Overcoming the Roadblocks that Hold You Back as an Artist
Welcome back. If you're listening to this on our about its release date at Christmas, 2022, I wish you happy holidays and a very happy and creative new year. As we wrap up this year and look forward to our plans for 2023, It's the perfect time to reflect on our accomplishments this past year and take an honest look at the roadblocks that may hold you back as an artist.
Beach Bunnies by Caroline Italia Carlson, oil on panel, 20 x 16, 2022.
This is the painting mentioned in this episode, completed in December of 2022. I didn't attempt to paint this scene at the time I took the photo on the beach in California so long ago, during a season in my life when I rarely painted. Over a dozen years later, the time was right, and the painting that resulted is meaningful for all of us. My sons, now 16 and 19, watched me paint it over the past two months, each offering encouragement. Seeing those same boys stand beside the finished painting as young men and give it their blessing warms my heart beyond words.
So let's take a look at your wins and losses this past year. As we do, please remember that the only person you are competing with is yourself. Don't look to Instagram for proof of your skills. Or Tik Tok, or Youtube. Look at where you are today and how far you've come.
Now, looking at the year in review:
What went well for you?
Did you meet your creative goals?
Did you set creative goals?
This episode is for anyone struggling with feeling less than in any way as an artist. I’m going to talk about some common roadblocks and ways to overcome them.
If you’ve listened to this show for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m much more comfortable sitting back and shining light on my guests. But today it’s important that we talk about what you’re struggling with when it comes to showing up to make your art. I’m talking about procrastination, overwhelm, and the F-word. Yup, I’m talking about FEAR.
When we aren’t creating our art, it’s usually due to:
Lack of time
Lack of confidence
If you’re struggling with any of these, you probably know it. To gain traction to overcome your obstacle, it helps to ask questions.
Let’s start with time. Ask yourself, “Am I really at a loss for time?”
Am I really at a loss for time?
And, it may be that you are in a season of your life that requires some of your creative pursuits to be put aside for a while.
If you have a newborn at home, for instance, it’s not realistic to try and go in a direction that conflicts with the ability to care for your family. We go through seasons in life, and it’s important to acknowledge them so we don’t miss out on them. I took a few years off of oil painting when my babies were born and I don’t regret it for a minute. I was there for those moments I can’t get back. If you’re going through a season that takes you away from your art, you’ll know it. Give yourself the grace you need to take care of yourself and be fully present. Chances are, the time will inform your art.
I just finished a painting of my boys playing at the beach from those days, back when they were toddlers. They are now sixteen and nineteen, and the painting is more meaningful than ever to me. Whatever you’re going through that requires your attention for a season in life, take your time. And take care of yourself.
Now, if your answer to the question about whether you’ve got time tells you you’ve got wiggle room, then take a look at when you can carve out more time by making some tough decisions.
Some things you currently spend time on that are good may need to go to make room for the best use of your time that allows you time to create.
Most of us deal with this, especially if we are in the position of having to work part or full time.
If lack of time is your challenge, Im going to suggest you begin with a judgment-free assessment about it. Take an objective look at your schedule and determine where you may have room to carve out a block of time on a regular basis. It may be early in the morning before your family wakes up or late at night after they’ve gone to sleep. It may be in the middle of the day when your kids are at school, or on the weekends when you’ve got someone to help you with your responsibilities.
It may be that two hours in the evening you are currently filling with streaming entertainment. The third season of The Witcher doesn’t come out until the summer of 2023; now’s your chance.
When our challenge truly is lack of time, we find ourselves faced with some tough choices. You may in fact need to commit to spending your social media surfing and/or streaming time to studio time instead. You may need to turn down some social opportunities.
Let’s take a look at overcoming procrastination, by being mindful of when you are most likely to follow through on your plans.
It’s easy to promise yourself you’ll stick to your diet “tomorrow” when you’re full and happy after binging on birthday cake. I’m not saying don’t make big goals.
But figure out how to carve out time to make your art that will serve YOU.
To succeed with a big goal, be honest with yourself — are you someone who is likely to get up at 4 am on a weekday to make your art before you get your kids off to school and yourself off to work?
