Why it Sucks to Be Creative: Swimming in Doubt

I remember giving someone my poem to read. I was in elementary school, or maybe middle school, and I felt like I had just cut out my heart and was waiting for the other person to take a scalpel to it. I fully expected to be humiliated, I felt more vulnerable than I ever had before, I desperately wanted approval and didn’t think anything I could ever make would get me approval. But I also knew I was proud of what I had written, so I handed it over. And I emerged relatively unscathed. I managed to pick someone to read it who would not automatically make fun of me, and even though I mostly felt relieved when it was over, I also felt proud of myself for putting my poem out there to be read.

I think everyone feels anxious when they are presenting something they’ve made or done – a contract, a business idea, a novel, a piece of music. Some fields, though, are more prone to swampy doubtfulness than others. Many fields don’t require much that’s new. When I worked in customer service inputting customer data, I required a way to fend off boredom, but I wasn’t anxious about how my data list would be received. But creative endeavors are, by definition, something new. Something not yet tried and true, not yet proven, not yet safe. And these new creations spark fear and doubt.

Interestingly, even masters of their crafts still feel these doubts. People who have taken 10,000 photographs or played 10,000 concerts or drawn 10,000 pictures still look at what they’ve done and wonder if it’s good enough, if it’s going to be well-received, if it’s really what they wanted it to be, if anyone will like or understand it. People who are just starting out are even more anxious, not having the experience yet to know what works and what doesn’t. I think this means that we can never wait until we reach a place of no more doubts before showing off our work. We will never reach that place, not if we’re human.

I keep rewriting this next part. I think it sounds preachy and new-agey. I also want to give encouragement to people exploring creativity, since it is so bloody hard even for people who love being creative. Please read this knowing I’m both being sincere and feeling doubt about how it will be received!

So how do we survive all the doubt? Our own doubt, the fear of rejection, the anxiety about losing our dignity, all the difficult feelings that go along with creativity? Currently, my main strategy is compassion, followed closely by practice. Practice is important to give me the experience I need to know when something is good or not. To let me get better. To give me confidence that when I perform a thing it will come out the way I expect. And compassion is important to diminish the volume of all the self-hate talk in my head. I need to know that a lot of the doubt is there because it has created a very strong neural pathway in my brain due to all the attention I’ve given it. A lot of the anxiety and fear is there to keep me from moving forward so I’ll stay some place “safe.” But safe sometimes means stagnant, and when I feel compassion for my fear instead of feeling paralyzed, I can move forward. Yes I feel uncomfortable feelings. And, yes I feel confidence and joy and love and acceptance in myself.

That may be the key. So much of my doubt and fear is in what the other person can give me. I want to gain the other person’s love and approval through my crafts or art or poetry or performance. I feel like I am not enough on my own and I need to work hard to become acceptable to the human race. Compassion and love erase all those fears. I am enough on my own. I am part of this amazing universe and I have in me everything I need. I don’t need to beg for crumbs of affection. I can love myself.

Now when I feel anxious about doing something new, I know that I will be ok. I will not die of fear, I will not break apart if someone turns me down. I might feel disappointed, but I won’t dissolve. I don’t do this perfectly of course, I’m human. Sometimes I worry that I’m being egotistical by loving myself. Then I just breathe. Breathe in. I am. Breathe out. I am. I am everything I need myself to be. I am everything I am striving to be. I am enough just by being here. Breathe.

When I stop to breathe, I notice that I feel joy in making new things. I feel joy in playing and connecting to people in a playful way. I can follow that joy and bring joy to other people when I let go of the fear and doubt and follow what brings delight.

I hope that this post will help someone who is afraid. I hope that someone who is feeling full of doubt and anxiety will realize how much of those feelings is habit, and that person will breathe, and will start making new neural pathways filled with compassion and light and excitement. (Have you ever noticed how much anxiety and excitement feel the same in the body? The same shortness of breath, the same butterflies in the belly, but if we’re anticipating seeing a new friend it’s excitement and if we’re anticipating failure it’s anxiety.) I hope this post will not give people ammunition to avoid being creative, but rather show it’s possible to reduce the suckiness of swimming in doubt, and give you clean water ahead.