As an artist or maker your creative mind is the most powerful tool you have. Regardless of what you create, what medium you work with and what physical tools you use, the creative mind is rarely settled and almost never inactive. For the most part this restlessness is a positive thing. Your mind occupies itself consuming and transforming inspiration into ideas, visualising processes and the artwork that will emerge. Occasionally however, the creative mind backfires or stalls. Instead of pushing out the steady stream of ideas, it turns in and starts to question itself; ‘is that a good idea?’, ‘am I skilled enough to create that?’, ‘what if it doesn’t work?’, ‘what if I fail?’, ‘what if they don’t like it?’, ‘am I actually an artist?’.
Say goodbye to productivity and hello to creative anxiety.
There could be a million (and one) reasons why you’re suffering but if you take the time to question yourself and dig down to what is causing your anxiety, I’m fairly sure your shovel will eventually hit upon a treasure chest load of fear. This fear could be that you’re just not good enough or that your work won’t be well received and that people will judge you negatively. The chances are it’s not limited to just one of these concerns, it could be all of these doubts and more, tightly bundled in together; each one triggering another.
The good news is that you’re not alone in feeling this way. The bad news is that these fears never go away for long.
You will never believe that you are “good enough” because your imagination and your aspirations will always keep one step ahead of what you can actually achieve… like the proverbial carrot on a stick, perpetually taunting you to reach out and take it. That is how we develop and evolve. Whether you consider yourself a perfectionist or not, some of the tendencies associated with perfectionism (the full on psychological condition that is, not just a drive to get things right!) haunt all creative people in this sense.
Your work will be judged and realistically, not everyone will like it. To ‘err’ may be human but so is to judge; it is a universal instinct in humans. Whereas early man would use this instinct for survival, i.e. is that big, angry bear a danger to me, we use the same mental process to judge everything we encounter in the modern world, including art. This response is almost instantaneous and in the world of social media, all too often uncensored if not very occasionally unhinged in its ferocity… which can feel similar to being mauled by that big angry bear!
For any artist or creative the productivity paralysis caused by such fears is soul destroying but if you’re in the fortunate position of being a full time creative, such paralysis can be terrifying and the problem further exacerbated by the financial implications of being unable to create.
Another anxiety, typical amongst all creative people is the feeling of being ‘a fraud’. It is a fear that you are somehow not qualified to be an artist and that your work isn’t valid as a piece of art. As if you only become a ‘true artist’ if you can tick every box in an imaginary ‘How to spot an Artist’ checklist or are at very least nominated for a Turner Prize.
“There is no checklist to define what makes an artist”
Your lack of self belief leads to fear that you might be discovered as a fraud and held up to example before the baying, rotten-vegetable-hurling masses. This in turn undermines your confidence in the work you produce and can lead you to question whether there is any point in creating anything at all… yet again creative paralysis ensues!
I know for myself that I am susceptible to this too, so I never think or refer to myself as an artist or to my work as art, fearing that if I did I would at best be seen as arrogant and worst as a fraud. I also know that this anxiety usually arises in me when I see other peoples work and compare it to my own. It is far easier to see the artistic value in other peoples work than your own. Subconsciously making this comparison leads you to devalue what you do. You conclude that theirs must be better than your own and, for that matter, better than you could ever hope to create; that they are an artist and you are not.
Let’s get a few things cleared up…
You are not a fraud.
Artists are not gods; they are normal(ish) people no different to you or I.
You don’t have to dress eccentrically, smoke impossibly long french cigarettes and rent a whitewashed aircraft hanger in some swanky part of New York in order to qualify as an artist.
There is no checklist to define what makes an artist.
It is the act of creating that makes you an artist, whether you do so with words, music, clay, paint, pencil, wood or elephant poo (other mediums are available!).
So how do you break out of this paralysis, get your mind back into creative shape and restart your creative productivity?