If you know that’s not you, then you’re setting yourself up for failure when in fact your goal didn’t fit how you do life.
Yes, you have to be disciplined. But you stand the best chance of succeeding when you turn your goal into your haven. When you set up a time to work on it when you will be in tune with your physical energy and mental focus.
Do you feel more focused in the morning or afternoon? Are you more of a night owl than an early bird?
If you work part or full-time, don’t give up on making your art unless it’s just not possible without threatening your well-being. Find a time when your life energy is optimal and see if you can work with it. Consistent progress matters more than huge leaps that you can’t sustain. This is another aspect of the growth mindset. Believe you can improve and that given consistent practice, improvement is inevitable.
If the mundane stuff is getting in your way— you might try running all the things that keep you out of the studio through the grid.
You may be familiar with a grid of four squares, in which the top left is “Important/Urgent”, beside it is Important/not urgent, bottom left it is unimportant urgent, and beside that on the bottom right is unimportant/not urgent.
I’ve included a downloadable of this grid in the show notes.
If lack of time is really your obstacle, you’ve got a choice to make: either make adjustments or determine now isn’t a season of your life you can work on your goal of making your art. It’s as simple — and as complicated as that.
If you find you’ve got wiggle room, your next challenge is going to be setting — and holding — your boundaries.
Now, the topic of boundaries is a vast one that I would rather bring in an expert to delve into than give you advice on. I will say that when we have trouble standing up for ourselves to protect the time we need to create, we’ve probably also got people around us who are boundary disrespetcters.
It may be that we haven’t properly trained them to respect our needs, or that we’ve grown up with boundary destroyers and never built our boundary muscle as a result. You may be so used to someone trampling your time that you don’t even realize you get to decide what to do with it.
Remember that every “Yes” you agree to is going to be a “No” to something else. This is especially true of those of you out there who work part or full-time at something other than your art.
One of the necessary elements to making and holding space for yourself without judgment is to be mindful of your values. If you are trying to succeed at everything and look brilliant on every front, you may be exhausting yourself without much traction where it matters to you most. Knowing your non-negotiable values will provide you with a compass on which to base all of your time spend decisions.
So what are values? Simply put, they are the qualities and elements that matter to you most.
Here's a link to a list of the values that Author and Shame Researcher Brene brown includes in her book, “Bare to Lead” and on her website: https://brenebrown.com/resources/dare-to-lead-list-of-values/
To give you a jumping-off point in determining what matters most to you.
Brene suggests that we identify our core two values in order to “walk the talk” instead of just declaring our values. She advises starting by choosing fifteen from the list (or writing down your own) and then working to narrow down your list to the two that stand above all others.
Naturally, choosing two core values doesn’t mean you’ve thrown the others out. It does however give you a compass to navigate with when you’ve got to make tough decisions. It helps you align your actions, intentions, the words you choose, and even your thoughts with your core values.
Being aware of your core values can help you define and hold your boundaries, and help you identify what drains your creativity. Anything that is contrary to those values is going to make you feel contracted and crush your creative spark.
One of my core values is security. Financial instability saps my creativity.
So how do I work on my art career? I have a day job in marketing and design and I make my art and my podcast around it. Now if I’m serious about progressing with my art skills, this requires dedication to using my free time wisely. Which requires near-ruthless boundary management.
Since my other core value is connection, getting enough studio time in between work obligations and family time is a tight squeeze. And that’s okay. It’s not always perfect, but identifying your core values isn’t meant to add to your stress, it’s meant to light the way.
The path to becoming known as an artist is different for everyone. And of course, I believe the goal is the journey, not the destination.
If you’re having trouble finding and holding space to create and you don’t happen to live on a desert island stocked with art supplies, I urge you to take a serious look at whether there are any boundaries you can set and hold that will give you more of the time and space you need. If you have trouble in this particular area, I wholeheartedly support seeking the help of a counselor to assist in your progress.
Before we move on to discuss the next type of roadblock, I want to talk about a straightforward solution to helping you save yourself time.
I’m talking about being organized.
Call it fixing boundaries with yourself if you will.
When my studio and/or my home and life are unorganized, I waste time. Think of how much time you waste looking for things in total each day. Always misplacing your keys, glasses, or phone? If you add up the wasted time each day you may be surprised to find you’re wasting an hour or more a week.
