“Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by action alone.” —Thomas Carlyle
From the outside it might appear that I have my stuff together as an artist. I have a semi-cohesive body of work, I have patrons who support me, I have a studio in which to create. But despite all these things and 20+ years of painting, the fact of the matter is when I step into the studio I sometimes find myself face-to-face with a special kind of monster: Crippling Doubt. We’ve gotten to know each other over the years so it’s not so much a monster anymore but more like a scared, unyielding, type-A tyrannical dude who tries to rob me of my potentially creative moment. Doubt thinks it knows something of grave importance. And that is, that I cannot (and must not) paint. Period.
Although I’ve objectified it, the voice of self-doubt comes through my own voice, my own mind. Internally, it can feel like constipation of the creative flow while in the mind shows up as a multitude of thoughts sounding something like this:
“Crap, these aren’t good enough.”
“I’m not a real artist.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“I’m a phony.”
“I have nothing interesting or new to say.”
“Save yourself. Don’t even try.”
And when I give in and listen to those thoughts, I’ll do ANYTHING except paint. That’s when I spend hours organizing my studio or being glued to social media. Or sitting frozen looking at my blank canvases and half-finished paintings. The power of doubt is so great that all these years later it’s still here…No matter how many paintings I complete, no matter how many shows I have or gallery contracts I sign, it still rears its ugly head. It might take a long hiatus (and I might feel liberated by its absence) but at some unexpected time it returns. Sometimes it’s after a vacation or when I’ve been away from the studio. It can even show up at strange occasions, such as after just landing a gallery contract or making a sale, or if I have a big art show right around the corner.
Doubt’s arrival doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why does it keep showing up?
The Misguided Protector
Believe it or not, the self-doubt shows up as an internal protection system–albeit a misguided one. When there is doubt, there is usually a fear that we will be unsuccessful in achieving whatever goal we are setting out to accomplish (If I look closely, I’ll find that I had some kind of expectation around my painting and how it would be received.) And when the mind senses any kind of threat to our ego, it will do what it can to protect us–even if it means keeping us from creating. However, to my knowledge no one has ever died from painting. Someone might have received a bruised ego from harsh criticism, but painting (and even the critiques that can come from painting) absolutely cannot harm you.
Doubt can be like an overbearing parent who would rather that you be safe than to live life. It would rather things be predictable (and boring.) It wants a direct path from point A to point B. But that’s not how creativity works. Creativity is messy and unpredictable and meanders in circles, hits apparent dead-ends, and then opens a secret passage to another level. It has little to nothing to do with the logical mind and requires a relinquishment of control. It can be a journey of highs and lows that unfolds in its own timeframe. To the ego, it can be risky business because essentially it is a process that is beyond the ego’s control. And yet, it’s what our souls long for in a deep way: To create.
I have found just one antidote to creative self-doubt: Just do it. Pick up a paintbrush and make a mark. Find somewhere to start. If you’re frozen in fear, find an entry point into a painting you’ve already started or if it’s a blank canvas or page just make a freakin’ scribble. And for God’s sake, keep moving. Let the doubt be there, but keep making your marks anyway. If you keep going, I can almost guarantee it will dissipate. It might come back later (or turn into judgments about what you’re doing) but that’s when you apply the remedy once more–keep creating. And creating…and creating.
Because once you’re in the flow of painting, you’ve proven the doubt wrong.
It’s when we give in to doubt and ditch the painting or the studio time that we lose. We succumb to the fear and end up with the regret of knowing there was something else we wanted to do but couldn’t. And we’re stuck with the lack of creative fulfillment. Therefore, do whatever you need to do…set a timer and take an hour or two to create regardless of the voice of doubt. In spite of it. If you need to, paint the doubt itself. If the voice had a body, what would it look like? Would it be the image of a past teacher or parent? It is human? Would it be an animal? Paint it, or paint your emotions, or paint ANYTHING. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blob or a scribble or what–just make sure you don’t give in to the voice of doubt. You can even say “Thank you, Crippling Doubt, for your suggestions…but I’m going to keep painting.” Because, like a storm, it will pass. It always does.
Don’t let doubt take your joy or steal your creative fire. You might feel burned out and jaded and just plain exhausted before the next wave of creative grace kicks in. But kick in it will. Stick with yourself. Stand up for yourself. Tell doubt to f*** off, and show it what you’ve got. Creativity is your birthright. You deserve to create. So just do it.