On Recognizing (and Overcoming) Artistic Self-Doubt

Lisa Martens

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Artistic self-doubt is something I've run into time and time again, in myself and in others. As a writer (who secretly always wanted to play music!), I have constantly told myself that I didn't really want to create art, that art was not useful, or that...my art was not useful.

In graduate school, I noticed similar tendencies. Talented, intelligent people held themselves back. They thought they didn't have good ideas, or reading the works of others intimidated them and filled them with self-doubt. They saw what they thought they lacked and not their positive qualities.

What are some comment self-doubt beliefs and ways to battle them?

Thinking your story/expression isn’t “original” enough.

Many of the writers I come across worry about their idea being original enough. They see other examples of their idea being “done” and then give up, or they try extremely hard to come up with something “no one has done before.”

While it’s good to be innovative, we must accept that everything has, in a sense, been done before. It is our take and our style that make it the most unique. Instead of struggling to find an idea that “has never been done,” we can focus on reinventing a certain genre, adding our spin, removing or mocking tropes, etc.

It’s impossible to think of a purely original idea. Even when we think of monsters and outer space aliens, we are usually combining elements of animals and creatures we know to create something new. The truth is, we are going to be drawing on our experiences in some way to create something.

Retelling of old stories can be extremely powerful. So before dismissing an idea as not original enough, just remember—The execution is the important part. Plenty of people have ideas for books, but how many people finish them?

Learned self-doubt or shame.

For many people, even if someone says many nice things about us, it takes just one mean thing to send us into self-doubt. That’s why we always remember the mean teachers and what they said with a biting precision.

This kind of learned self-doubt or shame comes from a number of sources—family, teachers, or even strangers. People grow up with the idea that art is not a valid profession or hobby, that all hobbies need to make money, that art is a waste of time, and so on. Bitter adults may see your creativity and try to snuff it out because they couldn’t live their own dreams.

Expression is so sensitive that even if we are encouraged to create art, eventually we will run into people who mock or belittle us, and that voice might hurt us more than the supportive voices uplift us. Once we heart such a damaging, self-limiting belief, it can be hard to let go and be creative once again.

When I start to pay attention to doubting voices and limit myself, I begin instead to remember the good and supportive messages regarding art that I have seen.

Imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can hold back even the most competent, devoted individual. We may doubt our artistic ability, or fear we are undeserving of praise. We may feel like out talent and competence is nothing more than a farce, and that we will be found out.

Imposter syndrome keeps us unnecessarily hesitant.

Lack of representation/mentorship.

I once tried to work for an established writer. He asked me what I was reading, and I said I was focusing on reading more women as of late. I came to find out that I didn’t get the job in part because I said I “only read women writers.”

That hadn’t been what I’d said, but apparently, it was how it was received. This depressed me and made me question the field entirely. I wanted a mentor who understood me...and who understood that choosing to read a specific group of writers didn’t mean I refused to read other kinds of writers. It made me wonder: Would he have acted the same way if I said I was focusing on Shakespeare, or Greek tragedies?

Lack of representation and mentorship can discourage us and make us question whether we are wanted or welcomed in a certain space.

The idea that artists must be “tortured.”

I have known so many artists who didn't want to get sober, go to therapy, or improve their situation because of the idea that if they healed, they wouldn't create good art.

We have an idea of the suffering artist. It means you need to be broke, shattered, and possibly addicted. It's common to view alcohol as an instrument to creativity.

Over the years, I have discovered that this is not true for me. I am more productive when I am sober.

Many times, the stuff I wrote while intoxicated seemed great at the time...but when I sobered up, it seemed like incoherent drivel.

If you feel tortured in your creative process, instead of thinking it's a natural part of being an artist...it might be time to examine why.

Fear of what others think.

I know writers who are extremely talented, but they enjoy writing sex scenes, or about their trauma, and fear of family reading their work causes them a lot of anxiety.

I admit it is very daunting to think that a relative, ex, or child might see something that I have created. I worry about their perception of me, or if they're going to get "mad" at me.

However, I am free to express myself how I choose, and so are they. People can become upset with me, but ultimately, it's up to me to decide what I want to say.

Fear of saying something definitive.

When you take a stand, that means others will take issue with what you said. I have this anxiety, and it plagues my creativity.

I'm not always going to get everything perfect, and I have to grow as a writer. I cringe when I read my early stuff. But that's a part of the process!

If you do not say something definitive about something, then your art is simply...not good. Good art will make some kind of a statement. Otherwise, it's not art...it's elevator music.

Fear of saying something definitive makes sense. You're taking a stand that might cause waves in your circle. This is related to a fear of what others think.

Making art means sometimes doing something other people do not like. If you're a people-pleaser, like me, this can be a hard one to overcome.

Even great artists like Van Gogh had self-doubt. Ultimately, being healthy, setting boundaries, and asking yourself what you want to express and what you want out of your own art, as well as dispelling unhealthy ideas about art, can help to quiet the nagging voice that says you shouldn't bother.

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