When you’re routinely looking for your stuff, you are disorganized, and you’re probably perpetually late and harried because you’re always scrambling. This is especially true if you’re often rummaging through your house looking for important information you need, or you miss appointments because you aren’t using a system for keeping track.
This kind of chaos causes a tremendous amount of stress, which kills creativity in addition to wasting time.
Do you have any systems in place to manage the chaos of life and prevent stress?
So ask yourself this:
“Are there any time drains in my life that I can improve with a system?
One of the simplest and most common ways disorganization shows up is in lack of preparedness. You waste time looking for stuff. You run out of supplies when you’ve got a deadline looming and you’ve got to run to the store before you can finish an important piece for a show.
To prevent lost time searching for things. I recommend designating a spot for the things you tend to lose regularly. Clip those car keys to your bag or put them on a hook by the door. Have a spot for your reading glasses, if that’s something you run around the house looking for.
I use reading glasses myself, and having one pair did not work. Because it required moving them around and therefore never being sure where I left them last.
Since they are relatively inexpensive, having multiple pairs saves me time. I keep a pair by the bed in the box where I keep my Kindle. I keep a pair on the dining room table in another box. And then there’s the pair in my studio that sits beside an easel.
Figure out what works for you.
If you have only one of something, but it’s important, you might set a home for it in each room. For example, whichever room you set your phone down in when it’s not in a pocket or in use, it goes into a cigar box or other container that is always in the same spot.
Naturally, this will only help you if you are mindful about using your one spot per room. Pay attention when you take those glasses off (again reading glasses is just an example). But don’t just set them wherever you are.
Many of us go through life unconscious of these small actions. The result is that we aren’t conscious of where we took off and left our keys or glasses or phone.
Nothing is perfect. Assume you’re still going to misplace stuff. But having a system for keeping track of things that you rely on is going to help you save time.
Another way to stay on track in optimizing your time is to maintain inventory. Many of us already do this in the kitchen. Running low on milk? We write milk on the grocery list or type it into an app.
Running low on clay or paint or gloves, paper towels? You get the idea. Note it and make sure you replenish your supplies before you’re standing in your studio with a block of time only to find you’ve got to run to the store. Simple yes. But this will require you to pay attention to your supplies. And it will save you time. One of the ways I save time in my studio is to keep a few frames ready for the sizes of paintings I make. If you’re framing your own work, as I do, make sure you’ve got plenty of hardware for the process and lots of wire.
Then if you’re rushing to get a painting dropped off for a show or shipped to a client, you’ve got the framing supplies to get the work up and out.
Likewise, I pre-gesso boards or stretched canvases in those same frame sizes, and I keep track of the condition of my brushes and when I run low on tubes of paint. If you like to grab supplies at Hobby Lobby, you know they’re not open on Sundays, and certain colors and brands have to be ordered online, so keeping track of your supplies is a must.
Even running out of a mundane supply can screw up your time.
If I run out of wax paper, I can’t scrape my glass palette clean without tossing the unused paint. And because I don’t like to toss unused paint, running out of wax paper will mean I’m going to leave the paint on the glass, it’s probably going to dry there, and then I’ll need to waste 20 minutes scraping and cleaning up my palette before I can get started the next time. It all adds up, so do what you can to optimize your time.
Let’s talk about the roadblock of OVERWHELM
This one is fascinating, because while it sounds on the surface like a time problem — as in, “I’m so overwhelmed, I just don’t have time to make my art,” that’s not always the case.
So ask yourself, “In what way am I overwhelmed?”
In some cases, we are not blocked by not knowing what to create, but by too many ideas or options.
Jamming your signals
When you suffer from locking up when it comes to making your art, ask yourself if you are trying to write and edit at the same time.
Now we are talking about visual art on this podcast, but the analogy holds. When you try to edit as you write, most of us lock up. This is because writing is a creative right-brain activity and editing is a logical left-brain activity.
Those of you who tell me your roadblock is “I don’t know what to make — whether you’re a sculptor, a painter, photographer, you draw, you name it — probably suffer from too many unsorted ideas.
