Without knowing what the creative process is like for you, I can tell you there are times that I feel a little traumatized by it. It’s a feeling I get in the middle of a project, when the anxiety builds and I start to panic and suddenly want to run away. It’s crazy, but the creative process can trigger our fight or flight responses. There are moments in the middle of a work that can be debilitating and frightening. And if we get caught up in that place, we can suffer long term effects that cripple our ability to create. However, there are ways to work through the moment. It takes perspective, trust, belief in your vision, and a willingness to stay engaged. That’s how you can survive art anxiety.
Creativity is human work. It calls on us to be emotional, to be passionate, to dare to dream and birth something new into the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s crafted on your kitchen table or propped up on an easel in your studio, creativity takes courage.
“All is Lost.”
When you’re in the midst of the creative process, there comes a time when you lose your objectivity. When you’re immersed in your work and you can’t tell what the end result will be. You were on a super highway and suddenly you are wandering a barren landscape with a sense of no hope and no direction. You doubt you’ll survive.
The Period of our Greatest Vulnerability
A little dramatic but true too. This is the moment our inner critic seems to go rampaging through our minds gleefully unrestrained. Thoughts bombard us. “What were you thinking? How did you think this was any good? You just wasted time, money, supplies. You were a fool to start and you’re a bigger fool if you continue.” And the Big One, “who do you think you are to dare this?”
The euphoria you felt when you had that flash of inspiration is a stark contrast to the dark place you are now. The self-doubt is crippling. Any project, no matter how big or small, seems to have these moments. Calling it art trauma is maybe a little dramatic, but in the moment, that’s how it feels.
So I had this idea…
Earlier this week I had an idea. An over-the-moon this is going to be SO AWESOME kind of idea. It’s going to be amazing. Super pumped about it, I decided to start right away. I honestly thought this was a one day project.
As one day has turned into three now, I’m starting to doubt myself. My thoughts have been hijacked my inner critic who whispers things like, “I thought it was going to be awesome, but maybe I deluded myself. I get overexcited. Maybe I have no idea. I could finish it and it will just fall flat. It’s maybe not worth it.” Lies! All Lies!
It’s this period of depression and self-doubt that harpoons our creativity. It’s this self-sabotage that prevents an untold amount of discoveries from ever being made, ceilings from shattering, and dreams from coming true. It’s when we’re most likely to give in and give up. It’s why we stop trying to make anything at all.
True, we get to walk away and that stops the immediate hurt. But there is nothing more discouraging than running half a race and then turning around and heading home. It’s more demoralizing than running the race and then losing. Quitting in these circumstances doesn’t make you feel better, it makes you feel worse. It will cripple your creativity.
So how do you do you survive those moments of acute anxiety? Take a deep breath and then do these four things.
How to Survive Art Anxiety: Four Things You can Do
- Step back and get some perspective.
- Trust in yourself and in the process.
- Keep your vision in mind.
- Stay engaged.
Take a step back and get some perspective.
How many times in life have you walked to the edge of what you knew was there only to see a vista open up before you? When we create, we get tunnel vision. We can’t see beyond our emotions, and we start to judge our worth based on our work. Or we became so attached to what we’re creating that we can’t see it. We overinvest in it.
When I was in art class in college, I had a teacher that would call for breaks and make everyone put down their charcoal. We would then walk around the room and look to see what everyone else was doing.
What that did was it forced us to look at the still life we were drawing from other people’s perspectives. It’s like cleansing the palate in the middle of a tasting. It also made us walk away from our work. A short break was all I needed to disengage, step back, and get some perspective. Often I would walk back to my easel with new clarity on what I needed to do next.
Trust in yourself and the process.
Talking to my mom recently she said that she doesn’t think she’s ever made art that wasn’t hard at some point. Somewhere in the creative process, you will come to a point where you feel you lost your way. At that moment all you can do is trust that you’ll come through it. It helps in recognizing that this isn’t unusual. I can usually tell myself to just do the next thing. I don’t know where this will go, but if I continue to take steps I’ll end up somewhere.
Love this quote by Steve Jobs on this subject.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”Steve Jobs
Keep your vision in mind.
What was it that had you so excited to start? Remembering what it was that made you feel like it was worth it to begin will help you persevere til the end. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Was it the idea of holding in your hand what you saw in your mind? Or of presenting the perfect handmade gift to show someone how you feel? Maybe it was simply an idea that you know would kill it on Facebook if you could only figure it out. Or perhaps it’s the idea of a product that could jumpstart a business that could maybe someday let you retire from your 9-5. Keep dreaming and you’ll keep going.
Whatever your dream, if you don’t persevere you’ll never reach it. The one day project that turned into three and counting? I’ll fist pump a success only to move on to the next step and have it fail miserably. A step forward, a step back, regardless of the direction – keep moving. I wrote a post on the benefits of risking failure as a creative. No matter how many dead ends you encounter, with each one, you can cross off one more possibility. Eventually, you’ll find the path.
It also helps to have a project plan. One that maps out the steps as you envision them. You may not be able to move forward on the design but you could take today to go get the supplies you think you’ll need. Or if you’re in need of inspiration, take time to research similar projects or visit a museum and immerse yourself in the visual.
How I plan to survive art anxiety.
So even right now, when I’m in that awful middle of the project, I’m going to trust that this was the right thing to do. Maybe it won’t end up being as crazy amazing as I first thought. But I’ll never know if I don’t try. I’m choosing to believe that when I’m done I’ll have something I can hold in my hand and feel happy about. That it will all work out, and it will all be worth it. And that someone out there really needs to know how to do this exact thing (tutorial coming soon). There is worth and value in what you do. Not just for yourself but for others too.
Shelving it isn’t quitting it.
Just to clarify: as long as you haven’t given up on something, you’re still engaged and moving forward on it. How often did you search for something as a kid only to find it when you weren’t looking? It’s the same premise. Often we can beat ourselves up trying to figure out the next step forward when we could have just set it aside for a while and let the journey happen organically.
Do you need creative help?
What are you struggling with creatively right now? And does the phrase “art anxiety” resonate at all? How do you move forward when you feel frozen with fear? Got some snappy comebacks for that nasty inner critic? I’d love to hear them! You can comment below the post or share them on my Facebook page.
As a way of encouraging you in your creative journey I have both an SVG and PDF file of the Matisse quote above. I’d love to have you download it for free from my Creative Resource Library!
For more inspiration.
I found the best book today. It’s titled Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk And Other Truths About Being Creative by Danielle Krysa. I heard her on a Do Quit Your Day Job podcast lately and she has a great story to tell. It’s all about jealousy, self realization and personal triumph. And about how opening ourselves up to creating art can traumatize us. But she doesn’t use that term. I think I made it up. Feel free to use it though. Maybe it will catch on!