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Often a creative person’s lack of confidence plays itself out as “boundary issues,” that is, as the way she “gives herself away” to other people or as the way she enters into volatile relationships with others.
As artists, we require solitude, probably more than the next person. But we also require human contact, human warmth, friendships, and marketplace advocacy. Life can grow too cold if we live it completely alone and our career suffers if we avoid interactions with the people who might help us and who might appreciate our art. So, although we may consider ourselves introverts and feel happiest keeping ourselves company, we have many interpersonal needs that require our attention—and we want to enter into them from a place of confidence.
How should we relate to our fellow artists, to gallery owners, to potential collectors, to publishers, and to the other people whose cooperation, consideration, and sometimes friendship we seek? By doing a good job of balancing genuine warmth and intimacy with healthy self-protection. It will not pay us to consider other people “the enemy” and interact with them aggressively or defensively, but it will also not pay us to naïvely put our complete trust in our fellow human beings. People can love each other and people can also harm each other. Virtually every shade of interaction, from the kindest to the cruelest, is part of the human repertoire. So we do have to be careful—but we also want to feel confident that our relationships can work.
One painter complained to me that her friends, the organizations where she volunteered her time, family members, and the few gallery owners with whom she dealt regularly took advantage of her. I asked her what her role was in this unfortunate dynamic. She responded at length—but she never really answered. I wondered aloud if her very communication style—the way she had just responded to me—had been developed over time to spare her from saying things directly and clearly. I wondered if she spoke evasively and at length to save herself from saying short, sweet, strong, confident things. She pondered this for a long moment—and then agreed.
She admitted that she had a terrible time saying no to people or directly announcing what she wanted and needed. This inability, which she could easily trace to childhood dynamics, resulted in people walking all over her. In therapy, we might have explored the childhood part at great length; as this was coaching, I went directly to the solution. I asked her to try speaking in sentences of no more than six or seven words and to say in those sentences exactly what she meant.
We role-played a bit. The first issue was the way that her husband, who had recently retired early, kept visiting her in her studio space to chat about inconsequential matters. I asked her to craft a sentence of seven words or less that would communicate what she wanted to say to him: that her painting time was precious to her. Her first efforts were grotesquely long, apologetic, and weak. Finally, after many tries, she arrived at: “I can’t chat much while I’m working.” “Can you say that to him?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “How does that feel?” I continued. “Very, very scary.”
Next we role-played a situation she was having with the fellow who did some printing work for her. He was the only person in her area equipped to do this work and she liked both the work he did and his prices. But he was always inappropriate with her, saying things like “You know, I have feelings for you” and “Most husbands don’t understand their artist wives.” “What do you want to say to him?” I asked. Having just practiced, she was now quicker to respond. “I need you to stop that,” she said. “I am coming here to have prints made, period.” She laughed. “That’s two sentences, and one’s a little long. But that’s the idea, right?” “That’s exactly the idea,” I agreed.
When we say that a person has boundary issues, we mean that he is doing one or another of two inappropriate things: that he is insufficiently protecting his own being or that he is aggressively intruding on others. A constant apologist has one kind of boundary issue; a stalker has another kind. As an artist, you want to be mindful of how you mean to relate to others and opt for the kind of strength that allows you to advocate for your own position and that protects you from the assaults of others.
This is your work; no one else can do this for you. By the stances you take, by the words that you use, by the “vibe” that you give off, you let people know that you will not be anybody’s dishrag. You manifest your confidence by doing a good job at maintaining appropriate boundaries with the people with whom you interact.