Getting all our ideas out and on paper (or voice recorded, whatever works for you) is important in allowing you to sort and examine them
It will also show you that you do in fact have LOTS of ideas. When you get used to noting down all the ideas that you have, you’ll store up a collection you can draw on. The more you have, the more likely it is you’ll see categories of ideas, which you might turn into a line of work. Monet’s haystacks, anyone?
There are numerous benefits to recording your ideas in some form right away rather than telling yourself “I’ll write it down later.”
And again, you’ll need the discipline to record your ideas AS THEY COME TO YOU. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll remember your awesome flash of inspiration because it’s SO awesome and obvious to you in that shining moment — anyone who’s ever tried to remember a dream ten minutes after waking up knows what I’m talking about.
By the way, if your creative inspiration often comes from the dreams you remember, be encouraged that the more often you write down your dreams, the more you’ll wake up remembering dreams to write down. But you’ll still have to write them down or record them somehow. Jot down your idea right away, no matter how you do it. Just make sure you do so in a way you won’t lose track of. This goes back to being organized.
Again, the recording of ideas is a separate process from what you do with them. This is vital to remember so you can stop pressuring your right brain to spew brilliance when you step into your studio.
Don’t expect it to. Let go and trust the ideas will come — as they always do. When you realize they’ll come wherever and whenever they please, you can relax and let them. Just be sure to stop and record when they arrive.
One of the roadblocks artists often put before themselves without being aware of it is the assumption that their ideas must go into a sketchbook. They think the sketchbook has to be a perfect portfolio of brilliant ideas that you can show anyone who happens to ask, “hey, what are you drawing?”
Now, I support the carrying of a sketchbook. But only when it serves your goals. You may want to begin with just a notepad or sticky notes or voice memos to record your ideas. Or a combination. I like to use Evernote in addition to my sketchbooks and a notebook. My ideas most often begin as scribbled notes on napkins or the back of envelopes, which go into a box. I then spend a little time typing them into Evernote, which allows me to sort them into notebooks for categorization.
The sketchbook thing for me is more often what I do to relax when I’m hanging out in front of the television or at a family gathering. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit on the couch with your family and sketch while you chat. You can tell them I said so. And if you like to draw faces, you may find your relatives lining up for portrait sketches or even caricatures, if that’s your thing.
But getting back to preventing overwhelm, the more you practice recording your flashes of inspiration, the more you’ll notice when these flashes hit. And like recording dreams, the more often you record your waking ideas, the more they are likely to come to you. Mine sometimes come in a rush of many ideas at once.
When that happens, again I don’t attempt to follow any one idea, I just record it all.
I personally like to go old school and keep a marble notebook and pen in a few rooms in my house (just like reading glasses). Definitely one by the bed and one in the living room. Wherever you frequently find yourself inspired. And your phone is probably always close at hand, so you can use that if you prefer.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with many ideas — It’s as if being in a semiconscious sleep state opens up my creativity. In those cases, I don’t turn on the light, because for me that makes the ideas scatter.
Instead, I use my phone’s screen light — not the flashlight, just the screen’s light when the phone is awake — this prevents me from writing over my own words as I jot down ideas.
I just write without reading what I’ve written. It’s almost like automatic writing. It keeps me focused on the ideas not on editing my spelling or reading what I’ve written as I write. Stay with the idea, however, you’ve got to chase it down.
For me, it also helps to think of ideas as coming from somewhere outside of me. This allows me to let ideas arrive more easily, probably because thinking I’m generating them again puts pressure on myself to come up with something brilliant.
I’m not trying to get all woo-woo on you here, but I have definitely discovered that thinking of ideas as gifts coming in from a benevolent source helps me allow them to flow.
Have you ever lost your train of thought and suddenly become so worried about not recovering it that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy? Your idea simply evaporated as you panicked inwardly trying to prove to the person standing before you that you’re not an idiot. Expecting your ideas to come from you can cause your creative energy to contract and lock up.
When these idea barrages come in, I stop and begin writing. When there’s a pause in the inspiration, I don’t set down my pen and walk away. I pause, keep my pen ready, and ask silently, “Is there more you want me to know?”