There are two approaches I take when finding myself in this situation. One is cerebral and the other physical. So let’s break them down accordingly…
Key to mentally coping with creative anxiety is to analyse exactly what it is that is causing it. Anxiety is a cumulative thing. Each negative thought kickstarts another and the fears snowball into a form of panic. This panic disables most other areas of the brain making it difficult to do anything until the cause of the panic has gone away. It is simply the way that our brains are wired and is intended as a defence mechanism. In animalistic terms, when we feel threatened or in danger we need to focus entirely on dealing with the threat, so our mind closes down all other, unnecessary activity. That’s great if you happen to have bumped into that big angry bear again but not so great if it’s caused by creative anxiety. After all, the bear will eventually wander off but your self doubt won’t; it has nothing better to do with its time than to torment you.
Self doubt has to be defused.
To do this you need to analyse exactly what it is that is causing your anxieties. Take some time out to sit down and write each of your fears down on paper. The more specific and defined you can be about each one the better. Are you afraid of failing? Are you afraid that people won’t like your work? With each fear written down you can begin to challenge them individually. Question why you feel the way you do and, with as much objectivity as you can muster, look for a solution. De-personalise the process by imagining that you are advising a friend on how to deal with the problem. What would you tell them?
Below each fear, write questions to challenge it, identify examples of times when your fears have proven unfounded and, when you find one, write a solution. Write several solutions…
I’m afraid that I will fail.
- Who decides whether I have failed?
- By what criteria is my failure or success measured?
- Is the goal realistic or am I setting myself up to fail?
- What are the repercussions of failing?
- What is the worst thing that could possibly happen if I do fail?
- What is the best possible outcome of failure?
- I didn’t fail on the ***** project / piece. Or on the ***** one.
- Other people like and enjoy my work.
- Remember that the only sure fire way to fail is to not try.
- I hold myself to higher standards than I expect from anyone else.
My physical approach to breaking through creative anxiety is a reinforcement of the mental exercise we have already covered. It too requires you to change your mindset a little…
The only way to reignite your creativity is to take the pressure out of the equation; to focus entirely on the creative process that you love and remind yourself of what inspired you to create in the first place.
Give yourself a little time in whatever space it is that you normally work, whether it’s in a studio, at the dinner table or in the woods. If possible, make sure no one else is around so that you don’t feel watched or under any external pressure. Now, without making any plans or setting any goals, take up your tools and use them.
Reacquaint yourself with the simple joy of your creative medium.
Make a mess and don’t judge yourself for it.
This is just for you and no one else need see what you make or, for that matter, what you don’t make.
The key is to unlock the the chains that have come to bind your creative process to your creative expectations. The brush still paints, the knife still cuts and the camera still takes pictures even if there is no creative goal or pressure to guide it. Your tools still work and so does your creative process. It is your expectations that have gotten out of shape and out of step.
When you feel ready, take a few moments to think of something very simple that you could make for yourself. Ideally it should be something a bit different from what you normally create but don’t make it creatively challenging and don’t define it too much in your mind before you start. Leave the finished project unformed in your imagination and allow yourself complete freedom to change things as you go along. For me I often just carve a very basic spoon. No flourishes, no fancy detailing, no real design or plan; just a spoon.
Once again, play and experiment. If you make a mistake, declare it a ‘plot twist’ and integrate it into the piece. If you find yourself worrying about it or obsessing over any part of it, stop and start on something different with even less of a plan to guide you. You decide when its finished even if it looks only half complete. The aim isn’t to create something beautiful, shareable or saleable. The aim is simply to create.
As someone that is deeply self-critical, I find myself needing to do this quite regularly. It resets and realigns my creative mind with my creative process. Along the way not only have I carved a dizzying array of odd items, from portraits to candle snuffers, I have also learned some vital lessons about myself and some home truths about creativity. One of the most important lessons being that if you define the criteria for success too stringently then failure is almost inevitable. The other, somewhat more surprising lesson being that failure is a necessary part of success. You have to screw up along the way and you have to be okay with that.
Reset the expectations you have of yourself and remember that failure isn’t the end of the process but a part of it!
Finally I think I’ll leave the last words to a few people far more qualified and intellectual than myself…
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” - Jack Canfield
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.” - J.K. Rowling
“If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.” - Ken Robinson
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” - Thomas A. Edison
“We are all failures - at least the best of us are.” - J.M. Barrie
Thanks for checking out this article (my first blog post!). I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and maybe found something useful to help you in your own creative work.
What do you do to motivate yourself and overcoming creative anxiety? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Please share them in the comments below or on the Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts that accompany this.