This week we start a five-week series looking at artistic anxiety.
The creative process, the creative personality, and living the artist’s life all generate a substantial amount of anxiety. The sources of all this anxiety are many: the need to go into the unknown to create, a chronic lack of self-confidence, the difficulty of marketing work and building a career, the need for a day job to pay the bills, a crisis of meaning when you doubt the value of adding another photograph or another watercolor to the millions that already exist, and many more.
Further, an artist’s identity and ego are wrapped up in how well he creates—and when what we do matters that much, we naturally get anxious. It’s one thing to sing in the shower and another thing to agree to sing at your daughter’s wedding: so much more feels on the line then! Second, the creative process demands that we don’t know until we do know: it is a voyage into the darkness of an unknown place where our images reside. Many artists want to know right now, even before they begin: they want a kind of guarantee that they’ll succeed. But such a guarantee just isn’t available—which produces anxiety.
There are many other reasons, too—enough to make anyone sweat! There is the anxiety of facing a blank canvas and fearing that you have nothing to say or that you have something to say but won’t say it well. There is the anxiety that comes with putting yourself “out there” and risking criticism and rejection. There is the related anxiety known as performance anxiety that afflicts almost everyone—just think of how you feel when you talk to a gallery owner or a collector. There is the anxiety associated with relinquishing control, with making choices (the creative act being one choice after another)—innumerable anxieties arise as you try to create, as you try to find an audience for what you create, and as you live the steep ups and downs of the creative life.
In order to create and in order to deal with all the anxiety that comes with creating, you must acknowledge and accept that anxiety is part of the process, demand of yourself that you will learn—and really practice!—some anxiety management skills, and get on with your creating and your anxiety management!
An important first step in dealing with all of this inevitable anxiety is making a certain attitude choice. You can choose to be made anxious by every new opinion you hear about your art or you can choose to keep your own counsel. You can choose to be over-vigilant to changes in your environment and over-concerned with small problems or you can shrug such changes and problems away. You can choose to involve yourself in every controversy or you can choose to pick your battles and maintain a serene distance from most of life’s commotion. You can choose to approach life anxiously or you can choose to approach life calmly. That is your choice—though you may need to practice your new choice a lot in order to make it a reality!
A second important step is doing an improved job of appraising situations. Incorrectly appraising situations like a conversation with a gallery owner or a visit from a collector as more important, more dangerous or more negative than they in fact are raises your anxiety level. You can significantly reduce your experience of anxiety by refusing to appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they are.
Third, your lifestyle supports calmness or it doesn’t. When you rush less, create fewer unnecessary pressures and stressors, get sufficient rest and exercise, eat a healthy diet, take time to relax, include love and friendship, and live in balance, you reduce your experience of anxiety. If your style is to always arrive chronically late, to wait until the last minute to meet deadlines, and to live in disorganization, you are manufacturing anxiety. How much harder will it be to deal with the creative anxiety in your life if your very lifestyle is producing its own significant anxiety?
Given that anxiety is an inevitable part of the creative process, isn’t creating and living the artist’s life a roller-coaster ride of emotions? Yes, it is! But if you want to create, you have to a buy a ticket for exactly that ride. Rather than strenuously defending yourself against the experience of anxiety, an effort that will prevent you from taking the kinds of risks that the creative process and the creative life demand, you must accept that anxiety is part of your early warning system against danger and you must learn to deal with it rather than trying to avoid it or deny it.
If you strive to acquire a more detached, philosophical attitude, work to get a grip on your mind so that you create less anxiety, and master a few anxiety management tools (I’ll describe them shortly), you will dramatically reduce your experience of anxiety and more effectively handle the portion that remains.
More next week!
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