Like I’m taking dictation. Again, this is a tool that helps me stop trying to take control, it allows a flow of creativity. Often when I do this, I get another idea. I repeat this process until no more ideas flow in.
If you try this, I’d love to hear from you as to how it worked. I’m convinced the more you practice this, the more often you’ll feel the “idea fairy” land on your shoulder.
As I mentioned earlier, the more frequently you record your ideas, the more you’ll see a thread of work forming. Usually. You don’t have to have a body of work. But most of the artists with whom I speak ask how to come up with that elusive body of work in the beginning. That thing that becomes tied to your style and your voice.
This will doubtless change over time, but it’s not going to appear at all unless you begin recording your ideas. Without judgment or expectation.
On the more obvious side, like being organized, maintaining a neat space is going to help you with your creativity. For instance, I find it difficult to create when my studio is a mess. If you are immune to this type of thing you can ignore everything I’m about to say on it. But most of us find ourselves contracting in a cluttered environment.
I recently declared my studio table a clutter-free zone. My family had begun using it as a catch-all for depositing anything they didn’t know what to do with. It became the family paper pile — de-facto “mom will sort it out” space.
And until I realized it was stifling my studio time, I allowed it. Somewhere in my brain, I thought, “well it makes sense to use this surface to drop stuff unless I’m working on something at the time.”
But jamming up that space was constricting my creative energy. Doesn’t matter if I’ve got a project going. The surfaces around my eases must remain clear.
So I drew a boundary and said “I don’t care if there’s space here” this is my creative space and this table remains clear. In fact, so does my floor where some people had made piles when room on the table became scarce.
Trust me, if you have to fight through physical obstacles to get through your studio and you don’t have room to EXPAND, you won’t enter your studio. Or if you do you’ll likely be stressed and contracted.
This type of obstacle often comes about when we are trying to use a space for multiple purposes. Like studio table slash paper sorting area. It’s the recipe for clutter.
Even if you use one room for multiple purposes, make sure each area you use is designated for a specific purpose and is arranged to support that purpose.
Once you do that, you can assess if the arrangement you’ve got is working. If it’s not working, you can decide if it needs to be rearranged, if you need something (like a paper shredder) or if you’ve simply got too much stuff.
Dana K White’s A Slob Comes Clean podcast is the perfect place to learn more about decluttering for people who don’t love cleaning and organizing — and is especially relevant to creatives. You can find a link to her podcast in the show notes for this episode.
In addition to disciplining myself to scrape my palette after each session, just in case it’s a few days before I can return, I keep my studio clothes in one spot — the clothes I don’t care about getting paint on. It’s such a simple thing, but it helps. A good way to tell if you’re organized is if you can find what you need in the dark, or when a kid comes to you and says, “Where’s the…” and you can tell them without having to get up and find it yourself.
...when you accept work for what I call a widow-maker — a client that no one else has pleased or maybe no one else will work with— it’s unrealistic to believe you will tame them. You will be the one artist good enough to please them.
Let me tell you something.
You are already good enough.
People procrastinate for two reasons — they don’t want to do what they should or need to do, or they are afraid to fail at what they want to do, so they hold themselves back. You can’t fail if you don’t try, right? Wellll….
The first step is to determine the reasons you might be getting in your own way. When you identify what’s behind your procrastination, you work on fixing the problem.
I’m going to assume you are an artist because you want to be an artist, not because you are being forced to make art. Therefore, if you determine you are procrastinating because you don’t want to do something, it probably means you are trying to fit into a slot that isn’t a good fit.
I once accepted a freelance assignment drawing stock sports illustrations. Only problem was, I had no interest in illustrating sports. At the time I was all about painting portraits and animals and comic book illustrations. No sports. And I put off getting the sports illustration done. For a while, I tried to force myself to do it, because I thought it would be a great portfolio builder. But it felt like a burden. So I gave the client to a colleague of mine who was tickled to take it. And despite my fear of giving up a prestigious assignment, I found I never looked back.
If something is weighing you down that you are procrastinating on, try visualizing how it would feel to hand it off to someone else. Don’t think about the pros and cons — I want you to step into the experience of letting it go. How do you feel? If your shoulders drop and you exhale, you are expanding.
