Dear Artist: Be Kind to Yourself
by Joey Phoenix
When I see my friends posting about how they are getting all of these brilliant opportunities, like how one of my friends is taking a cross country road trip to meet with publishers and publish his book of art, or another friend has been accepted to yet another gallery show (except that this time it’s solo), or someone else I know recently got hired by a certain arts and nerd core culture magazine based out of Los Angeles, I sometimes get a little discouraged.
Sometimes a lot.
Meanwhile, I’m doing the daily grind, working 16-18 hour days to make up for the days I couldn’t get out of bed and do anything because the crushing weight of living an artistic life sits like a boulder on my forehead and I spend countless hours sighing and thinking that I must be doing something wrong. I convince myself that if I only knew the right people or submitted the application to this location instead of that or if I had gone to film school or photo school or studied English literature then maybe this wouldn’t be so hard.
Or maybe I should’ve been a lawyer after all.
But really, the reason why my life is progressing the way that it is has little or nothing to do with my work ethic, my connections, or my abilities. And so, pummeling myself internally about all the things I didn’t do or the things I did wrong or all of the things I could be doing instead of trying to bring forth new creations from the sometimes barren landscape of my inner psyche…does nothing to help me.
So what should I do instead?
Because nothing is as it seems, especially when it comes to the internet.
We Are All Imposters
“The worst enemy of creativity is self doubt,” wrote Sylvia Plath in one of her many journals, and her observations couldn’t have been more on the nose. She also could have used some instruction in self-kindness, but that’s a story for another day.
I would say that 19 out of 20 of the creative people I talk to (and the 20th person is probably lying) struggle with the sensation known as the Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that every time you get an opportunity or people listen to what you have to say or you achieve something you believe because the people around you haven’t yet figured out that you’re actually a huge fraud.
You’ve been faking it this whole time and now you got lucky but if someone shines the spotlight on you too brightly they are going to see everything. They will put you under the microscope and find out that you never had any real talent, you don’t have any work ethic, and you have no business being there.
But, the thing is, almost everybody feels that way. While you’re terrified that they are going to figure out that you don’t belong, they’re also terrified that you are going to see through them, see how anxious they are.
Since no one wants to openly admit that they feel this way, they work harder to look for ways to cover it up. Feeling like an imposter also makes failure seem more inevitable, like we deserve it, because if we actually succeed the spotlight will just shine brighter.
So when I see the people I’m connected to on Facebook or Twitter have brilliant achievements, I’m exceedingly happy for them (because even if I don’t deserve that kind of success they certainly do), but also it makes me look inwardly. I could work harder, I could do better, I could I could I could…and then the guilt floods in again because I apparently haven’t done enough and nor will I ever (even if I’ve been working around the clock for days, it will still feel like I haven’t made any progress at all).
The thing about this that’s so easy to miss is that each person is living a subjective experience. The public self that is shown is often vastly different from the interior self, because we don’t want anyone to see the times when we feel small or the times we failed or all of the work we had to put in to get to where we are.
The truth is that most “overnight successes” took 10 years at least to get to where they are, but someone who worked incredibly hard for a decade is apparently a less interesting story than the guy who had the world handed to him on a platter molded using engine metal from a Tesla Model S.
Ultimately, we all want to look polished and put together, and we take pride in our ability to fake it so well while on the inside we’re torn up and crumbling. We seek that external validation and attention because it is the one thing we are completely unable to give ourselves. We are unable to look at that face staring back at us in the mirror and say, “You are enough just as you are. Just look at what you’ve done to get here, just think of where you’ll get to if you keep this up.”
We just can’t do it.
But maybe, just maybe we should try.
If instead of looking at our creative peers for that boost of appreciation, what if we were able to give that to ourselves? What if instead of losing whole days to the power of Netflix binge-watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (or House of Cards or whatever, I don’t judge) because dealing with the insurmountable pressure of “if you tried harder you still might not be good enough,” we just tried. Every failure is the key that brings us closer to where we are going, because as Henry Ford explained every failure teaches you one more thing that doesn’t work. And once you’ve figured out what doesn’t work, you are making progress towards the thing that does.
And as you post about the times when things are working for you, some other artist somewhere will be looking at your profile and thinking, “Geez, I will never get there. I will never be as talented/hardworking/well-connected/fill in the blank as this person.” And the cycle will continue, unless you decide to break the cycle and be honest about the times things didn’t work out, but that too is a story for another day.
Look at You, You Did Something
There’s been a meme circulating around for a while called “stickers I should get for adulting.” Sayings like “I paid my bills” and “I did the dishes” are among the pithy sticky backed offerings, and although doing household chores and making sure the power doesn’t go out aren’t things in themselves necessarily worthy of celebrating, the sentiment is clear.
Instead of focusing so hard on all the things you haven’t done, it’s important to recognize the things that you have done. For me, one of those things is submitting applications to juried gallery shows. For some reason, it takes me hours (and sometimes days) to work up the courage to put together the packet of information required with a response to a call for submission. So many questions circulate around in my head during this pre-submission process: What if they laugh at your work, what if your file gets somehow corrupted and they never even look at it, what if you get in but then you catch the plague and can’t get the materials ready for the show, and on and on.
So for the longest time, I wouldn’t even bother submitting anything. The anxiety associated with anything going wrong superseded the reality that maybe things would go right. And in protecting myself from failure, I was also insulating myself from success.
For the most part, I’ve overcome my anxiety of this process by rewarding myself with a vegan cupcake from Jodi Bee Bakes every time I submit an application to anything. To me, it’s a lot better than a simple sticker, but the feeling is the same. Also, a huge difference is the fact that now I’m showing my work from time to time, when before I never was.
Which is an accomplishment, and whether I believe I deserve to be there or not, the people in charge of selecting my work to be part of the show believe I deserve to be there, and that is what matters.
Also, I’m not saying cupcakes can cure anxiety, but the acknowledgment that I did something difficult can make the process go more smoothly.
So in all the times you feel like you don’t measure up to expectations, that at any moment the world is going to crumble around you and send you back to where you started, take a look in the mirror and try to see past your fears. Think about the things you’ve done to get to where you are, imagine the possibilities of where your hard work will lead you, and most importantly, stop being so hard on yourself.
One of the world’s wisest men – Kurt Vonnegut – probably said it best:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - ‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’”
He wasn’t just talking about being kind to others, he was also insisting that you be kind to yourself.
So dear artist (and yes I’m talking to myself here too), be kind to yourself.
Or at the very least, try.