity in the same ways that I do. I identified so much with what this person wrote. I can remember criticizing my own art for as long as I’ve been creating it, even back when I was a child. Nothing I drew or made was ever “good enough” despite the fact that I had always been praised by the adults around me. My sister and I both always performed above the developmental level of other children at our age, especially when it came to drawing and art. But given that my sister is three years older than me, I still compared myself to her and felt that I wasn’t good by comparison.
I allowed this self-criticism to stifle my creative energy for many years of my life. That fear of failure can become crippling. It keeps you from trying new things. It holds you back from the hobbies you love, but aren’t “exceptional” at. I still remember reading something before that was talking about the way other cultures find it odd when people from America for instance say they “can’t sing.” What we mean to say is we don’t sing well enough to be comfortable doing so. But this idea is simply bizarre in other places in the world. Singing is just a natural part of being human. Just as all birds sing, all humans are capable of song as well. So why not allow ourselves to? The same can be said for dancing, writing, drawing, building, etc. All of these creative endeavors are a natural part of human existence. It is terribly sad that the vast majority of us seem to cut ourselves off from our own creative drives out of shame or fear.
If I only had a nickel for every time someone told me that they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible. It truly breaks my heart to hear that. Yoga isn’t about doing fancy, impressive poses or having a perfect, flawless body. Yoga is a spiritual act of self-love. Yoga is about presence and healing and showing up for yourself as you are. Yoga is a beautiful journey inward, a dance with your own soul. I’m tearing up right now just imagining how many people have denied themselves the right to practice yoga because of how they look or the real/perceived limitations of their bodies. I was nearly one of those people myself.
I can only imagine that this strange and sad phenomenon has gotten worse with the advent of the internet. It has certainly made me feel worse about my own creations. Before the internet, I may have seen incredible anime or animal drawings in books or something, but even though these images were far out of my league, it never bothered me on a personal level. The people who contributed to these books were much older than me, I could tell myself. They are professionals. It is their job to draw. There is no need to compare myself to them. However, now with Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, DeviantArt, Pinterest, etc. we are able to see the best of the best from people around the globe that aren’t necessarily older than us, or professional artists. For some reason this is much harder to cope with.
DeviantArt particularly was a place I used to love to visit. At first I was inspired. How incredible it was to see the vast amount of amazing artwork regular people like me were creating and sharing with the world! But soon it became more about how far away my skills were from theirs. I started to feel that I would never be able to create anything as good, so I should just stop all together. It made it hard to find the fun in drawing anymore.
Even though for the past year I’ve been working to incorporate creativity into my everyday life again, I still struggle with this fear of mediocrity. I constantly have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter at all how good my art is compared to other people. It doesn’t even matter if what I drew yesterday is better than what I’ll draw today or tomorrow. It is the act of creation itself that matters. It is the beauty of making something where there was once nothing at all. That alone is something to marvel at, something to be so grateful for being able to do. Everything else is just a distraction, a misdirection, insignificant chatter of the mind.
I don’t write these posts to be the best writer in the world, or even a good writer, to be honest. I do it because I am a writer. I like to write. It brings me joy. And that’s enough. I don’t draw to compete with anyone else, even the person I was the day before. I don’t do it to make money or to prove something to anyone else or myself. I do it because I am human. I do it to manifest my unique, miraculous consciousness into the world. Because we are all here to create, no matter our skill level or medium. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that you are not good enough, especially yourself.
Practicing Self-Compassion and Loving-Kindness
The past few days I have been reading a book by Christopher K. Germer PhD entitled The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions). I am only half-way through the text but already it has created some lasting impressions on me. The author delves into explaining more thoroughly one aspect of mindfulness and meditation that had always been obscure and quite challenging for me. This is the idea that you must learn to accept and sit with negative feelings and emotions as well as positive ones.
In the back of my mind during my practice this idea has always been there stagnating. I wanted to be able to accept my more difficult emotions but not knowing how to go about doing that, I ended up just trying to ignore and push away those feelings. When I wasn’t able to get around them or keep them from the forefront of my mind I would end up feeling hopeless. I began criticizing and became disappointed in myself for my lack of control.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion is slowly showing me how to better deal with these harder to swallow feelings. It was comforting to know that others are struggling with the same pesky negativity, regret, anxiety, shame, anger, and fear that I was. I know that burying these negative feelings or worse yet, piling on more negative self-talk when they arise only creates more suffering, but I didn’t know how to prevent it. This book is teaching me how to respond to these difficult moments with self-compassion instead of self-criticism.
Until reading this book it never really occurred to me that that was an option. I felt a sudden release of tension when I came across this advice as if a bubble just burst or I took a deep breath after being underwater for so long. It is so much easier to turn toward myself than to turn away. I guess until now I had always thought it was selfish or silly to feel compassion for myself when I get frustrated or anxious. I thought that would make me weak, that it’d be like babying myself. In the past, I was only able to illicit this type of response from myself in the most dire of circumstances, when I felt I truly had no one. Now I can see that it is the only way to truly move on from negative feelings big or small.
Earlier today I noticed my chest getting tight as I thought about someone I intensely disliked. Normally that would have started a cascade of justifications in my inner dialogue. I would have been mulling over the reasons this person deserved my hatred and all the different ways they were an inconvenience to my day. Instead of engaging in those thoughts, this time I stepped back from my anger. I felt the negative way my body physically felt in response to this emotion and I comforted myself. I thought quietly in my head, “I am sorry that you are feeling this way, Rachel.” And just like that I felt better. It was truly inspiring.
I know that these things take years to fully become enmeshed in our consciousness, but I already feel so motivated to practice these new skills. The last few days I have been working on loving-kindness meditation instead of just mindfulness meditation. It has renewed my passion for my practice. I truly look forward to spending those brief fifteen minutes each day to give myself unconditional love and support. It has been so rejuvenating that I’ve even contemplated increasing my sitting time or resolving to meditate more than once a day.
I hope that you will check out Christopher Germer’s book for yourselves. It is definitely worth the read. Now I am able to respond to myself with gentle awareness and compassion not only in times of intense despair but in small moments I notice myself struggling with throughout the day. I cannot wait to see where this insight in my practice takes me. I hope that you will join me on this path to inner peace and loving acceptance of self. I am sending you all the love and encouragement I can offer, and I am also finally offering the same to myself. ♥