If on the other hand, your shoulders/muscles/back clench up and you find you are holding your breath, you are contracting.
Expansion good. Contraction bad. Creativity requires expansiveness.
If you can’t give away an obligation you’ve taken on that you dread, you’ll have to bull your way through. But please remember how you feel when you accept an obligation that you really don’t want. Because this memory is very helpful in learning to turn down work.
Not every assignment is going to be the best fit for you. Even when you are starting out, just because you can accept a particular request doesn’t mean you should. Because every yes is a “no” to something else. It's a time commitment and an energy commitment.
So when we put the brakes on our creativity before we begin, it may be due to burdening ourselves with expectations of finding work in our area of art no matter what it is, resulting in accepting ill-fitting assignments or working with the wrong people.
It may not be the specific assignment but the client. Please don’t do yourself the disservice of thinking you’ve got to accept every commission because you need the experience, or the money or the exposure. As you build your art career, you build your reputation along with it. And when you accept work for what I call a widow maker — a client that no one else has pleased or maybe no one else will work with, it’s unrealistic to believe you will tame them. You will be the one artist good enough to please them.
Let me tell you something.
You are already good enough.
I accepted work with a client years back because again, it seemed like a good portfolio opportunity. And they were a nightmare. Limited budget and unlimited change requests. I think by the time they were happy with the product I was in the hole for about a hundred bucks. But I was just glad to get done.
Funny enough, fifteen years later I was living halfway across the country and my boss got a call. It was the client, looking for me. Somehow they’d tracked me down. Thankfully he had the foresight not to transfer the call before asking me. He said he’d pass along the information. I told him under no circumstances to give out my contact information because I really didn’t want to have to change my phone number and email.
Let’s face it. Creating something new is scary. It makes us vulnerable. Unless we plan never to show what we’ve made to anyone, making art requires us to hold up our creation and say, “look what I made” and wait to be judged. It’s scary because the goal is to be judged favorably. If the person we show is indifferent to our creation, it’s almost as bad as a negative response.
This can cause us to try to people please and accept work in a no-win situation, which furthers our insecurities and reinforces procrastination.
Your career as an artist is almost certain to involve some amount of evolution. Give yourself the grace to say “No” when an assignment or a client is not a good fit. There will be others. And if you are appropriately choosy, you’ll be available when they come along.
If you’re not procrastinating on an assignment you are dreading but are instead procrastinating on your own art, then I want you to ask yourself an important question:
Am I letting expectations get in my way?
Really sit with this a moment and let it sink in.
Am I letting expectations get in my way?
If the answer is “yes,” then ask yourself,
“Whose expectations are they? Are they mine or are they old tapes from a less-than-supportive relationship?”
Be honest and objective in examining the expectations that are holding you back.
If they are yours, then you’re probably just dealing with straight-up fear of failure. Take a little time to register just what the expectations are. Note them down and see if you can turn them into growth-oriented goals.
For instance, if you’ve got the expectation of excellence in your realm of art, what if we evolve that into the goal to continually improve?
You can start by looking at how far you’ve come thus far.
It’s important to uncover critical expectations because when you’re afraid a project won’t come out perfectly, you’re probably going to clench up and try to overly control the outcome.
Creativity requires a sense of expansiveness. Things that make you feel contracted will shut down your creativity. Clinging to rigid expectations for an outcome create contraction.
Let’s look at ways to let go of expectations.
Where do we look to find the source of expectation? A good place to start is in determining if you’ve got a critical inner voice. This may have originated from the words of a misguided parent that play on repeat in your head, or your own fear of not measuring up to those around you.
If you have the expectation that whatever you create must come out museum-worthy, it’s a good bet you’ll procrastinate on stepping up to make and show your art. The same is true if you keep trying to become a painter of landscapes because your father or whoever said that was what real artists did or that’s what would sell, but you really want to pursue portraits or photography or sculpture.
No matter what anyone else has told you, if you are making art that is not aligned with your values and your soul, it’s not going to flow.
If you’re struggling with production, check in with yourself and see who’s taking up space in your head.
So how do we go about letting go of expectations?
One is to adopt the attitude of the stoics. You may have heard the phrase, “It is what it is.” This is the remark of someone making an observation rather than responding to circumstances in a reactive way. The stoics forgo drama in favor of logic.
If this sounds like the opposite of creative, it’s not. When we can let go of expectations, we find freedom. It’s an unclenching, and therefore an expansion instead of contraction. This is where creativity comes from.
The good news is:
MINDFULNESS AND CURIOSITY CAN SLAY THE EXPECTATION MONSTER
According to Wikipedia,
“Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one's attention to the present-moment experience without evaluation, a skill one develops through meditation or other training.”
So, instead of prejudging our performance - get lost in it. Make your art for the sake of the process. When you crave the process of making your art, you’ll find ways to show up. You’ll also find ways to make time.
One of the ways to let go of expectations and become mindful is to adopt a practice of meditation. I’m not making a religious statement here, I’m talking about training your brain to relax and step into the role of an objective observer, instead of taking a reactive role. Developing your ability to bring yourself back to the present moment can short-circuit fear in all its forms. It truly is a game-changer.
You can find a gazillion resources on meditation online, from recordings of guided meditations to printable instructions to live class listings and even apps. Take a look around and see what resonates with you.
Jettison the guilt.
There may be days when you are in fact truly overwhelmed with competing commitments, including that of making your art that you feel as though you are playing whack a mole.
Your partner may run errands without you on a Saturday so you can go to your studio, only to come home and find you just crossing the threshold of your studio as they arrive. You were determined to get into your studio after breakfast but the kids needed lunch and no one walked the dog and the laundry has piled up and everyone was out of socks. So you fought through all these obstacles and now you’re entering your studio exhausted and your partner is taking off their coat saying, “You’re only now getting started?”
For a frustrated artist, one careless remark can cause a backlash of guilt, frustration, and resentment. In this example, you’ve drawn a boundary, your family has respected your request, and you were still unable to reach the goal you had for your day, because of the pressure you put on yourself to be all things to all people.
I don’t have a magic wand to tell you how to make these moments go away entirely, but let’s look at ways to minimize them.
For one thing, as frustrating as it is, it may help to gently tell your loved one how discouraged you feel when they make comments like that. They’ll probably tell you they didn’t mean it that way, they were just surprised or just trying to help. I love that one.
This often comes from a well-meaning loved one who has no ambition outside of their day job. They are undoubtedly an amazing person, but they don’t have the perpetual tempest inside pulling them to create in spite of other obligations.
They understand intellectually how advancing as an artist is a struggle, but they have no actual experience of how tough it is to reach artistic goals while fulfilling day-to-day obligations. And once you get that time to create, how painful the process can be — dealing with impostor syndrome and the compare and despair black hole of social media can be so painful that we sometimes procrastinate away what precious time we have.
As you can tell, on some level, all procrastination comes down to fear. The expectation thing being fear of not measuring up, the guilt thing being fear you’re not doing what you should be doing - that wherever you are you should be somewhere else.
Fear creates contraction.
You aren’t intentionally procrastinating when the art doesn’t get made.
When you build a fire, the process requires oxygen. It involves expansion.
Let’s look at ways we can make some space for your creative spark.
Let’s put the things that took up your time on the fictional Saturday example I mentioned through the grid.
Feed kids: I’d call that urgent and important. Those things need to get done. But, there may be times you can order door dash.
Not optimal, but an option if you really need it.
Better still, you and your partner can get in the habit of cooking more than you need and freezing leftovers. Again not flawless as kids are finicky, but it’s another option. Or leaning on the occasional convenience food. I don’t know any teenagers that will turn down a toaster strudel no matter what time of day it is.
Okay, the walk the dog chore: Definitely important and urgent to the dog. My teenager is on permanent dog-walking duty. That is his job. I recommend delegating this one. You may even farm the job out to a local teen if you don’t have one in the house you can delegate to. Hiring a teen would be a luxury, but if you’ve got to get your work created on a deadline and you can swing it, it’s a possible solution.
Laundry. Hopefully, this one can remain important/not urgent. Even if you are out of socks. I try to make sure at the very least we don’t all run out of socks at once. That way I can say, “go borrow a pair from your dad or my drawer.” In a pinch. If you make an effort to rotate loads in the evening while streaming your favorite shows with your partner, you may find you manage to keep up pretty well.
As to putting away clean laundry, I recommend getting a sign. Mine hangs proudly in the laundry room. It reads:
Washing clothes: 20 minutes
Drying clothes: 30 minutes
Putting away clothes: 7-10 business days.
And I stand by it. I really do.
As to all the stuff you write in unimportant/not urgent, we don’t need to go over it with you because I want you to take a marker and make a big X over it. It’s not happening. Leave that to the people without big dreams.
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We talked about adopting the practice of mindfulness. This will help you release expectations and self-judgment. It will help you become aware of the nagging inner critic judging your abilities before you even get started. And it can help you to rewrite those critical thought patterns.
Your inner critic may be ruthless and cruel and need to be retrained. It’s also possible you have a well-meaning inner critic that is actually trying to protect you from failure and pain. And while the motivation in that isn’t cruel, it can hold you back just the same. For this type of obstacle, fear can be a barometer. It can signal an opportunity for growth.
We’re not talking about jumping off a cliff without a parachute here. We’re talking about stepping up to learn a new skill or putting your ideas and creations out there.
Let’s make a quick stop on the subject of impostor syndrome.
For those of you who haven’t heard of this, it’s something that often comes on just as you begin to gain some traction toward your goal. Just when you start to get some success and recognition, WHAM, you’re filled with the fear that you’re a fraud at whatever it is you are trying to excel at and everyone is going to find out.
Well, this one comes down to courage. You’ve got to be willing to take up space and declare who you are. Are you an artist? Yes, you are. And guess what? If you step aside because you give in to your insecurities and you don’t bring your gift to the world, there’s another artist out there who will gladly fill your shoes. That artist may be more or less accomplished than you. Doesn’t matter. They were willing to step up.
My dad used to say something that at first I hated, but I came to remind myself of as I got older any time impostor syndrome reared its ugly head:
No matter what you want to do well, there will always be someone who’s better at it than you. And you will always be better than others.
Period end of sentence. You can look at this and say “Why try?” Or you can look at it and find comfort. I choose to find it inspiring.
Which brings us to the upside of envy and fear.
Sometimes the thing you fear is what you most need to do.
So how do you tell the difference?
The key will be in discernment:
Go back to your core values and
Compare your values with your goal.
Is this thing you are struggling to get done aligned with your values?
Let’s say you are putting off signing up for a night class in art or even pursuing your Master’s degree. After examining the issue, you realize you think your spouse will be against it and the idea of time away from your kids makes you feel guilty.
Your top values are family and excellence. You want to be an excellent parent, but you also want to be an excellent artist.
But what if this isn’t an A or B decision? What if taking the class doesn’t make you a bad parent, because your spouse steps in for some quality dad time two nights a week for six weeks? What if you can further your skills as an artist while accepting that you don’t have to do everything on your own? You won’t know until you have a conversation with your partner. They may encourage you to go for it.
The key is to take an objective, curious “what if” look at it. The key is to examine it with as little attachment to it as possible. No judgment or expectation.
This one is just an example. You won’t always be able to work out solutions to go do the big thing you’re afraid to tackle.
You may simply have a money obstacle. Just keep in mind even then, it may not be a “no,” just a “not yet.”
But when you can work it out, if you determine that something that scares you is going to grow you and align with your goals, I recommend seeing if you can push yourself a little. You may find an alternate solution that will work to move you forward. If you’re a single parent, maybe you can swap babysitting nights with a neighbor or friend and have their child at your place so they can have an evening here or there to go out and they can watch your child while you go to class.
As we wrap up this episode on not getting in your own way, I want to remind you to hold on loosely, as one of my favorite 80s bands says.
Yes, it is good and necessary to know what you want and where you want to end up. You can even get specific with a vision board - heck yeah. But try not to pre-dictate how you get there.
Creativity requires expansion. You won’t be able to expand if you clench down and try to over-control every step of your art career’s evolution. Allow opportunities to flow.
Enjoy the dance.
Brené's list of values on her website:
Brené Brown VALUES exercise: https://email@example.com
Boundary Boss Terri Cole's book on the topic: